Hamas’ terror attack and the ensuing war has led to antisemitic protests on scores of American college campuses, with some leading to violence or school closures. Israel’s response to Hamas has exposed how deep the hatred toward Jews runs among students, faculty and administrators on some American campuses — particularly some who run purported diversity, equity and inclusion offices.
The past month has shown just how weak educational leadership is; foundational higher education principles, like free speech, are under immense threat. Jewish students are afraid to speak and genuinely fear for their safety — I know from firsthand experience. Since Oct. 7, I have been traveling along the East Coast supporting Jewish students at a host of schools.
Unfortunately, the current campus culture leaves little space for voices to question and challenge the illiberal and dangerous views among those who are the most vocal — like DEI administrators, “scholar-activist” faculty and student activist groups.
This is a critical function of the university. College and university presidents should be protecting Jewish students and defending open exchange; it is their job to create a campus culture that protects speech and promotes robust debate and dialogue. Jewish students who fear for their lives and safety — as was made vividly clear recently at the University of Pennsylvania and Cooper Union in New York — represent an abdication of the college presidents’ moral duty to protect students.
This trend has gotten worse, but it’s not new. Unsettling data from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression starkly underscores the prevalence of self-censorship among students. The data reveals that a majority of students, regardless of their backgrounds, self-censor with other students on campus, in conversations with professors and during classroom discussions. College administrators have let a culture of self-censorship and anti-Jewish bigotry fester on campus. For all the talk about inclusion, tolerance and acceptance of difference, students do not think that they can speak freely.
The numbers don’t lie. The FIRE data shows that more than 2 in 5 students (43%) state that it is only “somewhat” clear that their administration protects free speech on campus; another 36% said that it is not clear that their administration protects free speech on campus. Moreover, 47% of undergraduates reported that it is only “somewhat” likely that the administration would defend a speaker’s right to express their views if a speech controversy occurred on campus and a quarter (27%) thought that it is not likely.
Despite the push in recent years to create “safe spaces” on campus, recent events have made it clear that campuses are not safe for discourse. Activist administrators are the ones to blame. When students believed that an administration’s support for speech was not assured, 44% of students reported that they kept their thoughts to themselves as they felt pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in their classes. However, when students believed that support for open expression from the school was either “very” or “extremely” clear, a much lower number of students — 22% — reported that they felt a good or great deal of pressure to avoid particular topics in their classes.
Political ideology plays a vital part, too. On campuses where speech protections are not clear, 34% of liberals reported that they self-censor “fairly often” or “a couple” times a week or more compared to 65% of conservatives who did the same. When the case is that speech protection is “very” or “extremely” clear, all students were emboldened to speak more freely. Here, just 12% of liberal and 20% of conservative students report regular self-censorship, and expression becomes quite open and free for students of all ideological preferences when open debate and discourse is properly protected.
Simply put, the data demonstrates that a school’s speech climate is dramatically impacted by administrative behavior. This gives us a clear roadmap to improve campus discourse, for proper speech protection has a powerful impact on students’ self-censorship. College leadership must not only teach collegiate communities how respectful debate and discourse works, but they need to illustrate how the competition of ideas benefits everyone. They must have protocols in place to hold accountable those who break the rules and try to limit expression and silence speech. Leaders must then have the courage to actually follow through in upholding these ideals. Presidents have historically been weak when it comes to enforcing campus rules, but they must be willing to take decisive action given the current climate on campus.
Presidents must act now. Students are suffering, and the events of the past month have shown a lack of leadership, moral clarity and commitment to the principles of liberal education. But this can be addressed, for we know what can be done to start correcting this. We can improve speech immediately with presidents taking clear lines on open speech and dismantling bias reporting lines, and eliminating the growing number of diversity, equity and inclusion administrators. These administrators not only police speech and expression, but try to define the terms and context of speech itself and they are the source of so many of these problems. Colleges are in crisis; we must demand change quickly, and it is not too late for presidents to have an impact.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.