I went to college to learn from my professors and peers. I welcomed an environment that champions intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement. Instead, my college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity. Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think. Even as a liberal who has attended abortion rights protests and written about standing up to racism, I sometimes feel afraid to fully speak my mind.
In the classroom, backlash for unpopular opinions is so commonplace that many students have stopped voicing them, sometimes fearing lower grades if they don’t censor themselves. According to a 2021 survey administered by College Pulse of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges, 80 percent of students self-censor at least some of the time. Forty-eight percent of undergraduate students described themselves as “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with expressing their views on a controversial topic during classroom discussions. At U.V.A., 57 percent of those surveyed feel that way.
Other campuses also struggle with this. “Viewpoint diversity is no longer considered a sacred, core value in higher education,” Samuel Abrams, a politics professor at Sarah Lawrence College, told me. He felt this firsthand. In 2018, after he published an Opinion essay in The Times criticizing what he viewed as a lack of ideological diversity among university administrators, his office door was vandalized. Student protesters demanded his tenure be reviewed. While their attempts were unsuccessful, Dr. Abrams remains dissatisfied with fellow faculty members’ reactions. In response to the incident, only 27 faculty members signed a statement supporting free expression — less than 10 percent of the college’s faculty.