Catherine Rampell, Washington Post, February 11, 2016
For 50 years, researchers have surveyed incoming college freshmen about everything from their majors to their worldviews. On Thursday, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles released the latest iteration of this survey, which included 141,189 full-time, first-year students attending about 200 public and private baccalaureate institutions around the country.
According to the findings, the current crop of freshmen can lay claim to multiple superlatives. Among them: most willing to shut down speech they find offensive.
About 71 percent of freshmen surveyed in the fall said they agreed with the statement that “colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus.” This question has been asked on and off for a couple of decades, and 2015 logged the highest percentage of positive responses on record. For comparison, the share in the early 1990s hovered around 60 percent; also high, but not as high as today.
What speech counts as “racist” or “sexist” is of course in the eye of the beholder, as evidenced by recent attempts to silence public discourse on racially and sexually charged topics at Wesleyan, Yale and Northwestern universities.
A related survey question, which has been asked most years since 1967, inquired whether “colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus.”
About 43 percent of freshmen said they agreed. That’s nearly twice as high as the average share saying this in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It was surpassed only once, just barely, in 2004. But in general, support for banning speakers from campuses has trended upward over time.
Recent incidents suggest students (and sometimes their professors) may have rather expansive views of what constitutes an “extreme speaker.” Among those disinvited or forced to withdraw from campus speaking engagements in the past few years are feminism critic Suzanne Venker, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and Narendra Modi, now the Indian prime minister.
One last freshman survey finding of interest: The highest share of students since 1973 now consider themselves left of center. And the highest share of college freshmen ever (or at least since this question was first asked in 1970) call themselves “far left.”
One parting observation: Remember that these survey questions were asked of newly matriculated college freshmen. That is, students are setting foot on campus already more liberal, more protest-happy and more amenable to speech restrictions than their predecessors.
Which suggests that colleges themselves are not wholly responsible for rising liberal and illiberal tendencies on campus–even if they do sometimes aid and abet both trends.