Earlier this year, Indiana’s General Assembly passed Senate Bill 414, which required universities to survey students about the climate for free speech on campus. Schools must then report these findings to the Commission on Higher Education. Normally I’d be reluctant to weigh in on such a law; at first blush it looks like another volley in the destructive culture wars. But, I think this survey can be enormously instructive to university leaders and legislators alike.
It should hardly surprise anyone that professors and college administrators are overwhelmingly from the political left. The balance isn’t even close. The Federal Elections Commission reports individual donations with place of employment. Since 2019, my colleagues at Ball State have contributed $120,765 to political campaigns and political action committees. These comprised 6,100 individual donations from fewer than 50 persons. Of these donations, 90.4% of were to Democrats, Democratic Socialists or left-leaning PACs. I choose Ball State University because it is often said to be the “conservative” state university. That may be true, which should raise even more eyebrows on campus and in the General Assembly.
Universities must be places where ideas flourish or die through rigorous debate and evidence, not by the whim or fashionable tastes of the majority. This is how students learn, it is how research is conducted and it is how our nation ultimately prospers. So, it is necessary to understand whether or not the undeniably real and deep imbalance of political ideology weakens free speech on campus. If done honestly, here’s what I think the survey will find.
I suspect very little indoctrination or ideology occurs in the classroom. There’s simply not time or place for much political discourse. The faculty members I know, both conservative and progressive, are far more worried about teaching the material than talking politics. This should be unsurprising. I didn’t spend nine years in college to turn my class into a political commercial for the 18-25-year-old crowd. Neither did my colleagues in anthropology, chemistry, accounting, nursing or any other discipline.
The best proof of my point is that for most of the past half century, college graduates voted more conservatively than those without a degree. If colleges were engines of indoctrination, progressive professors are stunningly ineffective at it. While the voting pattern of college graduates changed over the last two presidential election cycles, that is far more likely to be connected to an individual candidate rather than progressive activism on campus.
Still, this doesn’t mean there is not a free speech problem at Indiana’s universities, but simply that I don’t believe its genesis is the classroom. Across Indiana, only Purdue receives the highest rankings by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). I am pleased that Ball State ranks closely behind, having adopted the gold standard “Chicago Statement for Free Speech.” For what it is worth, that statement has long appeared in my class syllabus along with a link to the U.S. Constitution. There’s no defensible reason for any public university to earn less than perfect rankings on free speech, yet here in Indiana only Purdue bothers to do so. This rightfully causes concern by those who allocate funding to higher education, and those of us who pay tuition bills.
The origin of free speech problems on campus lie primarily outside the classroom. Of the Indiana cases reported to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, none involved classroom instruction. The most common complaint involve censoring or restricting student groups, or restrictions on due process. Over the past decade, there were no more than a dozen such cases in Indiana.
Today, a busy student will spend perhaps 17 hours per week in the classroom, and most spend far fewer. So, a campus culture that hinders free speech outside the classroom should be of concern to legislators, to university leaders and to those who pay tuition. If done properly, with a focus on the broader campus climate, it is inevitable that the SB 414 survey will report that some students and faculty find an environment in which their views cannot be openly shared and debated.
To be clear, not all ideas are good, and none should be protected from debate or vigorous criticism. But of all places, America’s universities must be one where ideas are confronted by data, reason and facts, equally and without favor. I don’t believe Indiana’s public universities have a unique problem, but this survey will almost surely offer insights that thoughtful university leaders should use to improve the environment of free speech.
The stunning political imbalance among university employees certainly risks short changing students. Conservative student organizations have fewer advisors from which to choose. The partisan imbalance of faculty risks influencing the choice of speakers invited to campus and the books chosen for freshman reading lists. The rarity of conservative faculty members risks limiting student internship opportunities in business, government and not-for-profit groups. With a tiny fraction of conservative faculty, there will be too little research performed on issues that matter to half of Hoosier taxpayers. University leaders should be as worried about the effects of a lack of ideological diversity as they are about a lack of ethnic, gender or racial diversity.
Students are not the only affected persons on campus. Faculty and staff should be able to thrive in an environment of open inquiry. So, along with the student survey, universities should also be asking questions about their own support for diverse ideas. Are campus initiatives informed by a broad set of perspectives? Are departments inviting speakers with diverse opinions on a broad set of topics? Do colleges support faculty members of disparate views in research centers and in administrative positions? I doubt any school does these things effectively. This rightfully invites more legislative scrutiny.
My hope is that Senate Bill 414 leads to a healthier environment for free speech on campus, but it will take some concrete actions. Knowing someone’s political position is not always easy. We’d be wise to avoid asking the political views of employees in the same way that we now gather information on race, ethnicity, gender or disability status. But, it is naïve to suppose that these sorts of pressures aren’t possible, nor that they are wholly partisan. If 90 percent of faculty donated to the Trump campaign, I’m confident progressive lawmakers would be vigorously pursuing more ideological balance.
In the end, this legislation gently pressures state universities to better understand the ideological imbalance of faculty and staff. It should also cause them to honestly reckon with its influence on the climate of free speech, student support and the type of research funded on campus. Ultimately, how well universities confront these issues reflects their seriousness towards their core academic mission and their commitment to the taxpayers of Indiana.
Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.