KU receives middle-of-the-pack ranking for campus free speech issues; K-State garners No. 2 national ranking

photo by: Contributed

The University of Kansas is pictured in this September 2021 file photo.

The University of Kansas ranked average for its commitment to free speech on campus, while nearby Kansas State received the second highest rating in the nation, according to a report released Wednesday.

KU ranked No. 73 out of 203 universities included in a large-scale survey commissioned by a leading nonprofit that monitors free speech issues in higher education.

The ranking garnered KU an “average” rating for “speech climate” on campus from the Foundation on Individual Rights and Expression, which commissioned a survey of nearly 45,000 college students from across the country.

The free speech organization didn’t provide an overall national ranking or grade, but leaders of FIRE said they were concerned about several of the survey’s findings.

“Alarming proportions of students self-censor, report worry or discomfort about expressing their ideas in a variety of contexts, find controversial ideas hard to discuss, show intolerance for controversial speakers, find their administrations unclear or worse regarding support for free speech, and even report that disruption of events or violence are, to some degree, acceptable tactics for shutting down the speech of others,” FIRE said in its written report.

The Big 12 Conference — KU’s home conference — had some of the best and worst ranking universities in the report. Kansas State ranked No. 2 nationally for overall speech climate on a college campus, trailing only the University of Chicago. Fellow Big 12 member Oklahoma State ranked No. 5 nationally.

However, Big 12 member Baylor University — the private school in Waco, Texas — was one of five schools that FIRE refused to rank, but rather placed on a “warning” list because they have policies that “clearly and consistently state that it prioritizes other values over a commitment to freedom of speech.” Brigham Young University, which is set to become a Big 12 member, also was on the warning list.

A KU spokeswoman, when asked for comment on the most recent rankings, said administrators “recognize that free speech is essential to the functioning of a university.”

“KU is a marketplace of ideas, and although we understand that some disagree with particular kinds of speech, we strongly affirm the right to express it,” KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said via email.

FIRE surveyed 250 KU students to form its rankings for the university, according to the report. It ranked KU most highly — 67th nationally — for expressing concern about using disruptive behavior, like shouting down a speaker, when they encounter speech they disagree with. KU received its lowest ranking — 153rd nationally — in the “openness” category, which measures students’ feelings on their ability to have difficult conversations on campus.

The scientific survey also asked students about whether they considered themselves liberal or conservative. Based on those results, the report estimated KU’s student body has 2.1 liberal students for each conservative student on campus. The report didn’t provide a national average, but for comparison purposes it found Kansas State to have one liberal student for every 1.3 conservative students.

KU and Kansas State were the only Kansas schools ranked in the report. The Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees KU and other state universities, has adopted its own policy on freedom of expression and recently required universities to provide updates on how they are complying with that policy. That policy, which is geared more toward students than faculty and staff, generally prohibits a university from punishing students for their expression, unless it is deemed to be a true threat, incitement to violence or targeted harassment.

Here’s a look at the national ranking for Big 12 universities included in the ranking and other schools of note:

• No. 2: Kansas State

• No. 5: Oklahoma State

• No. 34: University of Colorado

• No. 50: Iowa State

• No. 58: Texas Tech

• No. 73: KU

• No. 78: University of Houston

• No. 87: University of Cincinnati

• No. 96: West Virginia

• No. 142: University of Nebraska

• No. 143: University of Missouri

• No. 153: University of Oklahoma

• No. 177: University of Central Florida

• No. 180: University of Texas

Ivy League schools Columbia and Penn occupied the bottom two spots in the rankings.


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