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Strengthening Free Speech at UVA

In her speech for the Colonnade Club's "Our Uncommon Grounds" series, Prof. Mary Kate Cary gave her audience a closer look at UVA's free speech rankings from the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE) -- and what UVA can do to strengthen a culture of open expression on Grounds.

Strengthening Free Speech at UVA
Transcript of Remarks by Professor Mary Kate Cary to the Colonnade Club on Thursday October 12, 2023 


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.  We’re seeing some progress lately, and we need to keep the momentum going.  While there are other organizations on Grounds I cannot speak for, here are some of the organizations and initiatives I know of:


UVA’s Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry, on which I was honored to serve, produced the statement that was unanimously endorsed by Board of Visitors after classes let out in summer of 2021. As a result, many students don’t know about it. That’s why I hand it out with my syllabus every semester.  I expect my students to live up to what it says, and we discuss it the first day of class.  Whether you are a member of faculty or staff, a student, a parent, a friend, or a community member, you can endorse the statement at  You can even do it anonymously.


About a year ago, a group of faculty and I founded Think Again.  We stand by Think Again’s four pillars: free expression, viewpoint diversity, critical thinking, and intellectual humility.  We sponsor a variety of events and workshops to promote these values, and we have the best articles, podcasts, and webinars about them for students to learn more on our website


For example, Think Again recently hosted our third annual Student Oratory Contest in which finalists competed for a $500 prize by writing and delivering five-minute speeches answering the question, “What is the greatest strength of our American democracy?”  The judges were comprised of former White House speechwriters from both sides of the aisle. The event is held in the Dome Room of the Rotunda before a live audience.


On October 19, we also hosted Bo Seo, the two-time world debate champion and the author of Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard.  Bo ran a student workshop on “How to Disagree Better” to a full house in the Great Hall at the Batten School. 


Last semester, a group of first-years asked me if they could form a student component to Think Again, called Middle Grounds. Over 50 students now meet weekly in our offices on the Corner to talk politics from all viewpoints, and they’ve launched a new podcast, “Bipodisan.”  I believe they may draw national attention as they only student-run podcast on politics — with viewpoint diversity — at any college in the nation.  They embody Bipodisan’s slogan: “Red and Blue Without the Black and Blue.”


Our offices on the Corner are also the home of The Blue Ridge Center, which was founded by Professor Gerard Alexander.  Blue Ridge’s mission is for all students to thrive at UVA through intellectual diversity, and they run reading groups on topics and thinkers not being taught in the classroom — such as C.S. Lewis, Thomas Sowell, and Jonathan Haidt.  More at TheBlueRidgeCenter.Org.


Last year, several of us founded the UVA chapter of the Heterodox Academy (also known as HxA.)  Members stand for open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in higher education. We are one of 36 university chapters nationwide, and the only one in Virginia.  Our membership is increasing quickly, and we’re now the fourth largest chapter in the nation. Heterodox’s slogan is “Great minds don’t all think alike,” and members try to abide by “The Heterodox Way.”   This includes making our case with evidence, being intellectually charitable and humble, and being constructive when we disagree with others. We encourage all faculty and staff to join our UVA chapter.


About three years ago, students founded The Jefferson Independent, an independent newspaper that is an alternative to The Cavalier Daily dedicated to viewpoint diversity on Grounds.  The paper features news, sports, opinion.  You can subscribe to weekly highlights of their coverage on their website.


The Governor’s Free Speech Summit will held here at UVA on Wednesday, November 29 in conjunction with the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV).  The presidents of all universities and community colleges in Virginia will be attending.  A number of national organizations dedicated to free speech in higher education will be attending, and the Governor will be giving the keynote address.  The goal is for each of the educational institutions to leave with a free speech action plan in hand.


But we need to do better if we are to accomplish what I believe is our University’s ultimate mission – to pursue truth with courage.  Here are a few ideas:


There’s a growing national movement to encourage institutional neutrality in higher education.  Specifically, UVA should form a faculty committee to look into whether we should join other universities in endorsing the Kalven Committee Report, which was written at the University of Chicago during the Vietnam War.  The Kalven Report barred the university as an institution from making statements on current political issues, in order to instead promote the free speech of individual faculty and students.

I am not advocating for silencing any one individual’s political views, but when political views are expressed as an institution, it affects the willingness of students and faculty to disagree or lay out alternatives.  Especially when one is the head of a school or department that gives grades to students. 


UVA could also publish an annual report on free speech on Grounds, using our own polling done by our Data Science School.  The report could be the responsibility of a free speech oversight committee comprised of faculty members who believe in viewpoint diversity.  The committee that wrote the University’s Free Speech statement mentioned above was disbanded two years ago, and a permanent committee would be a welcome addition on Grounds.


Incoming students and faculty should receive free speech orientation.  It used to be part of incoming orientation for first years, and it no longer is.  It needs to come back. There are plenty of national organizations that supply the resources for free speech orientation for students and faculty at colleges nationwide — we don’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to get this in place by fall of 2024.


Multiple polls show the lack of ideological balance among university faculty nationwide — and here in Charlottesville, all of the openly conservative professors fit around my dining room table.  When possible, we need to bring more viewpoints to more students.  I co-taught the big Election 2020 class with a liberal colleague, Professor Jen Lawless, and when we polled our students at the end of the semester, 89 percent supported more politics classes being co-taught by liberals and conservatives side-by-side.  The students are hungry for both sides.  It’s not enough for the majority to summarize the minority’s views — students need to hear the minority’s views directly from the minority.  We need to remind them that minority views in the past included that the world is round, that slavery is wrong, and that women should vote.  Co-teaching of opposing viewpoints presents an opportunity for the University to be a national leader. 


Students could also benefit from more innovative programs for undergrads, such as collaborating with the Constructive Dialogue Institute.  This year, twelve of 16 public universities in Virginia use their programs, and UVA should join in.  I’ve been to their workshops for faculty, and use their materials in my class.  Other ideas: the Moral Courage College, which helps students “hear, not fear” other perspectives, and the College Debates and Discourse Alliance.  The latter is a collaboration of a number of national organizations to bring town-hall style debates run by students to other Virginia universities, and it would be great to have them working here at UVA.


We need the funding to pay for all of this, and so we’ve set up the Fund for Free Expression and Viewpoint Diversity at UVA.  It’s housed in Alumni Hall, and all gifts are tax deductible.  The Fund has only been in existence for two months and it’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, all from individual donors with gifts of all sizes. Please contact me if you’re interested in supporting a great cause.


The Fund is really making a difference on Grounds quickly, helping students to thrive by creating a culture of free speech, viewpoint diversity, critical thinking, and intellectual humility.  If we can continue on this road, we’ll see a lot of improvement in those rankings and polls I cited earlier, and more importantly, in the academic excellence of a UVA education.  We have a real opportunity for the University to be a national leader when it comes to free speech, and I hope you’ll join us as we work to pursue truth with courage at the greatest public university in America.




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