MUNCIE – Earlier this year, the Indiana General Assembly passed Senate Bill 414, which required universities to survey students about the climate for free speech on campus. Schools must then report these findings to the Higher Education Commission. Normally, I would be reluctant to comment on such a law; At first glance, it looks like another volley in destructive culture wars. But I think this poll can be enormously instructive for both college leaders and legislators.

It should come as no surprise that university professors and administrators are overwhelmingly on the political left. The balance is not even close. The Federal Elections Commission reports on individual donations with workplace. Since 2019, my colleagues at Ball State have contributed $ 120,765 to political campaigns and political action committees. These comprised 6,100 individual donations from less than 50 people. Of these donations, 90.4% went to Democrats, Democratic Socialists, or left-wing PACs. I choose Ball State University because it is often said to be the “conservative” state university. That may be true, which should raise eyebrows even higher on campus and in the General Assembly.

Colleges should be places where ideas flourish or die through rigorous debate and testing, not by the whim or fashion tastes of the majority. This is how students learn, this is how research is conducted, and this is how our nation ultimately prospers. Therefore, it is necessary to understand whether the undeniably real and profound imbalance of political ideology undermines freedom of expression on campus. If done honestly, this is what I think the survey will find.

I suspect that there is very little indoctrination or ideology in the classroom. There is simply no time or place for much political discourse. The faculty members I know, both conservative and progressive, are far more concerned with teaching the material than talking about politics. This should not surprise us. I didn’t spend nine years in college to turn my class into a political commercial for the 18-25 year old public. Neither do my colleagues in anthropology, chemistry, accounting, nursing, or any other discipline.

The best proof of my point is that for most of the last half century, college graduates voted more conservatively than those without a degree. If universities were engines of indoctrination, progressive professors are astonishingly ineffective at it. While the voting pattern of college graduates changed during the last two presidential election cycles, it is far more likely to be connected to an individual candidate rather than progressive activism on campus.

Still, this does not mean that there is not a freedom of speech problem in Indiana universities, but simply that I do not believe that its genesis is the classroom. In all of Indiana, only Purdue receives the highest ratings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). I am pleased that Ball State is very close as it adopted the gold standard “Chicago Declaration for Free Speech.” For what it’s worth, that statement has long been featured on my class syllabus along with a link to the United States Constitution. There is no defensible reason for any public university to score less than perfect in free speech, yet here in Indiana only Purdue bothers to do so. This causes legitimate concern on the part of those who fund higher education and those of us who pay tuition fees.

The origin of freedom of expression problems on campus lies mainly outside the classroom. Of the Indiana cases reported to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, none involved classroom instruction. The most common complaint involves censoring or restricting groups of students, or restrictions on due process. During the past decade, there were no more than a dozen such cases in Indiana.

Today, a busy student will spend perhaps 17 hours a week in the classroom, and most will spend much less. Therefore, a university culture that hinders freedom of expression outside the classroom should be of concern to legislators, university leaders, and those who pay tuition. Done right, with a focus on the broader campus climate, the SB 414 survey inevitably reports that some students and faculty find an environment where their views cannot be openly shared and debated.

To be clear, not all ideas are good and none should be protected from debate or strong criticism. But of all places, America’s universities must be those where ideas meet data, reason, and fact, equally and without favor. I don’t think Indiana public universities have a unique problem, but this survey will almost certainly provide information that thoughtful college leaders should use to improve the environment for free speech.

The surprising political imbalance among college employees certainly runs the risk of students changing rapidly. Conservative student organizations have fewer advisers to choose from. Faculty partisan imbalance runs the risk of influencing the choice of guest speakers on campus and the books chosen for freshman reading lists. The shortage of conservative faculty members risks limiting internship opportunities for students in business, government, and nonprofit groups. With a small fraction of conservative professors, very little research will be done on topics that matter to half of Hoosier’s contributors. University leaders should be as concerned about the effects of a lack of ideological diversity as they are about a lack of ethnic, gender, or racial diversity.

Students are not the only affected people on campus. Faculty and staff must be able to thrive in an open inquiry environment. Therefore, along with the student survey, universities should also ask questions about their own support for various ideas. Are campus initiatives informed by a broad set of perspectives? Are departments inviting speakers with diverse opinions on a broad set of topics? Do universities support dissimilar faculty members in research centers and in administrative positions? I doubt that any school does these things effectively. This legitimately invites greater legislative scrutiny.

My hope is that Senate Bill 414 will lead to a healthier environment for free speech on campus, but it will take some concrete action. Knowing someone’s political position is not always easy. It would be wise to avoid asking the political views of employees in the same way that we now collect information on race, ethnicity, gender, or disability status. But it is naive to suppose that this type of pressure is not possible, nor that it is entirely partisan. If 90% of teachers made a donation to the Trump campaign, I’m sure progressive lawmakers would aggressively seek one more ideological balance.

In the end, this legislation gently puts pressure on state universities to better understand the ideological imbalance of faculty and staff. It should also make them honestly consider their influence on the climate of free speech, student support, and the type of research funded on campus. Ultimately, how well universities cope with these issues reflects their seriousness toward their core academic mission and their commitment to Indiana taxpayers.

Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ball State University’s Miller College of Business.