The Real Chill on Campus

Most students are open to real debate. But their colleges are failing them.

An illustration of a speech bubble tied up with rope
Ben Hickey

About the author: Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.

The debate about the state of free speech on American college campuses is deeply polarized. On one side, some commentators caricature students as “snowflakes” in search of a “safe space” from which they can “cancel” their own classmates. On the other side are those who claim that the students’ supposed aversion to discussing controversial topics is a chimera invented by Fox News or insist that those who demand the right to express disapproved views have fallen foul of a healthy “consequence culture.”

As someone who has taught hundreds of students and given dozens of guest lectures over the past decade, I know that the reality is more complicated. In my experience of teaching, including at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, the overwhelming majority of students are receptive to real discussion, even about sensitive issues. On days when I had assigned readings on particularly controversial questions, such as structural racism and cultural appropriation, I was certainly apprehensive when I walked into the classroom. But nearly every time, my students impressed me by how open they were to hearing one another out, and how fairly they treated those whose views differed.

Yet I’ve seen the countervailing pressure at work too. I remember asking one student, a young woman deeply interested in politics, whether she felt comfortable debating potentially fraught topics with her classmates outside the classroom, in an informal setting like the dining hall. “Definitely not,” she said. Was there any time or place where she did feel able to do so? “Behind closed doors, with my two closest friends,” she told me. Since then, I’ve asked many more students the same question, and many have expressed a significant degree of hesitation.

The findings of a growing number of surveys, based on interviews with thousands of students around the country, reflect this duality in the way students think and feel about the state of campus speech. According to one recent study by the Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit devoted to promoting viewpoint diversity, almost all students believe passionately in the need for an open culture of debate. About nine out of every 10 students agreed that “colleges should encourage students and professors to be open to learning from people whose beliefs differ from their own.” Nearly as many believe that “colleges should welcome students and professors with a lot of different points of view.”

So, as I’ve found, the appetite for debate remains strong. But the same study also reflects the impression I got from talking with countless students: Although they are keen to discuss big ideas, many fear doing so. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that “the climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” This was a significant increase compared with the first time a pollster asked the question, in 2019.

Other recent studies show that students don’t just worry that their classmates might self-censor; a great many do so themselves. According to a large-scale survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, four out of 10 students around the country said that they would feel uncomfortable expressing views about “a controversial political topic to other students during a discussion in a common campus space, such as a quad, dining hall, or lounge.” Nearly six out of 10 said that they would hesitate to publicly disagree with a professor. More than eight out of 10 reported self-censoring at least some of the time. “Though I hold liberal views,” one student at Stony Brook University told the pollsters, “in some topics my views are more conservative and I’m afraid of being labeled something I am clearly not.”

Progressives who deny any problem with free speech on campus are, I know, likely to criticize the methodology of these surveys and dismiss their findings. They will claim that these survey questions are misleading for one reason or another. They will argue that the supposed crisis of free speech on campus is being cynically ginned up and exploited by far-right demagogues. And they will insinuate that only students who are burning to express bigoted or racist points of view are truly afraid to speak their mind.

But according to a growing body of evidence, these arguments simply don’t hold water: A wide variety of questions asked by numerous polling firms shows that most students feel constrained in what they can say. No doubt, conservatives do exploit tensions over free speech, but this does not mean that the underlying problem doesn’t exist. And although some people may fear social consequences because their views really are unsavory, it is absurd to think that the majority of students who say they self-censor are deplorable bigots.

One of the things I most loved about college was the opportunity to debate important topics. A group of friends would congregate in someone’s room, drink cheap wine or beer, and have freewheeling discussions late into the night about the nature of love, the existence of God, or the desirability of socialism. None of us wanted to be either a sycophant or a devil’s advocate; we were genuinely trying to understand the world and what we thought about it. Though we took our debates seriously, we were able to speak without fear or hesitation. We knew that we all had permission to give an argument a clear run, try out a new position, even adopt provocative stances if that was where our reasoning led us in the moment. It never crossed our mind that something we might say would result in losing friends or being socially shunned. On the few occasions when an argument got too heated, an apology the next day would make things right. It saddens me that many students in college today will not have a chance to enjoy that experience.

