X Close

Harvard ranked as America’s worst college for free speech

“Expressing certain political views is something that is simply not done,” said a Harvard student. Credit: Getty

September 6, 2023 - 7:00am

Harvard University has been ranked as America’s worst college for free speech, with its attitude to open expression described as “abysmal”.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has today published its annual rankings of US colleges for how freely students feel they can speak. Harvard, the Ivy League college based in Massachusetts, sits squarely at the bottom of the list of 248 institutions. 

Harvard’s score of 0.00 is the lowest possible on FIRE’s scale, though the real figure is “more than six standard deviations below the average”. The report sampled over 50,000 undergraduate students nationwide, basing its scoring system on factors including “comfort expressing ideas”, “tolerance for speakers” and “administrative support”. Colleges were also judged on how frequently and severely they have sanctioned students, academics and visiting speakers.

FIRE recorded nine deplatforming attempts at Harvard since 2019, seven of which resulted in sanctions. These included the high-profile cases of the feminist philosopher Devin Buckley, who was disinvited last year by college faculty as a result of her perceived views about transgender people, as well as the rescinding of the offer of a fellowship to the human rights activist Kenneth Roth, also in 2022. The dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School, Douglas Elmendorf, was found to have blocked the appointment, on account of Roth’s alleged criticism of Israel. This decision was then reversed.

The British magazine Times Higher Education this year selected Harvard as the second best university in the world, and the best in North America. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), founded in 2003, has ranked Harvard as the top global university every year since its initial release. The elite Ivy League group, comprising eight universities, has consistently performed poorly on the FIRE scale, with last year’s table propped up by Columbia University. This year, 69th-placed Brown University was the highest performing of the Ivies, with the next best of the eight, Princeton, sitting in 187th. 

Harvard’s attitude to the free exchange of views within its student body has been hardening in recent years, with the university’s FIRE score decreasing from 55.5 in 2021-22 to 34.5 last year and now to the minimum possible tally. Still, there are internal efforts underway to tackle its culture of intolerance. In April of this year, over 100 faculty members joined the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, led by the cognitive psychologist and writer Steven Pinker. The group has vowed to defend open discussion on campus and provide support for colleagues targeted for their scholarly work. In a mission statement, the Council claimed:

In some institutions, the threat to academic freedom is from an illiberal left that wants to shrink the boundaries of acceptable discussion. At others, it is from right-wing politicians who want a single version of history taught as orthodoxy […] When activists are shouting into an administrator’s ear, we will speak calmly but vigorously into the other one, which will require them to take the reasoned rather than the easy way out.
- Council on Academic Freedom

In its survey, FIRE has quoted Harvard students who feel “hesitation to share controversial opinions for fear that people would jump on me”, as well as recognising a “general feeling that expressing certain political views is something that is simply not done”. One undergraduate responded, when asked whether they’d ever felt they could not speak openly on campus, “I’d rather not say, because I might receive repercussions.”


is UnHerd’s Deputy Editor, Newsroom.

RobLownie

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

38 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Richard M
Richard M
10 months ago

I completed my PhD at a UK university over 20 years ago. This was, at the time anyway, a 5* ranked politics research department. Back then the term “political correctness” was still being used to describe the strident vanguard of students, post-grads and some lecturers who sought to control the language of academic discussion, usually under the guise of “sensitivity” or “respect” for minority groups and cultures.
The problem I saw then, which I believe has come to pass, is that constraining and compelling speech ultimately becomes a matter of power. Even among the well-meaning (and many of those proponents of politically-correct speech did not have good intentions), being able to win arguments simply by shutting down your opponent’s right to speak is too intoxicatingly effective not to be used if you can.
You don’t need to be an Orwell scholar to understand how stringently constraining and compelling speech is dangerous for academic enquiry, democracy and ultimately freedom. The current urge to constrain, compel and censure is effectively an anti-Enlightenment and I believe without question the most important intellectual fight of our time.

Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Since that time, Dave Spart graduated (Neasden Polytechnic) and has become the Dean of Harvard, via The National Amalgamated Union of Sixth-Form Operative and Allied Trades.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

The New American Civil War has already been won on culture. The contrarian currents within the Republican vote (opposing proxy wars as well as wokeism) are culturally isolated from the ruling elites and their institutions to the point that they do resemble a veritable insurrection. The current Jan 6 prison sentences are of a length that they might be those allocated to war criminals which the system will conveniently label domestic terrorists.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

Over the past thirty years, and thanks to Clinton neo-liberalism – the US elites have been on the receiving end of the largest upward transfer of wealth in history. It isn’t surprising that their institutions should therefore adopt ideologies such as CRT which are designed to divide the opposition to their rule. The problem that they have is that the narratives that they promote are so flimsy that they can only achieve their purpose if all discussion of them is brutally suppressed.

Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Nothing to do with Reaganomics, or the Bush & Trump tax cuts? Just Clinton?

Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Just Clinton then. That’s what I thought – as you can see from the various charts here, the problems only began shortly after 1993 and ended a little after 2001.

https://eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/lecture_saez_chicago14.pdf

P N
P N
10 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

“Inequality matters because the public cares about it.”
Enough said.

P N
P N
10 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

It’s none of the above. It’s because of loose monetary policy leading firstly to asset inflation, to make holders of assets wealthier, and then inflation throughout the economy, to make everyone else poorer.
Reaganomics, tax cuts etc did not transfer wealth upwards. After Reagan’s cuts to income tax, the highest earners paid more income tax, not less and became a larger proportion of the tax take.

George Scialabba
George Scialabba
10 months ago
Reply to  P N
Daniel P
Daniel P
10 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Well….I think Reagan is going back a bit too far. I will give you deregulating the airlines, but that had a LOT of support from the Tip O’Neil’s of the world.

THOUGH…I suppose we could go back to Carter and deregulation of the trucking industry.

Bush Senior was a push. In all honesty, he was probably the best president we have had in the last 40 yrs.

Clinton definitely gave neoliberal economics its launch with NAFTA and bank deregulation.AND…well, he did sell out the democrat party to Wall Street and Silicon Valley and abandoned the middle and working class to fend for themselves.

Bush Jr was in over his head and was an idiot for allowing China into the WTO, but to be fair, that was already in the works under Clinton.

Obama? Ugh. Well, there was a major disappointment if there ever was one. He could not bail out the banks fast enough. Nor could he be bothered to do anything for middle and working class people facing foreclosure. He was all ready to do a Pacific version of NAFTA that sold out US sovereignty to corporate appointed international commissions. Hillary was prepared to go along with that until it became too unpopular to sell.

Trump? That would be a push too. He pushed hard on trade deals and was prepared to play hardball with US companies that outsourced or offshored. He did do a lot on domestic energy production and border security. But, as you rightly point out he also gave tax cuts to people who really did not need them.

Biden is just a corrupt idiot run by his staff.

Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

Thank you for a considered, mature response. The world is complicated and I come to this site to see that reflected in writing and comment.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

Obama? … He could not bail out the banks fast enough.

Unsurprisingly. After all, they did put him in the White House to do just that.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Nothing to do with Reaganomics, or the Bush & Trump tax cuts?

Did I say that? No I didn’t, did I? Clinton was responsible for NAFTA and admitting China to the WTO – two initiatives whose consequences have been disastrous for America’s blue collar class. Therefore it’s not at all unreasonable to credit him as a prime mover in this. It’s not to say that no-one else shares his responsibilty.

Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

“thanks to Clinton neo-liberalism – the US elites have been on the receiving end of the largest upward transfer of wealth in history.”

Dominic A
Dominic A
10 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

So yeah, you pretty much did – The process of massive wealth transfer in the US began in the early 70’s, really took off in the 80’s, continued about the same pace through the Clinton years (decrease in his last couple of years), picking up again with GW, and continuing ever since. I’m frustrated with the number of commenters who claim all evil and rot stems from liberals/ democrats, the MSM, the elites etc and all truth and hope comes from Trump, Fox etc.

Last edited 10 months ago by Dominic A
William Cameron
William Cameron
10 months ago

Denying freedom of speech cannot happen in a University. If the freedom of expression is denied- then it is not a university. It is a place for the academically weak who dare not discuss issues.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
10 months ago

The piece suggests a rough parity between censorship of the Left and the Right when no such thing exists. Campus suppression of opposing views is much more often a dominant Left vs outnumbered Right situation.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
10 months ago

Ironic, then, that Harvard’s shortened motto is Veritas

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
10 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Truth is nuanced; it needs to be contextualized and scrubbed of phobic connotations before it can be spoken. Otherwise, some sackings are in order.
Now translate into Latin and put it on a fancy crest.

Terry M
Terry M
10 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

The Harvard motto should be: “Tacete”
(shut up!!)

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
10 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

Should be “Una Veritas” — one truth.

