Higher Education

Ray Carter | October 13, 2021

Oklahoma colleges rank low in free-speech report

A new national report shows that Oklahoma’s top two universities trail most of their national peers when it comes to having a pro-free-speech environment on campus. Nearly seven of 10 universities were rated more favorable to free speech than the University of Oklahoma, and over half scored better than Oklahoma State University.

The 2021 College Free Speech Rankings—presented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), College Pulse, and RealClearEducation—surveyed more than 37,000 students at 159 colleges. Colleges were scored on seven main components: openness to discussion of controversial topics, tolerance for liberal speakers, tolerance for conservative speakers, administrative support for free speech, comfort expressing ideas publicly, whether students support disruptive conduct during campus speeches, and FIRE’s speech code rating.

Of the colleges covered by the report, Oklahoma State University ranked 84th while the University of Oklahoma trailed even further behind, ranking 110th.

According to the survey results, when asked “how comfortable” they felt about publicly disagreeing with a professor on a controversial topic, just 13 percent of OU students answered “very comfortable” while 30 percent responded “very uncomfortable.” Overall, 64 percent of OU students expressed some level of discomfort.

At Oklahoma State University, 24 percent of students said they were “very comfortable” disagreeing with a professor while 14 percent were “very uncomfortable.” Overall, 52 percent of OSU students expressed some level of discomfort.

Students were less reluctant to disagree with a professor in a written assignment. The survey found 48 percent of OU students expressed some level of comfort, as did 66 percent of OSU students.

However, students indicated that they feared honestly expressing an opinion for reasons other than concern over reprisals from faculty.

At OU, just 46 percent of students said they would be comfortable expressing their views on a controversial political topic during an in-class discussion, compared to 60 percent of students at OSU who were comfortable voicing their opinion in public.

Just 43 percent of OU students and 46 percent of OSU students were comfortable expressing an unpopular opinion on their social media account.

At OU, only 24 percent of students said it was extremely or very clear that the college administration protects free speech on campus, while 35 percent of students said it was only “slightly” or “not at all” clear.

At OSU, 36 percent of students said it was extremely or very clear that the college administration protects free speech on campus, compared to 29 percent who said it was either slightly or “not at all” clear.

Nationwide, the report found that one subsegment of students was among the least likely to fear speaking out: students who identified as non-binary, those who don’t identify as male or female.

“Students who identified as non-binary were the most likely to feel comfortable publicly disagreeing with their professors, with 49% reporting that this was either very or somewhat comfortable for them,” the 2021 College Free Speech Rankings report stated. “Similarly, while 40% of male and female students were very or somewhat comfortable sharing an unpopular opinion on a social media account, 47% of non-binary students would feel comfortable doing so.”

The survey also explored student support for free speech involving on-campus speakers.

Regardless of their personal views, only 39 percent of OU students and 33 percent of students at OSU said they would support allowing a speaker on campus who said abortion “should be completely illegal.”

In contrast, 53 percent of OU students and 37 percent of OSU students said they would support allowing a speaker who declared, “The police should be abolished because they are racist.”

Just 34 percent of OU students and 29 percent of OSU students would support allowing a speaker on campus who argued that Black Lives Matter “is a hate group.”

But 61 percent of OU students and 53 percent of OSU students would support allowing a speaker on campus who claimed, “White people are collectively responsible for racism and use it to protect their privilege.”

At OU, 38 percent of students said they would support allowing a speaker on campus who said, “Looting is a justifiable form of protest.” At OSU, only 28 percent of students said they would support such a speaker with 53 percent of OSU students saying they would “strongly oppose” that speaker.

At OU, 44 percent of students supported allowing a speaker who said, “The lockdown orders issued in response to the coronavirus have infringed on our personal liberties.” At OSU, 41 percent of students were supportive.

Asked if it is acceptable for students to “shout down” a speaker as a form of protest, 26 percent of OU students and 32 percent of OSU students said such actions are either always or sometimes acceptable. Nine percent of OU students and 10 percent of OSU students said it is acceptable to block other students from attending a speech.

At OU, 19 percent of students who participated in the survey identified as a “strong Democrat” compared to just 8 percent who identified as a “strong Republican.” Among those expressing partisan leanings, 43 percent of OU students participating in the survey identified as Democrats, compared to 33 percent who aligned with Republicans.

At OSU, 14 percent of surveyed students identified as a “strong Democrat” while 14 percent identified as a “strong Republican.” Of those who expressed partisan leanings, 39 percent of OSU students identified as Democrats and 36 percent identified as Republicans.

At OU, 21 percent of students identified as “very liberal” compared to just 7 percent who identified as “very conservative.” Overall, 45 percent of students identified as having at least some liberal leanings, while 28 percent said they had conservative leanings.

At OSU, 19 percent of students identified as “very liberal” while 11 percent identified as “very conservative.” Overall, 41 percent of OSU students identified as having at least some liberal leanings, while 29 percent said they had conservative leanings.

At OU, 40 percent of students said their political views were “extremely” or “somewhat” similar to their parents, while 49 percent of OSU students said they largely shared their parents’ political views.

The 2021 College Free Speech Rankings report is based on a survey of 37,104 students currently enrolled in four-year degree programs at 159 colleges. The survey was conducted from Feb. 15 to May 30, 2021, via the College Pulse mobile app and web portal.

The report showed 250 students at the University of Oklahoma and 253 students at Oklahoma State University participated in the survey.

[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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