North Carolina’s universities yield mixed results on free speech, says a recent Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) study of American campuses.
FIRE, a non-profit civil liberties group, in collaboration with College Pulse and RealClearEducation, has conducted a yearly survey of US undergraduate students to determine the state of free speech at America’s colleges. These polls, which have been running since 2020, ask students questions like “Do you feel comfortable speaking out about topics you are passionate about?” and “Are you open to hearing from different and sometimes controversial speakers?”
In the most recent 2024 College Free Speech Ranking, FIRE included 55,102 student respondents from 254 four-year colleges and universities. The students were polled through the College Pulse mobile app between January 13 and June 30, 2023.
NC State (#11)
Appalachian State (#35)
Wake Forest (#88)
UNC-Chapel Hill (#174)
Though ranked slightly lower than UNC-Greensboro in this year’s edition, NC State is the only North Carolina university that has achieved a “consistently high ranking over time,” a status reserved for schools with an average national free speech ranking in the top 20.
Additionally, FIRE has maintained a Scholars Under Fire database since 2000 that documents when university scholars face calls for sanction. From 2019 through mid-2023, 149 scholars at the surveyed institutions were sanctioned by their school’s administration. Within this group of schools, eighteen were denoted as “particularly egregious offenders” for sanctioning three or more of their scholars. Only one North Carolina school, UNC-Chapel Hill, made this list.
Surveys of the political affiliations of students and faculty at North Carolina’s universities may affirm some of FIRE’s conclusions. For example, as recently as 2021, UNC-Chapel Hill boasted a faculty of Democratic professors, which outnumbered their Republican counterparts by a staggering ratio of 12:1. Moreover, 17 of the academic departments at UNC-Chapel Hill had no registered Republican faculty at all. By contrast, NC State’s environment is much less politically homogeneous, as shown by the 65% of students who report their campus feels “politically balanced.”
Of the nine North Carolina schools ranked in FIRE’s report on university free speech, the bottom four least tolerant schools are consistently ranked as the best four colleges for an undergraduate education in the state, according to niche.com, a site that ranks and and recruits for institutions.
“These findings about intolerant and disruptive conduct and self-censorship suggest a pervasive national climate of worry and discomfort on American college campuses,” researchers concluded. “This should concern anyone who supports a vision of higher education as a free marketplace of ideas meant to produce graduates who are ready to join the vigorous debates within American society and beyond.”
Despite this relatively gloomy outlook for civil discourse at a few of North Carolina’s colleges, there is some movement toward re-emphasizing the necessity of open debate on campuses across the state. Notably, UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences facilitates the Program for Public Discourse, which seeks to “support a culture of robust public argument” through student engagement initiatives like the Agora Fellows program. In the past, the Program for Public Discourse has hosted speakers from across the political spectrum through its Abbey Speaker Series to help foster genuine civil discourse on a statistically liberal campus.
Similarly, Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics operates The Civil Discourse Project to “encourage the cultivation of intellectual and civic virtues and strive to foster community across ideological divides.” For a campus where only 6.6% of students identify as conservative as compared to the 73% who identify as liberal, public discourse initiatives like The Civil Discourse Project may prove vitally necessary if honest intellectual debate is to continue on campuses like Duke’s.