The New Republic: Free Speech on Campus


Dispatches from the Northeastern elite college corridor since around 2013 suggest that the traditional "shake it off" children's nursery rhyme is less true for 18-year-olds now than it ever was when they were five. Gen Z, it's been said, is coddled to death--along with the American mind. Stories of professors' fears of out of control, ultraliberal students have become legend. "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me," one pseudonymous prof wrote in Vox in 2015. Colleges have censured or fired professors for discussing ideas that offend students. Smartphone video of students shouting down speakers whose politics or investments offend young sensibilities routinely shows up on Fox News.

Conservative media celebrates all this, of course. There's also been a lot of subdued handwringing on the center-left. But are these images and anecdotes representative of what's really happening on U.S. campuses? Are university deans everywhere protecting the tender feelings of lefty students at the expense of healthy, respectful, vigorous debate and critical thinking? Are thought, argument, and debate really dying? The picture painted in the media is of a horrified, unqualified yes. That conclusion is drawn mostly from dispatches from our nation's elite campuses concentrated in the Northeast, where one would expect that kind of left politics to exist in more advanced stages. But it's a big country out there. Is wokery crushing free inquiry everywhere?

With such questions in mind, The New Republic set out to do something a little different: to take the current campus speech temperature at three universities in very different milieus. During the fall semester, I visited the aforementioned University of Florida, the large, flagship university of a red state (with, as noted, one of the country's most aggressively right-wing governors), with 61,000 students and 6,500 faculty; the University of New Mexico, the flagship institution of an out-of-the-way blue state, with 22,000-ish students and about 1,400 faculty; and, as a kind of control for the experiment, the OG of woke--Oberlin College in Ohio, with 2,900 students and about 340 faculty, where the tuition rivals the Ivies at $61,000, and which is reeling from a $36 million defamation judgment to a local baker over false racism accusations. How are these three disparate institutions similar? How are they different? What is the state of free inquiry at each? That's what I wanted to find out.

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