Higher Education

Ray Carter | October 26, 2020

Oklahoma colleges rank poorly for free speech

Ray Carter

Amid growing national concern that colleges have become defined by intolerance and suppression of free speech, a new report shows the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University rank 38th and 50th, respectively, out of 55 top national universities in their support of free speech.

The 2020 College Free Speech Rankings report—compiled by College Pulse, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and RealClearEducation—provides a “comprehensive comparison of the student experience of free speech on their campuses” based on surveys of 20,000 currently enrolled students at the 55 colleges surveyed.

“The College Free Speech Survey results show that while some colleges do better than others in promoting a strong, open speech climate on campus, colleges overwhelmingly have a long way to go to improve their campus climates for free expression,” the report states. “The top college in the College Free Speech Rankings is the University of Chicago, and even this school scores only 64 out of a possible 100 points. In other words, even the best college in this study receives a grade that wouldn’t pass a university course without a curve.”

Oklahoma colleges fared worse than most colleges in the region. The survey ranked Kansas State University second overall and Texas A&M University third, while the University of Missouri ranked 13th, the University of Colorado ranked 16th, and the University of Arkansas ranked 26th.

“As a white, Christian, conservative who strongly supports Donald Trump, I have learned to keep my mouth shut any time the subject arises.” —A female student at the University of Oklahoma

In contrast, the University of Texas at Austin ranked lower than OU and OSU, placing 54th overall.

Both OU and OSU trailed the University of California, Berkeley, which ranked 28th overall, and OSU also trailed Harvard University, which was ranked 46th in the report.

At the University of Oklahoma, 267 students participated in the survey while 357 students at Oklahoma State University participated.

The report found self-identified liberal students and self-identified conservative students ranked colleges differently in some, but not all, instances.

OU’s ranking among liberal students was identical to its overall ranking, landing 38th among that group, but OSU’s ranking by liberal students was 54th out of the 55 universities surveyed in the report.

However, both OU and OSU received higher rankings from conservative students with OU ranked 23rd and OSU ranked 27th.

The report found that “the predominant viewpoint” on 44 of the 55 campuses surveyed was liberal. On 35 of those 44 campuses, 50 percent or more students identified as liberal. There were only six colleges where the predominant viewpoint was conservative, and Brigham Young University was the only college where an actual majority of the students identified as conservative. On the remaining five campuses, the predominant viewpoint was mixed.

Nationally, more than one in four students (27 percent) said shouting down a speaker or trying to prevent them from talking is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable. Another 34 percent said shout-downs are “rarely” acceptable. Just 39 percent of students said such actions were “never” acceptable.

Nearly one in five students (17 percent) said they were willing to consider the use of violence as an acceptable form of protest.

Student endorsement of anti-free-speech positions varied “widely” from university to university, according to the report, with more than 40 percent of students saying it is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable to shout down a speaker at the University of Pennsylvania; Northwestern; Stanford; the University of California, Berkeley; and Georgetown. At the other end of the spectrum were Brigham Young University and Kansas State University, where just 12 percent and 13 percent of students, respectively, supported shouting down speakers.

The report found student opposition to allowing certain speakers to be heard was tied, in part, to the views expressed by a speaker and students’ political opinions. The survey found that 50 percent of students said they would strongly oppose allowing a teacher on campus who said Black Lives Matter is a hate group, while just 27 percent would strongly oppose allowing a speaker on campus who said Christianity has a negative influence on society.

At the University of Oklahoma, just 43 percent of students said it is never acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus, and 83 percent said it is never acceptable to use violent protest to stop a speech on campus.

At Oklahoma State University, just 43 percent of students said it is never acceptable to shout down a speaker on campus, and 89 percent said it is never acceptable to use violent protest to stop a speech.

Nationally, the report found just 21 percent of students would be comfortable writing a letter in the student newspaper expressing a critical view of the college’s administration, and only 15 percent of students said they would feel very comfortable disagreeing with a professor publicly about a controversial topic.

The report included the written comments of some student participants with students’ identities kept anonymous.

Several OU student responses discussed perceived bias against conservatives by faculty and administration leaders.

“As a white, Christian, conservative who strongly supports Donald Trump, I have learned to keep my mouth shut any time the subject arises,” wrote one female OU student, who said she is “afraid of being cut off from projects and getting my name slandered to potential jobs” if she is open about her views.

“There is a strong feeling of hatred for conservatives on this campus,” wrote another student. “There have been protests that recently show that conservative viewpoints are not generally accepted on campus and should be silenced. If you demonstrate these opinions, you are immediately labeled a racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, etc. This is incredibly damaging to social status and in some cases even grade point average.”

“I had a very liberal English teacher and I chose not to write an essay on gun control or immigration because I feared she would grade me down based on their bias,” wrote another student. “I also frequently hear jokes or comments against my views by my professors and fellow students.”

Another OU student recalled how a professor in a composition class handed out copies of an essay written by another student in a prior year “and started beating it down and the person who wrote it for explaining why they are against abortion.”

Similar issues were raised by students at OSU.

“Let me just say I had to suppress my full opinions because I did not want to be graded badly on a paper with a left-leaning professor,” wrote one student.

“In an English class, the professor and students were speaking on abortion (we were to write a controversial essay), and the professor started to share their views and students agreed with her,” wrote another student. “One other student spoke up and opposed and immediately the students who agreed with the professor yelled at the student speaking up, and the professor did nothing. I stayed quiet.”

“Talking about abortion in a class, the professor and majority of other students made it perfectly clear that they believed pro-life people are idiots,” wrote another student. “I am a person who is pro-life and felt I could not express an opinion differing from theirs without being personally attacked.”

“In American Government, the professor would always bash on … people who supported Donald Trump,” one OSU student wrote.

One student wrote that when “you have an extremely liberal teacher and have to submit essays on controversial topics” the student had learned to put “your views aside and agree with the teacher for a better grade.”

One student wrote that his or her “beliefs were made fun of in my science classes” and several professors “make fun of political people I support during class time.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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