David B
David B
10 months ago
Reply to  Thomas Wagner

Veritas Nostra

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
10 months ago

“Gentlemen, you can’t have free speech in here! This is a university!”

Daniel P
Daniel P
10 months ago

As a long time Bostonian, I will simply say that Harvard has ALWAYS been overrated, overpriced and populated by arrogant control freaks.

All you have to do is spend a day or two in or around the campus to realize that half the worlds population of pompous asses and pompous asses in training reside near Harvard Square.

Its also a fact that a great many people of mediocre success will happily lead off a conversation with the fact they went to Harvard, like they reached the pinnacle of their existence while there and everything else after was a let down. Which may well be true.

Terry M
Terry M
10 months ago

There is a strong correlation between arrogance and lack of free speech, it seems. Whoda thunk it!

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
10 months ago

I have to ask, how can you possible score zero? Is Harvard the same as Iran or North Korea? To me such a score invalidates the whole exercise unless it is explained better what it means

Richard M
Richard M
10 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

As far as I know the exercise is intended to comparatively measure academic freedom in US colleges. Its not intended as an assessment of freedom of speech in all contexts.
So you can’t assume that the assessment criteria, questions, sampling, methodology, and scoring scale used are relevant to totalitarian dictatorships.
Even if they are. You don’t know what Iran or North Korea would score. Perhaps they would score -100?

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

They can’t score -100 as the article states that 0 is the lowest possible. This is what puzzles me.

Richard M
Richard M
10 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Which brings you back to my initial point.
Its a measure of universities which restrict free speech so probably not intended or suitable for evaluating a dictatorship which tortures political prisoners and refines weapons-grade uranium.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
10 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Harvard scored zero. They may not be too far from physically torturing dissidents.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
10 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

I must agree with Arkadian X. A score of zero implies that things can’t get any worse. We all know how foolish that is.

Melvin Band
Melvin Band
10 months ago

How about having ratings for the worst public school districts in the United States in terms of denying free speech and transparency? If there were such a rating then in my opinion the New Hope Solebury School District in Pa. would win hands down.
If you are a parent, a student, a staff member or a community member such as myself and to join a district committee such as the Policy Committee, Facilities Committee, the Curriculum Committee etc. you have to sign an application that among other things states, ” Committee members SHOULD [ my emphasis} not deliberate, discuss, or meet about committee topics outside of the monthly committee meetings.” Although the School Board can not enforce this demand, just putting it out there to me is a threat and a form of intimidation. Imagine a parent and his child on the committee. Arev they to be silent to each other after a meeting?
Do the following to see the quote for yourself. (1) Go to nhsd.org (2) click on “School Board” (3) Click on Board Advisory Committees”(4) Click on ” To join the Board Advisory Committees.(5) click on where it says, ” This Application” and scroll toward the bottom to see the quote.

RM Parker
RM Parker
10 months ago

Looking at the colleges with the lowest FIRE scores just underlines that the current SNAFU is a top-down, élite driven affair. No surprise but disappointing to see it so starkly demonstrated.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
10 months ago

A good argument has always been one of the joys of life.
Why do those people not get that?  
What is wrong with them?

Stan Konwiser
Stan Konwiser
10 months ago

This plague of intolerance to free expression follows the 1973 creation and growth of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The Western world is in thrall of the WEF power brokers who envision a new world order with them in charge. Identity politics is the wedge used to distract the masses while climate change is the tool used to divert the resources to their purpose.

Browse the WEF website and their annual DAVOS meeting website. No tin hat conspiracy theorist is needed. It is all laid out in plain view for all to see what the wealthiest, most powerful people in the Western World have in mind.

David Pogge
David Pogge
10 months ago

Is it not ironic that a university can be simultaneously cited at one of the two best in the world and at the same time be found to be the worst for free speech? What are we using as criteria for judging quality of an academic institution if NOT freedom of speech, thought, inquiry, and the pursuit of truth? Size of endowment? Average SAT of incoming students? Publication rates of faculty? Grant funding of faculty? It cannot be any index of actual education that is occurring, as that would necessarily be correlated with the freedom of speech and the unfettered exchange of competing and controversial ideas. Perhaps one lesson here is that we need to start looking more carefully at the criteria by which we judge the quality of an educational institution and try to determine if those criteria really have anything to do with education.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
10 months ago

A FIRE survey?!?!
LOL! You guys will believe anything as long as it reinforces your right wing prejudices!
I doubt it will matter too much as nobody here is likely to get anywhere near Harvard or any other elite university!

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

Well, I was like er um LOL!!!