Students

Are Students at Elite Colleges More Likely to Protest Controversial Speakers?

March 15, 2017

Shortly after a planned talk by the controversial sociologist Charles A. Murray was interrupted by violence this month at Middlebury College, some observers quickly condemned the small private institution in Vermont as an elitist haven incapable of tolerating challenging opinions.

Two analysts at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public-policy organization in Washington, D.C., have put that idea to the test, in a sense, and concluded that colleges with more-affluent students are disproportionately unwelcoming to free speech.

Using data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group, the Brookings authors — Richard V. Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias — concluded: “The schools where students have attempted to disinvite speakers are substantially wealthier and more expensive than average.”

They went on to explain that they had charted the institutions based on the students’ family incomes and then had marked in red those colleges whose students had demanded that controversial speakers be disinvited. The results show bright red dots clustered around institutions with a greater percentage of students from wealthy families. The authors said: “The more economically exclusive the institution, the more likely the students have attempted to hinder free speech.”

Some problems with the methodology behind the analysis are self-evident. For instance, incidents of speakers' being disinvited are, in part, self-reported to FIRE, and its dataset, while voluminous, is incomplete. Moreover, controversial speakers aren't usually invited to the for-profit colleges and two-year community and technical colleges that populate the lower-right corner of the chart.

Observers on Twitter quickly pointed out other problems with the analysis and its conclusion.

The authors aren’t blind to the criticism. Mr. Halikias noted on Twitter: “This figure isn’t trying to show any kind of causal/treatment effect,” and “we don’t purport to show any causation."

Then again, he did describe the chart as a “kill-shot.”

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.