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University provosts have bleak outlook on free expression in higher ed

Alma Mater on the steps of the Columbia University library at night

Lauren Orr /

Columbia University at night.

College administrators are worried about the trajectory of free speech in higher ed, which is somewhat ironic because these are the individuals typically endowed with the power to fix it.

Last month, Inside Higher Ed released findings from its census of 331 chief academic officers, or provosts, working at public and private institutions across the country. The survey shows that the people who are leading American universities overwhelmingly feel that, when it comes to free speech, campuses are moving in the wrong direction. 

Although these campus leaders have a bleak outlook, the findings offer some hope that provosts feel their own campuses can be saved.

How do provosts feel about the climate for open inquiry in higher education? 

A majority of provosts surveyed reported a generally positive outlook on the climate for open inquiry and dialogue on their own campuses. This outlook was substantially more positive when compared to their outlook for open inquiry in higher education as a whole. Roughly three-fifths of provosts (62%) rated the climate on their own campus as “good” or “excellent,” but only 27% said the same for other campuses. 

Inside Higher Ed Provost Survey 2024 - Provosts who rate free speech climate good or excellent

Do provosts think their speech policies are effective at promoting dialogue? 

Although most provosts surveyed had a positive perception of the speech climate on their campus, few indicated they thought this was due to their campus speech policies. About 1 in 5 provosts (22%) believed their campus speech policies are “very” or “extremely” effective at creating an environment for constructive dialogue. But the majority (75%) said their policies are “somewhat” or “moderately” effective, and just 3% believed their policies are “not at all effective.”

These responses underscore the nature of speech codes: Policies can reflect a university’s public commitment to free speech principles (or lack thereof), and establishing good policies is often a critical first step toward improving the speech climate on a campus. But, as we’ve seen year after year in FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings, it’s also important for universities to create and maintain a broader culture of free inquiry and expression and to demonstrate support for these principles when they are inevitably tested by controversy. 

Provosts consider revising speech policies in response to national and international events

So how have events in recent months affected free speech on campus? Roughly two-fifths of provosts (39%) agree that current world events have stressed speech policies so much that the policies may now require revision. 

Indeed, particularly over recent weeks, months, and even days we’ve seen that universities can be battlegrounds for controversy. But again, how provosts and other university leaders respond in moments of crisis is particularly illuminating. Amid tension and controversy, clamping down on protected speech may be politically expedient. But such efforts detract from the core purpose of the institution and its responsibility to its constituents. 

At present, controversies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to manifest on college and university campuses, even at times culminating in outbursts of violence. Not to mention, the upcoming presidential election looms in the background and may emerge as an additional stressor on university speech policies. Provosts appear to believe it will, as a majority (53%) expressed being “very” or “extremely” concerned about how the 2024 election may affect the climate for free inquiry and civil dialogue at their institution. 

Inside Higher Ed Provost Survey 2024 - Amount of concern provosts have about 2024 election results affecting free speech climate

FIRE is hopeful that colleges take current campus controversies as an opportunity to correct course on free speech by protecting it across the board, not shutting it down. We stand ready with the resources and expertise to help any of these provosts (as well as other college administrators) who desire to revise their stressed institutional speech policies to meet First Amendment standards. As FIRE’s Policy Reform team has documented, there’s a lot of room for improvement at many colleges and universities. 

FIRE stands ready to assist any student or administrator interested in bolstering the due process protections on their campuses. You can reach us directly at

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