A guide to what college rankings don't tell you.

Campus Climate

Civil deliberation about important, if controversial, social and political topics is vanishing from the American campus landscape.  A 2019 ACTA-College Pulse survey of over 2,100 college students found that majorities agreed with the statement “It is hard to have open and wide-ranging discussion about” President Trump (54%) and abortion (53%), with near majorities expressing the same view on a range of other subjects, including U.S. immigration policy (48%) and gender discrimination (41%).  Fully 85% of students reported that they have stopped themselves from expressing an opinion on “sensitive political topics to avoid offending other students” at least “occasionally” (20% do so “often” and 42% “sometimes).  Pressure campaigns to force university leaders to disinvite controversial speakers, student-initiated social media campaigns to “cancel” those who articulate disfavored viewpoints, and “shout downs” designed to prevent speakers from exploring opinions outside of the mainstream, are all increasingly common on U.S. campuses.

Free and open debate is not only the lifeblood of the academy, a condition of the relentless search for truth and the advancement of human understanding.  It is also the perquisite of a liberal education properly understood.  Students must feel free to explore controversial viewpoints, to grapple relentlessly with a range of new opinions, and to debate freely in an environment that welcomes a diversity of perspectives.  Only where it is possible to think the unthinkable, to engage with ideas in every corner of the political spectrum, will students be able refine their own opinions and develop the intellectual humility that is a hallmark of a thoughtful and informed citizenry. That is why it is more important than ever to shop for a college or university with campus climate in mind. WhatWillTheyLearn.com can help, by pointing families toward campuses that have adopted the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression and a documented commitment to building a free speech culture.

Quick Facts

  • 74% of students who identify as Republicans say that pressure to conform with political correctness negatively affects the development of close interpersonal friendships.
  • Only 39% of students answered that it is never acceptable to shout down a speaker or otherwise try to prevent them from speaking on campus.
  • 60% of students believe social media "stifles free expression because too many people block views they disagree with."
  • According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), over 200 U.S. colleges and universities operate bias response teams today.
  • 53% of students answered that their institution does not “frequently encourage students to consider a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives.”

“The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.  To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well....  The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”

—C. Van Woodward report, 1974

ACTA Publishes New Report on Cancel Culture

Resisting Cancel Culture: Promoting Dialogue, Debate, and Free Speech in the College Classroom

By Nadine Strossen

Resisting-Cancel-Culture Reasoned and wide-ranging debate has all but vanished from the American college campus. In  her new essay, Resisting Cancel Culture: Promoting Dialogue, Debate, and Free Speech in the College Classroom, former ACLU president Nadine Strossen marshals a wealth of survey data to show the scope and depth of the growing crisis: Americans feel more pressure to conceal their viewpoints today than during the McCarthy era.

The consequences of cancel culture reverberate beyond the academy—impoverishing our marketplace of ideas, coarsening our public dialogue, and undermining the intellectual resilience of college graduates. That is why Professor Strossen reminds us that free speech cultures must be fostered by the “deliberate efforts” of educators and concludes her essay with helpful “strategies for advancing these goals in the virtual classroom.”

Jonathan Rauch calls Strossen’s bold essay “essential reading.” As he explains in his Foreword, “Cancelers’ power to coerce and intimidate has been turbocharged by social media, where devastating shaming campaigns can be organized literally in minutes . . . . Strossen’s salient contribution is to lead civil libertarians—by argument and example—toward full engagement with the cultural side of the struggle.”   

Download a copy today at goacata.org.

“The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic... To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.”

—Kalven Committee: Report on the University's Role in Political and Social Action, University of Chicago, 1967

The Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression

Freedom Expression

It has been almost six years since a committee at the University of Chicago authored the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression. The statement explained that "the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed... [F]ostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission."  

UC’s statement quickly became the gold standard for universities desiring to express a principled commitment to academic freedom, free and open deliberation, and intellectual diversity. Espousing such a commitment in principle changes campus culture over time when it is allowed to inform university policies, shape program priorities, even guide executive hiring decisions.

