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CMC Under FIRE: Behind the Rankings

When the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its college free speech rankings this week, Claremont McKenna College took a nosedive, dropping from 6th to 73rd place. Just two years ago, CMC secured the top spot and proudly promoted the achievement on its website. At a college that prides itself on nurturing a culture of open dialogue, what explains this dramatic change?

The answer may have more to do with flawed methodology than anything being meaningfully different at CMC. The College Free Speech Rankings are determined by a composite score based on thirteen components. Six of those thirteen assess student perceptions. The other seven assess behavior by administrators, faculty, and students. Higher scores are meant to indicate a better climate for free speech and expression.

The survey conducted for FIRE by a polling organization called College Pulse showed, for example, that a significant majority of CMC students censor themselves. Out of 176 students surveyed, only 5% stated that they never hold back their opinions during classroom discussions. Even fewer, just 3%, never self-censor during conversations with fellow students. This is a very strange criterion for evaluating free speech on campus. Some degree of self-censorship is natural, healthy, and wise. What socially aware person expresses every thought that crosses their mind – especially in a classroom where you're expected to defend your points? The choice of "never self-censor" as the highest-value response option seems crude and obtuse.

Given CMC’s precipitous drop in the rankings, one would expect a significant change in CMC students’ survey responses between the 2022 and 2024 data. Yet, surprisingly, in question after question, the data show few substantial changes. There are only two questions where responses have changed by 10 percentage points or more. Given the small sample size and high margin of error, the significance of any 10% shift in a survey response given a year apart is hard to read into.

Other criteria have nothing to do with college policy or campus climate. For instance, another of the questions asks whether students would feel comfortable sharing an unpopular political opinion on social media. “Yes” gets you a higher FIRE score. But “No” is a perfectly sensible answer here, regardless of how open or tolerant your school is. When a CMC student posts on Twitter – pardon me, X – it’s obviously visible to the whole world, not just fellow CMC students. Avoiding toxic interactions with online trolls hardly implies an undesirable degree of self-censorship.

FIRE puts CMC’s viewpoint ratio of liberal to conservative students at 5:1. Happily, the school doesn’t ask applicants about their political views. In fact, CMC asks applicants to write about their commitment to viewpoint diversity, freedom of speech, and constructive dialogue. That a school known for its commitment to free speech still attracts so many liberal-minded applicants seems to me an extremely positive sign – both for the school, and the mindset of the liberal students who choose to attend.

CMC retains a "green light" rating for its speech policies. However, FIRE penalized the school three times for instances involving the use of the n-word by professors in their classrooms. Not because professors used the most fraught and upsetting word in the English language. It penalized CMC for the way it reacted to professors who did use the n-word. These professors were not fired. Again, one searches in vain for any sense of basic social awareness on FIRE’s part. Context is everything here, and a negative reaction to white professors employing the n-word hardly persuades me that CMC has a free-speech problem.

Then there is the matter of double-standards when it comes to conservative schools and explicit censorship of views and ideas. While CMC lost three points over n-word incidents, Florida State University received only a single point deduction for banning the teaching of critical race theory, a decision stemming from the Florida Stop WOKE Act of April 2022. According to a lawsuit brought by FIRE itself, Stop WOKE violates the free speech rights of faculty members and students at public colleges in Florida. While Florida’s public universities may not be to blame for such policies, a free-speech ranking system ought to reflect some sense of reality about where professors are freest to teach, and where students are freest to learn. At FSU, ranked #5 on the list, you can’t teach or study critical race theory. At Harvard, ranked dead last at #248 with a rating of “abysmal,” you certainly can. Based on my own experience, I’d rank CMC a lot higher than either of them.


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