In my classroom, I do what I can to create a space in which students feel empowered to engage in hard conversations. I set a clear expectation that we will discuss a wide variety of viewpoints. I talk about how important it is to interpret others’ contributions with generosity. I emphasize that I’d rather someone make a thoughtful argument I might disagree with than tell me what they think I want to hear. And I take care to build up to the most sensitive topics, to ensure that we all trust one another by the time we get to them. Many professors do the same.

And yet, open discussion has become all too rare for college students. Faculty members who view the classroom as their personal soapbox are partly to blame for that. To a great degree, though, the problem lies outside the classroom. Many students have seen classmates shamed and ostracized after they were “called out” on social media for something supposedly offensive. They know that the small minority of their classmates who enjoy acting as ideological enforcers has outsize power. And they see that their colleges often add fuel to the fire by investigating students for saying something controversial or even encouraging them to denounce one another to an anonymous hotline for “microaggressions.” The majority of students, who aren’t especially argumentative or ideological, understandably conclude that the most rational response is to hold their tongue.

Obviously, not every student needs or wants to have big debates on sensitive issues such as politics and religion. But when students who are keen to explore the world of ideas with their peers fear that doing so might lead to being shunned by their classmates and investigated by their own institution, universities fail at their mission. To change that sorry state of affairs, colleges must be more proactive in fostering a genuine culture of charity and free inquiry.

To start with, universities should abolish the restrictive speech codes that many of them adopted in recent years. Any university that threatens to punish students over such an ill-defined infraction as “offensive” speech is empowering censors and bullies. Instead, universities should sign on to the Chicago Principles’ “commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate,” as leading institutions including Purdue and Princeton have done in recent years.

Colleges should also reverse the dangerous trend of campus bureaucrats enforcing institutional orthodoxies by shutting down, for example, those university-run hotlines that encourage reports to a “bias response team.” Even when such a body lacks the formal right to punish students for what they say, the prospect of being investigated by senior administrators has a chilling effect. Other intrusive bureaucratic measures include the misuse of Title IX regulations to stifle speech. (A case in point occurred when Laura Kipnis, a feminist professor at Northwestern University, was subjected to a months-long investigation for allegedly creating a “hostile environment” by publishing an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education that was critical of the way her university had handled a sexual-harassment case.)

Steps to communicate a university’s values are just as important. Universities should emphasize their commitment to free inquiry in recruitment materials and admissions letters. They should ensure that students are assigned classic texts on free speech, including critiques of free speech, in their first year. They should encourage students to sign a pledge that they will engage with others’ views respectfully.

Universities could also help students step outside their bubbles. Instead, most colleges have gone in the opposite direction of late, allowing students to self-segregate by ideology and ethnicity. In the past, for instance, most colleges assigned first-year students their roommates. Now many allow them to choose whom they live with from their first day in college. Universities should revert to the older practice, improving the chances that people with different beliefs or experiences will encounter one another and form friendships.

Finally, colleges must not shy away from disciplining the small minority of students that disregards the rules of the community. Freedom of speech and association, of course, gives students the right to criticize, or refuse to socialize with, someone they disapprove of. But colleges can, and should, punish students when they overstep the bounds of legitimate protest—for example, by threatening their peers or disrupting the lectures of controversial speakers.

In the age of social media, empowering students to participate in genuinely open discussions without any fear of retribution may be impossible. But universities cannot abdicate their responsibility. They owe it to their students to create a culture in which students feel free to express their opinions and even experiment with different views about the world. And they owe it to society to educate a generation of future leaders that has developed the courage to stand up for deeply held convictions, rather than become habituated to “reading the room.”

The kids are all right. As survey after survey affirms, they want their college experience to include exposure to a robust variety of cultural and political views. But their universities are failing to cater for that entirely reasonable, even noble, aspiration. Faculty members, administrators, and university presidents must face the problem on their campuses and stand up for a genuine culture of free speech.