Cultivating a viewpoint tolerant mindset in college graduates and the capacity for civil discourse is more important than ever today.  That is why we have made it easier to identify institutions with a demonstrated commitment to building a free and open marketplace of ideas. Look for our new Free Expression badge on the College Search page and throughout WhatWillTheyLearn.com!

To date, 78 universities have adopted the Chicago Principles of a substantially similar statement.  

The Troubling Rise of Bias Response Teams

Today, over 200 U.S. colleges and universities operate Orwellian “bias response teams.” Despite claims that bias committees merely foster “safe” and “inclusive” campus environments, the entire purpose of such reporting structures is to deter expression that some members of the community consider offensive. 

Most bias response teams have the power to investigate claims, initiate attempts at reconciliation, create a record of the event, condemn behavior or speech, or punish offenders. A study of 167 bias response teams conducted by FIRE found that almost half of such teams included administrators with the power to discipline students. Similarly, the academic research has found that bias investigators often adopt terminology and processes from justice administration and “speak the language of crime and punishment.”  Moreover, because the work of bias response teams is often driven by public relations concerns and a desire to prove to the community that the campus is doing something about “hate,” these teams often publish records of their investigations that made clear who they were investigating. 

That is to say, the process itself can be punitive even where bias teams cannot themselves formally discipline students for offensive speech or behavior. As a result, students often report “walking on eggshells” and avoid engaging in controversial discussions from fear another student might provoke an investigation with the intention of punishing or humiliating the offender.  By subjecting those who dissent from orthodox campus opinion to an onerous and potentially reputation-damaging process, bias response teams at public universities use the power of government to change the ideational climate of the university. This is not simply an incidental effect of efforts to promote inclusivity. This is the motivating purpose of bias response teams.

Bias response teams with the power to impose sanctions run afoul of the First Amendment by using state power to punish and deter those with specific viewpoints.  Even those that stop short of opening formal investigations or meting out punishment can violate the First Amendment simply by condemning insensitive speech, attempting to reconcile the parties, or even talking with students whose speech has caused offense.  By doing so, bias teams raise the social cost of expressing certain viewpoints, thereby creating a chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech. 

When the University of Northern Colorado abandoned its bias response team in 2016, President Kay Norton explained that the decision represented a renewal of the campus’s commitment to intellectual freedom: “Free speech and academic freedom fuel the ferment of ideas, insights and discoveries that emerge from university communities, and we must do all we can to encourage this ferment. We have an ongoing obligation to talk openly about the inherent tension between upholding academic freedom and building community. These are hard conversations, but this tension is what allows us to be a university community.”

In 2020, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals took notice in a case concerning the University of Michigan. The court opined that bias response teams can have a chilling effect on speech “even if [they do] not result in a finding of responsibility or criminality.”  When the appeals court returned the case to the district court, the university agreed to settle the lawsuit by agreeing to abandon its response team.

ACTA's 2019 survey of 2,100 students identified alarming trends

61% of students “stop [themselves] from expressing opinions on sensitive political topics in class because of concerns [their] professor might disagree with them” at least occasionally.  

56% answered that it’s “hard to have open and wide-ranging discussions” about President Trump on campus, including 80% of Strong Republicans.

54% answered that it’s “hard to have open and wide-ranging discussions” about abortion on campus.

48% answered that it’s “hard to have open and wide-ranging discussions” about U.S. immigration policy on campus.

48% agreed or strongly agreed that “pressure to conform to political correctness can negatively affect the development of close interpersonal relationships on my campus.”

Learn More About Campus Climate

FIRE, College Pulse, and RealClearEducation, 2020 College Free Speech Rankings.

Emily Elkins, "Poll: 62% of Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share," Cato Institute, July 22, 2020.

Gallup and The Knight Foundation, "The First Amendment on Campus: 2020 Report," 2020.