Until a few weeks ago, I believed that UT was among the worst schools in the nation for free speech. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a nonprofit that ranks U.S. universities against one another, UT Austin ranks among the worst schools in the nation for freedom of speech. Out of 248 schools total, UT Austin ranks 239th. However, while I was originally going to write this article as a criticism of UT speech policies, it seems that tangible plans for improvement are finally being set into motion, thanks to our very own President, Jay Hartzell.
On Monday, October 16, President Hartzell released a letter to the student body celebrating the beginning of Free Speech Week. In addition to commending UT’s formal adoption of the principles of the Chicago Statement on Free Speech last year, he announced the first-ever, comprehensive survey of “The student body’s experience with freedom of thought and expression…with an eye toward understanding where the University might be able to improve.”
I am ecstatic for the day in which conservative student voices are no longer drowned out by their liberal counterparts. So, I have been working on a bit of a survey. While not nearly as comprehensive in size as the subsequent survey will be, I did manage to interview students with center, center left, and center right viewpoints. Student demographics ranged from sophomore to graduate program. The survey was not randomized, but rather conducted after a screening for political literacy.
Here are some key highlights.
Katarina Jakmiier, a sophomore studying psychology and religious studies, stated, “I’ve…observed instances where certain viewpoints, including those that lean center or especially right-of-center, have faced challenges in terms of being fully embraced or openly discussed. In my opinion, such constant exposure to viewpoints deemed by many as the only correct perspective on certain issues is stifling and close-minded. This has created an atmosphere where some students– including me– feel their perspectives are not as valued or respected, which inhibits the intellectual and personal growth we are all at UT to cultivate.”
Harsh Kumar, a senior studying economics, math, and computer science, stated, “UT has a tendency to demonize those who disagree with its predominant views. This tendency to enforce a set ideology and outcast those who deviate is a highly tribal mindset and disobeys all laws of rationality…It is simply the voices of the vocal few. I hold largely left views, and even I feel uncomfortable expressing my true views in various settings. I can only imagine the pressure facing those with more right-based values.”
A student who wished to remain anonymous stated, “I have, at times, been reluctant to share my viewpoints, knowing I was one of just a few students in the classroom who held more conservative views. Furthermore, I know professors can be reluctant to stand up for free speech when it comes to conservative viewpoints for fear of being ‘canceled’ by the more liberal students who make up the vast majority of the student body.”
The student continued, “…It does seem that while UT does an excellent job of recruiting students from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, there is not nearly as much diversity of opinion on campus for some reason. Conservative students are undoubtedly far outnumbered by liberal students.”
When asked what kind of solutions they see as plausible, Jakamier stated, “The onus goes to the professors. Professors play a crucial role in shaping the classroom environment: encouraging professors to actively promote a climate of open and respectful dialogue where all opinions are welcomed and respected is essential. This should include addressing any potential bias in class discussions and ensuring that diverse perspectives are given equal consideration.”
Fortunately, comprehensive staff reform will indeed be included as part of Hartzell’s strategic 10-year plan, “Change Starts Here.” Led by the Dean of UT’s Law School, Bobby Chesney, a task force will henceforth recommend actions needed to “deepen [UT’s] commitment to free speech.” And while an advisory panel is not the end-all-be-all, it is certainly a starting point. This, coupled with UT’s decision to host a diverse array of political figures, means UT is well on its way to showing students they care about creating an environment of open inquiry.
The anonymous student stated, “I think that hosting a wide array of guest speakers on campus goes a long way in fostering discussions and demonstrating that one’s conservative or liberal viewpoints do not make them a ‘deplorable.’ I was pleasantly surprised that the university approved the free speech event featuring Vivek Ramaswamy a couple weeks ago. Shortly before that, I managed to attend the event with Senator John Cornyn that was hosted by the Texas Athenaeum. I know that the university also hosted Secretary of State Blinken recently. I hope to see this great diversity of on-campus speakers continue into the future, because if our nation is to flourish, we have to start talking to each other rather than past each other.”
You have the thanks, President Hartzell, of all the students who value personal liberty and the freedom of expression on campus. Here’s to hoping that your plan will be successful in resurrecting respect for all viewpoints.