- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2018

College professors who incite their students to shout down campus speakers may be giving their profession a bad rap, new research suggests.

Contrary to popular opinion, American faculty members broadly support freedom of speech and diversity of opinion, said Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Abrams surveyed nearly 900 professors and came to the conclusion that most faculty members maintain the intellectual curiosity that made them want to enter academia in the first place.

“At the core, I think our training as professors and often as Ph.D.s is to seek out viewpoint diversity,” he said. “And the survey data reveal, believe it or not, they actually do care about this, despite the fact that it looks like a number of faculty may not.”

In the survey, a summary of which was published at The American Interest, 93 percent of professors agreed that university life “requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other.”

Eighty percent of professors said they should be “free to present in class any idea that they consider relevant.”

When asked to choose between an “open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people,” or a “positive learning environment for all students that prohibits certain expressions of speech or viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people,” 69 percent of faculty members favored the former.

Sixty-seven percent said students should be suspended or expelled for disrupting campus lectures, and 61 percent agreed that safe spaces “help students feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and exploring sensitive subjects.”

Mr. Abrams said his survey wasn’t as “conclusive or as deep a dive as it could have been,” pointing to the survey’s relatively small sample size.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, urged caution when interpreting the study because it lacks a baseline to show how faculty attitudes toward free speech have shifted. He also said it’s concerning that 31 percent of professors support a “positive learning environment” where certain speech is restricted.

“It’s anybody’s conjecture as to what faculty might have thought about this 10, 20, 30 years ago,” Mr. Wood said. “My guess, for what it’s worth, is that 31 percent is a huge shift toward favoring suppression of free speech on campus. Without more data here it really does turn into a guessing game about these things. Still, that one-third of our faculty members favor this suppression of free speech is disturbing, and it’s also rather hard to reconcile that number with the 93 percent” who claim to support freedom of speech.

Mr. Abrams said there are going to be “troublemakers” on any faculty.

“This is a case of the tyranny of the minority,” he said. “We know that professors are overwhelmingly liberal, and we know that most professors, liberals included, go home. But it’s not hard to make a lot of noise with social media. If I wanted to start a firestorm, I could in minutes. And there are certain faculty that thrive on that.”

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