I’ve argued before that campus speech is threatened from a dozen directions, citing scores of incidents that undermine the culture of free expression and dialogue needed to seek truth and learn.
The academic Jeffrey Adam Sachs has staked out a contrasting position at the Niskanen Center. A small number of anecdotes “have been permitted to set the terms of public debate,” he once wrote. He has also argued that “rather than collapsing into chaos, 2018 was a year of relative quiet on campuses. There were fewer deplatformings, fewer fired professors, and less violence compared to 2017. There was also more dialogue, greater respect for faculty free speech rights, and increased tolerance on both the right and the left.”
Sachs and I watched the same controversies unfold on various campuses and drew very different conclusions about their implications for campus life.
Now there’s new evidence in the debate.
Last spring, three professors at the University of North Carolina surveyed undergraduates to get a sense of the campus climate. Rather than focus on discrete controversies, such as the time in 2015 when UNC student protesters seized control of a room where a journalist was speaking, or the time in 2019 when a UNC student assaulted a sign-carrying anti-abortion activist, they sought to understand day-to-day undergraduate experiences. The results of the survey, distilled from more than 1,000 responses to email questionnaires, can’t be applied to every college in America, but the findings do illuminate what’s happening at a highly selective public institution in a swing state, where more than 20,000 undergraduates are enrolled.