Duke Beats Out Wake Forest and UNC in Free Speech Rankings

Duke Beats Out Wake Forest and UNC in Free Speech Rankings
Bernard Thomas/The Herald-Sun via AP

In 2017, North Carolina’s general assembly passed House Bill 527, designed to “restore and preserve free speech on the campuses of the constituent institutions of the University of North Carolina.” The bill received bipartisan support and became law in July of that year. Three years after the passage of HB 527, how are the University of North Carolina and other major colleges and universities in the Tar Heel State faring with respect to free expression on campus?

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RealClearEducation’s 2020 College Free Speech Rankings offer a useful tool to help answer this question. The rankings were compiled using survey data from nearly 20,000 undergraduates at 55 colleges and universities around the country. Students were asked questions gauging their own commitment to free speech and their perception of peer, faculty, and administrative commitments to the same.

The responses, once coded and partitioned by institution, yield an “Overall Score” that can be used to assess the state of free expression at major American colleges and universities. The Overall Score can be disaggregated, and a school’s performance evaluated in five distinct areas: tolerance, openness, administrative support for free speech, self-expression, and the existence of speech codes on campus. The first four categories are scored solely on the basis of student responses, while the “speech code” score is determined by a review of campus codes of conduct by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Three of the 55 institutions of higher education included in the rankings are based in North Carolina – Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and Wake Forest University. Of the three North Carolina schools, Duke performed best, ranking seventh of the 55 schools included in the survey. The University of North Carolina – a public institution bound by HB 527 – performed poorly, ranking 37th of 55, while Wake Forest did even worse, ranking 47th of 55. What explains these results?

Duke’s high ranking was buoyed in part by a high “speech code” score. The university’s middling performance in the “tolerance,” “openness,” and “self-expression” categories indicates a potential gap between students’ free-speech rights on paper and their ability to express dissenting opinions in practice.

One student at Duke noted in the survey that “I generally refrain from giving my opinion on certain controversial topics for which the general population at Duke is almost uniformly in agreement about and for which I feel differently. For example, gun control, abortion, and arguments for small government are topics I typically avoid unless I think the person I am talking to shares my views or is tolerant of opposing viewpoints.”

The disconnect between policies favorable to speech and the actual hostility of the on-campus environment is at the heart of the free-speech problems on North Carolina’s campuses, according to Jenna Robinson, president of the North Carolina-based James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

“These rankings show us that even schools that get the policies right – Duke and UNC both have ‘green lights’ from FIRE on their speech policies – still have to get the culture and expectations right,” Robinson said. “Neither of those schools have been able to really inculcate a culture of open inquiry and free expression, and I think that that is what is coming through in this survey.”

A similar gap exists between the official position of the University of North Carolina and the reality that students face on campus with respect to free speech. As a public university, UNC is legally obligated to protect students’ First Amendment right to free expression. Yet many students fear reprisal from peers, faculty members, and administrators if they express dissenting views.

“In my policy class,” one surveyed UNC undergraduate wrote, “all of the chosen guest panelists . . . were far-left politically and several were openly communist. I’m a moderate, and I wouldn’t mind hearing from anyone on the political spectrum, but the professors I’ve had have assumed that everyone agrees with them and [give students] no opportunity for discussion.”

Wake Forest was the only school of the three North Carolina-based institutions included in the rankings that did not obtain a “green light” on its speech policies from FIRE. As a private university, it does not share UNC’s legal obligation under HB 527 to protect free expression, but its president nevertheless professes a commitment to open inquiry and the free exchange of ideas. However, only 42% of Wake Forest students surveyed felt confident that the administration would support a speaker caught in a free-speech controversy, and the university’s “administrative-support score” (52.1) was the lowest of all 55 institutions included in the rankings.

The three universities profiled in this piece have not responded to a request for comment.

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