Can Free Speech Thrive at a Christian College?

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Hillsdale College and Baylor University are both private Christian schools that prioritize their faith. Despite their shared religious convictions, a new survey suggests that the two schools depart in one key area – protecting student speech on campus.

Both schools were included in the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, a project sponsored by RealClearEducation, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the research firm College Pulse. The rankings are based on a survey of more than 37,000 students at 159 colleges and universities around the country. Each school received a composite score based on student responses to the survey and its written speech-related policies. According to those results, Hillsdale (67.9 composite score) significantly outperformed Baylor (51.2).

Despite their students’ participation in the survey, neither Hillsdale nor Baylor were ranked in the Free Speech Rankings because FIRE deems them “Warning” schools – private institutions that “clearly and consistently” hold “a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech.” Even so, Hillsdale students’ responses to pollsters demonstrate that a robust speech culture exists on the Michigan campus.

Seventy-three percent of Hillsdale students surveyed said they were comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor on a controversial subject, the highest percentage recorded at any of the 159 schools in the survey. Additionally, 93% of students are comfortable expressing their view on a controversial subject in a common campus space, like the quad.

Hillsdale is one of the few four-year colleges and universities in the United States that rejects federal aid. The school puts an institutional emphasis on classical liberalism, the documents and principles of the American founding, and Judeo-Christian values. Those priorities have endeared the school to many conservatives and have shaped the composition of the student body – 76% of Hillsdale students surveyed identify as conservative.

One student told pollsters that the conservative climate on campus can be suffocating for liberal students.

“Regarding the heavily conservative nature of Hillsdale’s campus even neutral-thinking students are judged harshly if they do not comply with the norm,” one Hillsdale student said. “The last election was a fair, free, and legitimate election. I hesitate to say that on this campus.”

Other students said it was difficult to criticize the administration.

“Our administration does not respond well to criticism of its own choices. I don’t feel comfortable standing up against absurd policies for students on campus for fear of retaliation on their part,” a Hillsdale student said.

A Hillsdale spokesman told RealClearEducation that while the school welcomes all students who are willing to advance civil and constructive arguments, it is at root a Christian school with Christian priorities.

“From the beginning, the moral tenets of Christianity as commonly understood in the Christian tradition have been essential to the mission of the College. As a Christian college, Hillsdale College does not support activities that contravene this commitment,” the spokesman said.

Despite its religious commitments, the Hillsdale spokesman emphasized that free speech and inquiry were central to the school’s mission, pointing to a portion of Hillsdale’s student handbook that informs students that they “may assert and defend any argument [they] conceive, as long as [they] do so in a way that is civil, academic, and conducive to thought and deliberation.”

An overwhelming majority of Hillsdale students surveyed believe the administration is committed to protecting free speech on campus. Almost 98% of Hillsdale students surveyed said that if a speech-related controversy broke out on campus, the school would be likely to defend the speaker’s right to advance his point of view. Eighty-four percent said it was very or extremely clear that the administration protects free speech on campus.

At Baylor University, by contrast, students felt relatively little confidence in the administration’s commitment to free expression. Only 19% of Baylor students said it was very or extremely clear that the administration protects free speech on campus, and a comparatively low proportion (64%) believed the school would defend an embattled speaker’s rights in a speech-related controversy.

Baylor’s speech troubles extended beyond the administration. Only 36% of Baylor students surveyed said they were comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor on a controversial subject, the highest percentage recorded at any of the 159 schools in the survey. Additionally, 37% of students are uncomfortable expressing their view on a controversial subject in a common campus space, like the quad. The divided campus – 40% of surveyed Baylor students self-identified as conservative, and 37 percent identified as liberal – contributed to some students’ reluctance to speak on controversial subjects.

“The atmosphere of the campus is very conservative and sometimes it can be intimidating to speak about more liberal issues,” one Baylor student said.

A spokesman for Baylor University told RealClearEducation that the school “is committed to fostering an academic community that values the freedoms that create this marketplace of ideas and safeguards them, and to creating a social community in which civil discourse and mutual respect are expected and encouraged.”

While Baylor expressed support for the “freedoms” that create a “marketplace of ideas,” it also has policies limiting speech forms that undermine its institutional commitment to Christianity. For example, the school prohibits students from participating in “advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.” The apparent contradiction between the school’s nominal commitments to free speech and its Christian values may be one reason why students on both sides of the political divide seem confused about the administration’s policies.

Hillsdale, by contrast, has made its policies clearer. A spokesman told RealClearEducation that the private school has the right to set its own speech policies and restrict those speakers who would undermine its institutional mission.

“In maintaining the required atmosphere of civility and preserving the noble pursuit of the College’s goals,” the spokesman said, “Hillsdale College reserves the right to place limits on student conduct and speech to ensure the proper functioning of the College.”

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