Mary Kate Cary, a former presidential speech writer, teaches politics at the University of Virginia and is director of Think Again, a program promoting free speech and viewpoint diversity. Addressing the Colonnade Club Oct. 12, she discussed the state of free speech at UVA and what can be done to improve it. The Jefferson Council is pleased to republish a transcript of that speech, originally published at Think Again. We have divided it into two parts, the first of which appears here. — JAB
I’m different from other faculty here at the University of Virginia: I’m an out-of-the-closet conservative who has parachuted into academia. A former White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, I started teaching as an adjunct professor here in 2019. In my Political Speechwriting class, my students are mostly fourth-years interested in learning persuasion and rhetoric. The class is an elective, so they self-select me … and since the waitlist is long, I select best ones from among those who have applied. I realize that’s unusual.
And I tell my students something unusual: that they will not be graded on their political views, only on their ability to deliver a well-structured, factually accurate, persuasive speech whether I agree with them or not. That shouldn’t be unusual, but it is.
I know that because the students tell me it’s unusual. Many of them have told me privately that in most of their classes — especially humanities classes — they know what they need to say to get an A. While I’m a conservative, I can tell you that some of my highest performing students have political views very different from mine. I always try to make sure I’m grading on persuasive ability, not political views.
Here’s what I do in class: I give them debate prompts on current topics for their writing assignments, and they have to choose which side they like best and write a strong speech arguing for the side they agree with. Then I surprise them with their next assignment: to write a strong speech arguing the opposite side.
What this has shown me is that it’s really hard for them to argue for their own ideas in front of their peers, especially when the ideas are conservative. Many of them have never had to argue the opposite of what they believe, and when they do, their tone changes dramatically — for the better.
But that’s all anecdotal and specific to my classroom. Let’s look at the broader data.
FIRE – the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression — is now the leading organization promoting free speech in higher education today. FIRE just ranked UVA the sixth best school in America for free speech, after surveying 55,000 students at 254 schools. This year UVA moved up from #25 to #6 — which tells us that we’re clearly doing some things right.
But despite that #6 ranking, we need to do a lot better at UVA. We may be ranked near the top, but the competition is apparently abysmal.
UVA’s actual score was only 68 out of 100 — a failing grade in my classroom and in most others here at UVA. The school ranked #1 in the nation, Michigan Technological University, only scored 78. So even the best doesn’t score well. (UVA and Michigan Technological University appear to be winning a pillow fight!)
UVA ranks shockingly low in FIRE’s key metrics:
- We were ranked 178th out of those 254 colleges nationally for how many of our students find it acceptable to block entry, shout down, or engage in violence against a controversial speaker;
- We are 188th in terms of students’ perceived ability to have open conversations about difficult topics;
- and — worst of all — we are 222nd in the nation in terms of students’ comfort expressing their own ideas in writing, in class, or among their peers and professors.
According to FIRE’s survey of actual anonymous UVA students: more than 3 out of 4 feel uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor in class; the same number feel pressured to avoid controversial subjects in class. Only 15% say they never self-censor when speaking with peers and professors — which means a staggering 85% of students actually do self-censor. Those numbers suggest a culture that is NOT one of open inquiry and viewpoint diversity.
Another interesting stat: There are roughly four self-identified liberal students for every self-identified conservative student on Grounds. By comparison, that ratio is three-to-one at Harvard. And if the survey had not been anonymous, I bet the ratio would be a lot bigger at both schools.
But that’s not really the point, is it? The point is that no matter what their views, every student should feel comfortable disagreeing with a professor and talking about controversial subjects in class. If we can’t do that, how can we use reason to search for the truth?
Consider as well that the most recent issue of Virginia Magazine, the publication of our Alumni Association, has a survey of members of the undergraduate class years 2011 through 2022 — the alumni who are under 35.
In the section of the article about free speech, the editors wrote, “The suppression of unorthodox views on college campuses is a hot topic in the culture wars. For our survey participants, the battle is real.” Every class and every demographic segment in the survey, when asked about the institutional priority of fostering “a culture open to diverse viewpoints and civil discourse,” scored it as “important” and ranked it fourth overall out of 16 priorities.
The editors continued: “We could see why when we broached the subject in our focus groups. In both sessions the topic replaced what had been an animated discussion … with an awkward silence.” They quoted young alums suddenly getting extremely polite when free speech came up — awkward silence, then “after you,” “no, please, after you!”
Those young alumni probably remember some recent incidents on Grounds, including the controversy over the F-UVA signs on the Lawn doors a few years ago; the Cavalier Daily calling on President Ryan to cancel former Vice President Mike Pence’s speech and the national reaction to that op-ed — including the lead editorial in the Washington Post, reminding the editors of the Cavalier Daily that they are student journalists at a public university governed by the First Amendment.
In general, we talk a lot about having a culture of learning from each other — of being empathetic speakers and generous listeners — and that’s great. And I suspect UVA’s Statement on Free Expression and Free Inquiry is one of the reasons we’re ranked so high nationally. President Ryan deserves credit for taking a position in favor of free speech when he refused to buckle to pressure to take down the F-UVA sign; the school affirmed free speech even though that sign was extremely offensive to me and many others.
But in reality, when you drill down into what the students are saying in the FIRE survey and what my students are telling me, it’s clear our culture on Grounds needs to improve.