College Presidents Are Oblivious to Their Campus Climate

The past five months have shown the world just how toxic speech is on college campuses. The climate for open inquiry and dialogue is under attack nationwide, and students are scared to speak, question, and express themselves freely. Using disparaging rhetoric, even violence, to prevent speech is now commonplace on campus, and thus, many students are turning inward, and genuine liberal learning is being interrupted. Yet, most college presidents believe their campuses are perfect examples of viewpoint diversity.

The 2024 edition of Inside Higher Ed’s survey of college and university presidents” sadly reveals that many higher education leaders are oblivious to the issues of free speech on their own campuses. This should give anyone interested in the state of our colleges and universities pause. The 2024 survey captured the voices of 380 presidents, 206 from public and 174 from private institutions. While presidents remain hopeful for the future of their schools, they clearly are unaware of what is happening outside their very offices.

Collegiate life today is not pleasant for undergraduates; mental health is in steep decline; students live in a perpetual state of fear as only certain viewpoints are welcome in class conversation; majorities of students report that campus speakers with non-liberal views should not be allowed on campus; and students of all ideological preferences worry about running afoul of progressive a mob should they ask the wrong question or view an unpopular view. They are anxious about being in class with liberally biased, activist faculty members and are well aware of the various task forces run by “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) offices, which punish students, manipulate the communal discourse, and explicitly tell students what can and cannot be said. There should be no wonder why nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of students fear reputational damage if they speak their minds.

And yet, despite this disturbing reality, the views of collegiate leaders are astounding: Nearly 82 percent of college and university presidents rate the climate for open inquiry and dialogue on their campus as “good” or “excellent.” 92 percent of presidents who have been in charge of their institutions for 10 or more years rate their campus’s dialogue as “good” or “excellent.” These rates are shocking and do not square with reality. While there are some cases where free speech has been protected—such as at Berkeley, where a criminal investigation has opened in response to shutting down an event—the collective higher education enterprise, which should be the leading advocate for open inquiry, is falling short.

Oddly enough, when these leaders were asked about open inquiry in higher education generally, just 30 percent of collegiate presidents believed that the climate for open inquiry and dialogue in higher education generally is good or excellent. And once again, presidents with 10 or more years at their current institution are especially likely to both rate the speech climate on their campus favorably—92 percent agree that it’s “good” or “excellent”—and rate the overall collegiate speech climate poorly—just 21 percent agree that it’s “good” or “excellent.”

College and university presidents can see that the free exchange of ideas is under threat within higher education. However, they believe that their own schools are bastions for free speech. This remarkable disconnect is akin to a phenomenon well documented in political science, known as Fenno’s paradox.

Fenno’s paradox states that most Americans generally disapprove of Congress but often support their member of Congress within their districts. Fenno observed that members of Congress would often run against the institution of Congress in their campaigns. Fenno’s Paradox has been found in many democracies globally and elsewhere domestically, where Americans often disapprove of the public school system but tend to approve of the particular local schools their children attend.

A version of this paradox is present among our collegiate presidents. Even if there is an explanation for why presidents’ thinking and speech thrive on their campuses but not broadly, higher education still has a huge problem.

College presidents are essential in shaping the culture and values of their respective schools. However, it appears that many presidents—from the well-known case of Claudine Gay to lesser-known examples such as Fayneese Miller at Hamline University in Minnesota, where Miller allowed an art instructor to be vilified and then dismissed from her position for showing art that depicted Muhammad—are living in echo chambers with their staff and are either in denial or refusing to see the realities their students and campuses face.

It is time for our nation’s collegiate presidents to leave their offices and bubbles and look at the realities the students face daily on their campuses. Higher education has lost an incredible amount of public support, and to rebuild trust in a world of cancel culture and progressive educational monocultures, presidents must accept and work with the realities already present on their campuses.

Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image


  • Samuel J. Abrams

    Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

2 thoughts on “College Presidents Are Oblivious to Their Campus Climate

  1. Professor Abrams, you are correct that presidents must accept and work with the realities present on their campus. However, many universities (at least the ones I have been affiliated with) contract with search firms to pick the candidates. In fact, I have yet to be on a campus where the incoming president had any prior contact with the university. Harvard hired from within. Don’t know how prevalent that is.

    Regardless, in recent years it appears the person hired really was selected only because they checked off the right boxes. Call me cynical, but I don’t see that changing any time in the near future. We will continue to see the likes of Claudine Gay and Fayneese Miller.

  2. Abrams claims that DEI offices “explicitly tell students what can and cannot be said” by linking to a Brandeis University language guide that was purely voluntary, was developed by students, wasn’t from a DEI office, and was removed a year ago. But Brandeis’ president did explicitly tell students that they would be punished if they “spew hate” and banned a pro-Palestinian group for its words. That president, of course, claimed to support free speech.

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