Freedom of expression and Senate Bill 414
Earlier this year, the Indiana General Assembly passed Senate Bill 414, which required universities to survey students about the climate of free speech on campus. Schools must then report these findings to the Higher Education Commission. Normally, I would be reluctant to influence such a law; at first glance, it looks like another wave of destructive culture wars. But, I think this survey can be extremely informative for university leaders and lawmakers.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that college professors and administrators are predominantly from the political left. The balance is not even close. The Federal Election Commission declares individual donations with the workplace. Since 2019, my colleagues at Ball State have contributed $ 120,765 to political campaigns and political action committees. These are 6,100 individual donations of less than 50 people. Of these donations, 90.4% were intended for Democrats, Democratic Socialists or leftist PACs. I chose Ball State University because it is often said to be the “conservative” state university. Maybe that’s true, which should raise eyebrows even more on campus and in the General Assembly.
Universities must be places where ideas flourish or die through rigorous debate and evidence, and not out of whim or the fashionable tastes of the majority. This is how students learn, this is how research is conducted and this is how our nation ends up thriving. Thus, it is necessary to understand whether or not the undeniably real and profound imbalance of political ideology weakens freedom of speech on campus. If it’s done honestly, here’s what I think the investigation will find.
I suspect very little indoctrination or ideology is happening in the classroom. There is simply no time or room for much political talk. The faculty members I know, both conservative and progressive, are much more concerned with teaching the subject than with talking about politics. This shouldn’t be surprising. I didn’t spend nine years in college turning my class into political advertising for 18-25 year olds. Neither have my colleagues in anthropology, chemistry, accounting, nursing or any other discipline.
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The best proof of my point is that for most of the last half century, college graduates have voted more conservatively than those without a degree. If colleges were engines of indoctrination, progressive professors are surprisingly ineffective. Although the voting pattern of college graduates has changed over the past two presidential election cycles, it is much more likely to be tied to an individual candidate rather than progressive activism on campus.
Still, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a free speech issue at Indiana universities, just that I don’t believe its genesis was the classroom. Across Indiana, only Purdue receives top rankings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). I am happy that Ball State comes close behind, having adopted the gold standard “Chicago Declaration for Free Speech”. For what it’s worth, this statement has long appeared in my curriculum with a link to the US Constitution. There is no defensible reason for a public university to achieve a less than perfect ranking on free speech, but here in Indiana only Purdue bother to do so. This rightly worries those who allocate funds to higher education and those of us who pay tuition fees.
The roots of freedom of speech problems on campus lie mainly outside the classroom. Of the Indiana cases reported to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, none involved classroom instruction. The most common complaint concerns censorship or restriction of groups of students, or restrictions on due process. In the past decade, there have not been more than a dozen such cases in Indiana.
Today, a busy student might spend 17 hours a week in class, and most spend much less. So a campus culture that hinders free speech outside the classroom should be of concern to lawmakers, university leaders, and those who pay tuition fees. If done correctly, with an emphasis on the larger campus climate, it is inevitable that the SB 414 survey will report that some students and faculty will find an environment in which their views cannot be shared and debated. openly.
To be clear, not all ideas are good and none should be shielded from debate or vigorous criticism. But of all places, America’s universities must be the ones where ideas are confronted with data, reason, and fact, equally and without favor. I don’t think Indiana’s public universities have a unique problem, but this survey will almost surely offer information that thoughtful university leaders should use to improve the environment for free speech.
The astonishing political imbalance between university employees is certainly unlikely to change students. Conservative student organizations have fewer advisors to choose from. The partisan imbalance of faculty risks influencing the choice of guest lecturers on campus and the books chosen for freshmen’s reading lists. The scarcity of conservative faculty members risks limiting internship opportunities for students in business, government and nonprofit groups. With a tiny fraction of conservative professors, there will be too little research done on issues that matter to half of Hoosier taxpayers. University leaders should be concerned as much with the effects of a lack of ideological diversity as with a lack of ethnic, gender or racial diversity.
Students aren’t the only people affected on campus. Faculty and staff should be able to thrive in an environment of open inquiry. So, in addition to the student survey, universities should also ask about their own support for various ideas. Are campus initiatives informed by a wide range of perspectives? Do departments invite speakers with diverse opinions on a wide range of topics? Do colleges support faculty members with divergent opinions in research centers and in administrative positions? I doubt a school will do these things effectively. This rightly calls for a more in-depth review of the legislation.
I hope that Senate Bill 414 will lead to a healthier environment for free speech on campus, but it will take concrete action. Knowing someone’s political position is not always easy. We would be wise to avoid asking for political opinions of employees in the same way we now collect information on race, ethnicity, gender or disability status. But, it is naive to assume that this kind of pressure is not possible, nor that it is totally partisan. If 90% of professors donated to the Trump campaign, I have no doubt that progressive lawmakers would vigorously seek a better ideological balance.
Ultimately, this legislation gently pushes state universities to better understand the ideological imbalance of faculty and staff. It should also lead them to honestly consider its influence on the climate of free speech, student support, and the type of research funded on campus. Ultimately, the way universities deal with these issues reflects their seriousness to their core academic mission and their commitment to Indiana taxpayers.
Michael J. Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics at Miller College of Business at Ball State University.