Controversy about speech and speakers has become de rigueur on our nation’s college campuses. Students are front and center in these debates, and numerous reports and surveys paint an inconsistent picture of their views on free speech. While students claim to value the First Amendment and the inclusion of many conflicting ideas in debates, they also support limits on speech to promote greater diversity and inclusion, or to safeguard particular groups of people.
While student attitudes toward openness are of value, these undergraduates are still developing intellectually and politically. What is notably absent in the current research is an examination of the faculty tasked with teaching these students.
Professors, who remain fixtures on campus while students just pass through, set the tone for many facets of collegiate life both in and out of the classroom. I recently surveyed close to nine hundred faculty members around the country to gauge their views on free speech.1
The data tell a clear story: College faculty overwhelmingly support free speech along with open environments for learning on their campuses. Furthermore, the differences of opinion between faculty of different ideological bents are far less pronounced than the differences between students with different ideologies.
The survey makes it clear that 93 percent of faculty agree with the statement that, “[U]niversity life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other.” There is almost universal support for the exchange of ideas and open discourse.
With respect to classroom teaching, 80 percent of professors believe that, “Faculty members should be free to present in class any idea that they consider relevant.” Liberal faculty are more supportive of this statement than conservative faculty, with 88 percent of liberal faculty agreeing compared to 67 percent of conservative faculty. Similarly, in the historically liberal humanities and social sciences departments, support for real academic freedom is higher than in the more technical and conservative departments. Over 90 percent of faculty in English, history, political science, arts, and humanities departments support that statement, compared to 70 percent in business and education. Despite these ideological differences, on the whole the faculty is overwhelmingly in favor of intellectual openness.
Given that this debate deals with the degree of protection given to students in their intellectual environment, I asked professors to choose which environment they preferred: an open environment or a more protective environment where free speech could be curtailed.
Specifically, professors were asked to choose between two types: “An open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people” or “A positive learning environment for all students that prohibits certain expressions of speech or viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people.”
A large majority of professors—69 percent—support an open environment where students are exposed to all types of speech, while only 31 percent favored positive environments where speech can be limited to help ensure that all students feel safe and respected. This strong inclination toward openness mirrors a 2018 Knight Foundation poll which found that 29 percent of college students supported a positive environment and 70 percent supported an open environment.
However, there was a notable difference between students and faculty when ideology was factored in. Whereas the Knight Foundation poll found that almost 90 percent of Republican students wanted an “open environment,” compared to 60 percent of Democrat students, similar partisan divides were not present among the faculty. 70 percent of Democratic and 66 percent of Republican college professors favored an open environment over a positive environment. Faculty in both humanistic and technical departments also show a similar degree of support for openness, demonstrating that professors across the board are united in believing that the free exchange of ideas should be promoted and protected. For example, on the technical side, 72 percent of business and 73 percent of engineering professors support openness, while 73 percent of faculty in the fine arts, 75 percent of those in the social sciences, and 81 percent say the same.
One reason the difference in support for openness between faculty and students is considerable could be as simple as experience. The way partisanship has sorted over the past decade suggests that Republicans prefer openness while Democrats want intervention and protections and this lines up with the undergraduate statements. These students have not spent their careers on college campuses and may not recognize that collegiate life is often messy and requires balancing openness against the considering students with diverse backgrounds and needs. Many professors generally understand this after being in the academe, and the data suggests that a commitment to openness transcends partisanship for professors.
While faculty were strongly in support of openness in theory, members of varied ideological persuasions differed on how to manage free speech, specifically over the use of “safe spaces.” Only 61 percent of professors agree either completely or with some reservation that safe spaces “help students feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and exploring sensitive subjects.” Unsurprisingly, 78 percent of liberal faculty agree while only 39 percent of conservative faculty do. Additionally, safe spaces are far more welcome by faculty at small liberal arts colleges, at 91 percent of such professors, compared to 68 percent of those at private universities and 65 percent of those at public universities.
Finally, with respect to students who disrupt the functioning of a college to protest against certain speakers or ideas (an increasingly common occurrence), 67 percent of faculty agree to varying degrees that such students should be expelled or suspended. 84 percent of conservative faculty support these measures compared to 59 percent of liberals, a less dramatic split than the divide over safe spaces. Overall, faculty members favor preserving both order and freedom on campus, though with slightly different ideas of how to go about it.
The data on faculty views about free speech is encouraging, revealing widespread and strong support for intellectual openness, the cornerstone of higher education and social progress. Faculty must train students to think, question, debate, and listen to each other, and they clearly remain committed to those pursuits.
Of course, college administrators play a significant and often underappreciated role in shaping the debates on campus, as they regularly interface with students as well. Understanding the attitudes and approaches of administrators would be of great value, but no survey data exists to date on this important group. Researchers interested in the state of our college campuses would do well to examine how administrators influence student opinions on free speech and expression; the opinions of students and faculty are not the only pieces of this puzzle.
Despite the absence of administrator data, the data on faculty support for free speech and openness goes a long way toward demonstrating that such values are still embraced on college campuses. As controversies continue to flares up, students and colleges would benefit if, instead of disconnecting and going home, faculty members took the lead and made their strong support of free speech known.
1The survey was conducted online between December 2016 and the end of January 2017. The faculty sample was part of a larger panel of Americans maintained by a top survey firm. The data was weighted to be representative of the academe and particular attention was paid to ensure samples by geography, academic field, and college type—such as small colleges and big research universities.