It’s bad enough that, overall, the most popular universities in America don’t fare well on their commitment to free speech. Worse still for Louisianans, Louisiana State University scores close to the bottom of them all.
RealClearEducation, part of the complex of websites best known for its flagship RealClearPolitics, along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and College Pulse, has created an index called the College Free Speech Rankings. The former advocates and litigates for robust free expression policies on campuses, while the latter collects data online and provides analysis of student opinion.
The rankings accumulate data from five different areas, most of which comes from student perceptions about a school’s openness, tolerance, administrative support, and comfort with self-expression. Mixed into that is FIRE’s Spotlight Database, which evaluates schools on their policies’ fidelity to First Amendment jurisprudence.
The 55 schools scored at the top are heavy in public universities but at the bottom dominated by private schools. On the 100-point scale used, unfortunately in any of the four quantified categories few schools scored well; even overall first place University of Chicago scored just 64.2. But the second-worst of the public institutions, and 53rd overall, is LSU.
Interestingly, for its ranking the five categories go to extremes. It ranked 11th for tolerance at 53.2 and 8th for administrative support at 69.6, but ninth-last for openness at 59.8 and third from the bottom for self-expression at 32.1. Also causing a low score was its lowest “red light” rating on its expression policies; FIRE faults it specifically for clearly prohibited restrictions on expression embedded in its policies on computer use and sexual harassment.
Moreover, students from both ends of the ideological spectrum contributed to the lower-rated categories, with self-identified conservatives actually ranking the school a bit better than those calling themselves liberal. Of the 322 respondents, around a hundred gave open-ended responses to explain their quantified responses that clarifies this distribution (where, as in the majority of instances, the respondent makes an ideological self-identification).
For the liberals, their complaints mainly addressed social settings with their fellow students where predominant norms they perceived congruent with conservative issue preferences discouraged their uninhibited input. For conservatives, their objections mostly emanated from the classroom, often reporting instructors who made extremely (and often for the material under study non sequitur) biased remarks, displayed open hostility to students who challenged these, and encouraged like-thinking students to offer similar statements. Related to that, they claimed in certain subject areas where liberal students dominated they would impose a kind of censorship over competing ideas in a class. (Related, and disturbing, the survey revealed that only 35 percent said it was never acceptable to shout down a campus speaker, and 15 percent signaled that violence could be used to stop campus speech.)
The liberal complaints fall outside of the purview of a university’s mission, but the conservative objections definitely do not as these directly, and negatively, impact the quality of instruction and benefits of education. Particularly unfortunate, the LSU System after a 2018 law that prodded Louisiana campuses into supplying greater assembly and, to a lesser extent, free speech protections, signed onto the Chicago Statement that emphasizes robust freedom of expression standards at institutions of higher learning.
While the testimony of these students wouldn’t suggest a systemic problem, there does appear to be a nagging and persistent one. While faculty members shouldn’t have restrictions on the content of what they teach – as long as it pertains to the course of study and explores all relevant ideas – it needs to occur dispassionately and in a way that prompts students to explore all options and to think creatively about these. A fair portion of the surveyed students pointing to personal incidents that display the opposite shows failure to achieve this mode of instruction isn’t just an isolated event here and there.
The question then becomes how to mitigate this. You can’t legislate it away, and, short of having honest administrators monitor every class to catch faculty members injecting bias blatantly favoring certain ideological views, you can’t keep attempts to indoctrinate out of the classroom. Some schools have in place “bias reporting systems” that could reveal incidents of this nature, except that these often make the cure worse than the disease by encouraging the punishment of expression under the First Amendment. LSU has something like this, except that it applies only to “identity,” which if applied clumsily could turn into a First Amendment violation.
In the final analysis, publicity makes for the most effective deterrent, especially when the consumer, the student, becomes aware of it. With higher education facing the deflation of a half-century bubble, with more competitive pressures than ever, reports like this and the personal experiences of students and those they know give students greater leverage than ever. Plus, the advent of greater utilization of distance learning leaves more of an information trail for students as evidence of faculty proselytizing, when it happens.
This environment makes administrators, even if grudgingly, more likely to admonish miscreant faculty members when a student brings this to their attention with adequate evidence. But student have to feel welcome to do that, and here policy-makers must hold top administrators’ feet to the fire to ensure they inculcate a campus culture that doesn’t marginalize students who detect propagandizing. At the very least, in next year’s legislative budget debates whoever leads LSU then needs to have some answers explaining how the institution will deal with the data and student comments from this report.