Harvard President Drew Faust gave a ringing endorsement of free speech in her recent commencement address. There was, however, one passage where Faust asserted that the price of Harvard’s commitment to free speech “is paid disproportionately by” those students who don’t fit the traditional profile of being “white, male, Protestant, and upper class.” That point has been illustrated by a few recent controversies over speakers whose words were deemed offensive by some members of those non-traditional groups of students. But focusing solely on those controversies, and on a handful of elite campuses, risks obscuring a larger point: Disadvantaged groups are also among the primary beneficiaries of vigorous free-speech protections.
Universities have often served as springboards for progressive social movements and helped to consolidate their gains. They have been able to fulfill these functions largely by serving as spaces where ideas—including radical and contrarian ideas—could be voiced and engaged with.
Today, many universities seem to be faltering in their commitment to this ideal, and it is the vulnerable and disenfranchised who stand to lose the most as a result. That’s particularly true beyond the world of elite private universities such as Harvard. The reality is that, as compared to white Americans, blacks and Latinos are much more likely to attend public universities and community colleges than elite private institutions. The same goes with those from low-income backgrounds as compared to the wealthy. This dynamic holds with regard to faculty as well: Female professors and professors of color are more likely than their white male counterparts to end up teaching at public universities as opposed to elite institutions like Harvard.