by Allan Stam
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently gave the University of Virginia a 6th-place ranking in a national survey assessing the state of free speech on college campuses. Provost Ian Baucom cited the recognition during Wednesday’s Board of Visitors meeting, noting that it was the highest ranking the university had ever achieved.
UVa’s high score suggests to some the existence of a robust culture of open dialogue and intellectual freedom at UVa. However, a closer examination of the underlying data reveals a more nuanced and troubling picture.
UVa’s overall score was a mere 68 out of 100, a grade that would be considered failing in many academic and household settings. This discrepancy between the overall ranking and the actual score raises questions about the survey’s methodology. It casts doubt on the true state of free speech at UVA and perhaps other highly ranked institutions.
UVa earned the high score primarily on the basis of its stated policies. President Jim Ryan, Provost Ian Baucom and the Board of Visitors have repeatedly endorsed free speech and viewpoint diversity in the past year. But official policies tell us little about actual practices or the cultural milieu in which students, faculty and staff interact.
When one digs a little deeper into the specific categories within the survey, the concerns become even more pronounced. UVa ranks alarmingly low in several key areas: 222nd in “Comfort Expressing Ideas,” 178th in “Disruptive Conduct,” and 188th in “Openness.” These rankings are not mere numbers; they represent a tangible reality where students feel uncomfortable expressing their ideas, where disruptive conduct stifles dialogue, and where a lack of openness hampers intellectual growth.
The experiences reported by UVa students further underscore these concerns. A staggering 77% of students feel uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor in class. As a professor at UVa, I find this figure truly disheartening. Only a meager 15% of students claim that they never self-censor when conversing with peers, professors, or administrators. Additionally, 75% of students feel pressured to avoid discussing controversial topics in class. These statistics suggest a culture of self-censorship and fear rather than one of open dialogue and intellectual exploration.
The importance of free speech and open dialogue in academic settings cannot be overstated. Universities are meant to be crucibles of critical thinking and debate, where students can explore diverse ideas and challenge prevailing norms. They are not meant to be bastions of intellectual comfort and ease. When students feel uncomfortable expressing their views, particularly views that dissent from the on-campus liberal orthodoxy, the quality of education for all suffers. For instance, a student who is afraid to question a professor’s interpretation of a historical event may miss out on a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Similarly, self-censorship among students leads to classroom echo chambers, where only popular or “safe” opinions are voiced, thereby stifling intellectual diversity and growth.
Moreover, the ability to express oneself freely is not just an academic issue; it is a life skill that is crucial for civic participation and professional development. Students who learn to articulate their thoughts clearly and confidently are better prepared for workplace challenges and are more likely to become engaged citizens who can contribute meaningfully to public discourse. We often hear from UVa’s Karsh Institute of Democracy about threats to democracy emerging from the political right. We rarely hear about the real threat to democracy – the stifling of free speech in expression within the institutions designed from the outset to foster those values and traditions.
Significantly, this is not a partisan issue. Students from both sides of the political spectrum report feeling afraid to speak up. A conservative student of color from the Class of 2023 expressed deep apprehension about discussing political views in ethnically tied spaces. A transgender student from the Class of 2024 is afraid to voice opinions on transgender-related topics for fear of backlash from peers. These examples illustrate that the issue transcends political affiliations and affects a broad swath of the student body.
The state of free speech at the University of Virginia is paradoxical. While the institution may boast a high aggregate ranking, the details tell a different story—one of discomfort, self-censorship, and a lack of openness. These issues are not confined to one political group; they affect students across the ideological spectrum. As a society that values the free exchange of ideas, especially within academic settings, we must confront these shortcomings head-on. Universities should be bastions of free thought and open dialogue, and it is incumbent upon institutions like UVa to live up to that ideal. Only then can we consider a score of 68 out of 100 to be truly passing, and only then can we ensure that our educational institutions are fulfilling their vital role as nurseries of democracy and intellectual growth.
Allan C. Stam is University Professor and Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership.