Harvard Ranks Last in Free Speech on Campuses, Survey Finds, Reflecting Threats To Open Inquiry at Colleges

‘It’s sad that Harvard, which once embraced free speech, now seems to quietly abandon it,’ alumnus and GOP candidate Vivek Ramaswamy tells the Sun.

AP/Elise Amendola, file
The campus of Harvard University at Cambridge, Massachusetts. AP/Elise Amendola, file

“Abysmal” is how a new report on free speech at college campuses describes the state of intellectual discourse at the nation’s oldest university, underscoring heightened threats to open inquiry amongst students and faculty in American higher education.

An analysis by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression of 254 universities across the country discloses that more than half of the 55,000 students surveyed express worry about damage to their reputations because of someone misunderstanding what they said. Some 27 percent of respondents say it is acceptable to use violence to stop campus speech in some circumstances.

While Michigan Technological University at Houghton, Michigan, clinched the top score, Harvard University is the only school that obtained the lowest score possible, 0.00, due to its lack of tolerance of controversial speakers, students’ discomfort expressing ideas, and poor administrative support for free speech, FIRE determined. 

A Harvard alumnus and Republican presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, tells the Sun that the nature of conversation at Harvard runs contrary to the school’s motto, “Veritas,” meaning truth. “The path to truth runs through free speech,” he says. “It’s sad that Harvard, which once embraced free speech, now seems to quietly abandon it.”

A former Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, agrees that “Harvard used to be a paragon of free speech,” he tells the Sun. Mr. Dershowitz has adamantly defended the speech rights of individuals ranging from Palestinians to Communists during his 50-year tenure at the university.

The university showed little interest in hosting Mr. Dershowitz on campus, though, after he defended President Trump in his Senate impeachment trial in January 2020. “I vote the way most Harvard people vote,” he says. “But I believe in free speech for everybody. And I’ve been canceled by Harvard basically because of that.”

Mr. Dershowitz’s experience is part of a broader assault against open inquiry by college administrators, as the FIRE rankings suggest. 

Schools with high speech policy ratings tend to have strong administrative support for speech rights amongst students, faculty, and invited speakers, while those with poor ratings are more likely to “deplatform” individuals and punish their speech rights in the face of controversial incidents, the report shows. 

“Students notice the behaviors that administrations take,” like how they set their policies, handle controversies, and publicly respond to contentious issues, FIRE’s director of polling and analytics, Sean Stevens, tells the Sun. 

These policies have downstream effects on discourse in the classroom. Compared to students in the top five schools in FIRE’s ranking, those in the bottom five of the rankings — including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of South Carolina, Georgetown University, and Fordham University — identified the topics of “affirmative action” and “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as more difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus. 

Overall, more than a third of respondents said they struggled to discuss issues such as “abortion,” “gun control,” “police misconduct,” and “transgender rights.” Meanwhile, only 18 percent of respondents find it difficult to talk about climate change, a statistic that suggests “there’s 82 percent who are completely aligned with climate ideology,” exposing “the very success of the ideological strait jacket on students,” the president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, Peter Wood, tells the Sun. 

Mr. Wood speculates that free speech might actually be in greater peril than the report suggests, as the report might not be capturing the true volume of self-censorship, which the report defines as the fear of social sanction or physical violence from state or non-state actors. “Once free speech has already been suppressed, the students themselves are not really in a good position to realize it,” he contends. 

“We’re living in a campus culture in this country,” Mr. Wood says, in which “disagreement has become so fraught with peril that people simply retreat from the public square altogether and go about their business quietly and attempt to be left alone.” 

Public pressure toward administrators to make declarations on the subjects of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as climate change, has created an environment of “enforced speech,” he adds. 

The FIRE rankings give more weight to school suppression of outside speakers and the firing of faculty members than to the self-censorship of speech amongst students, which helps explain why Harvard ranked so poorly. Nine professors and researchers at the university have been subject to demands to be punished or fired based on what they had said or written. Others have left on their own volition, such as the departure of a professor of African American studies, Cornel West, who accused the school of “spiritual rot” in his July 2021 resignation letter. 

Mr. Dershowitz says the university did not take up his offer to debate a Harvard Law professor, Lawrence Tribe, on the constitutional grounds for impeachment. Mr. Tribe called his friend and former colleague “a danger to democracy” in an interview with the undergraduate student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.

“I’m not conservative, and yet they don’t want me to speak because I defend the constitution, I defend free speech, I defend due process,” he says, explaining that he is a liberal Democrat who does not vote for Mr. Trump. “The worst enemies of the woke are liberals.”

“You would think the students would be interested in hearing a debate about the 14th Amendment between two fairly prominent constitutional advocates,” Mr. Dershowitz, who was the youngest full professor in the law school’s history, says. “But no, they won’t invite me.”

If the Lincoln-Douglas debates were to take place today, Mr. Dershowitz says of the series of public disputes concerning the issue of slavery between a Democratic senator, Stephen Douglas, and his Republican challenger, Abraham Lincoln, during the 1858 Illinois senatorial race, the university would not want to host them. 

The responsibility for free speech issues lies with college administrators who prefer calm over controversy on campus, Mr. Dershowitz says, adding that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“Liberal arts education is on the way out. What we have instead is special pleading,” Mr. Dershowitz tells the Sun, referencing “special study programs” that relinquish objectivity and neutrality in favor of particular points of view on history and politics. 

The politicization of humanities might explain the skyrocketing number of majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Since 2013, the study of English and history in American higher education has fallen by a third, according to reporting in the New Yorker based on data from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’s Humanities Indicators project.

College students are “definitely moving away from majoring in the subjects in which you don’t get scholarship, you get opinion,” Mr. Dershowitz argues.

FIRE’s report seeks to provide prospective students and their parents with data on free speech climates as they determine where to enroll for college, Mr. Stevens says. It also aims to motivate alumni, stakeholders, and administrators at schools to improve their speech policies and increase education on the First Amendment and civil liberties.  

Leaders in higher education are also taking matters into their own hands. To combat the silencing of dissent at Harvard, 90 members of the faculty have formed the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard “to promote free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse on campus,” according to a statement in April. 

The group, led by a Harvard professor of psychology, Steven Pinker, aims to renew the commitments of the Faculty of Arts and Science’s “Free Speech Guidelines” established more than 30 years ago, which assert that the university is “a community committed to reason and rational discourse.” Mr. Dershowitz is a member of the group.

Mr. Ramaswamy says he hopes the new president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, corrects the current course of discourse on campus. “I know that many alumni feel the same way I do, but are reluctant to make their views known,” he says. “We all need to start talking openly again in this country.”


Correction: Alan Dershowitz is a member of the the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. An earlier version misstated his role in the group.

The New York Sun

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