I’m a college professor, which is one of those jobs that people outside the profession love to ask you about. For the better part of a decade, most of those conversations have been about one thing: free speech. Are universities, once sites of pure, open intellectual discourse, no longer so pure? What is the future of this endeavor I’ve dedicated my life to, if my peers and I are afraid to speak our minds?
In one way, this interest makes sense. An enormous amount of high-profile media coverage has been dedicated to what is said, or not said, on certain campuses: students upset by Antigone at Oberlin (a subject that garnered a 5,000-word feature in the New Yorker); a lecturer resigning at Yale over the wording of an email about Halloween costumes (a New York Times feature, and many more); the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s, signed by professors at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Northwestern (among others). The latest entry in the genre is a March piece in the New York Times by a senior at the University of Virginia, who reported that student dogma made her self-censor. Like so many of its ilk, the piece spawned outrage in her defense from some and scorn from others—another chance to relitigate what is accepted as the issue in higher education in America.
Each time this happens, I wait for someone to ask me about it. And I always tell my interlocutors the same thing: I don’t recognize my school at all in the conversations about what conversation is apparently like at universities in America. I never have.
I teach at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. We’re a school of nearly 8,000 students between grad and undergrad. We’re historically a regional school for southern Massachusetts, and though we’ve had some academic milestones in recent years, we bear more of a resemblance to the majority of the roughly 5,300 institutions in American higher education than, say, Oberlin, Yale, Berkeley, or the University of Virginia.
Think of how many of those 5,300 schools you’ve actually heard of. Now think how many you’ve seen mentioned in conversations about what does, or should, happen in a college classroom. U.S. News and World Report’s top 25 colleges—where, inevitably, most of these stories are set—have around 250,000 undergraduates enrolled per year. There are roughly 16 million undergraduates around the country at any given time. Those other 5,275 schools with millions and millions of students are where the vast majority of college learning in America happens. Whatever side you take on various arguments about speech at elite universities, you’re participating in a conversation that willfully ignores this truth.