Students protest outside of Wells Fargo in 2017. Among Grinnell students, 77% said they worry a little or a lot about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstood them.
Students protest outside of Wells Fargo in 2017. Among Grinnell students, 77% said they worry “a little” or “a lot” about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstood them.
Takahiro Omura

Grinnell College ranked worst school in the US for comfort expressing ideas

Grinnell College is the worst school of 254 United States colleges and universities for students’ comfort expressing ideas, according to a September report by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a Philadelphia non-profit advocating free speech.

The report reveals Grinnell respondents felt significantly more discomfort expressing controversial ideas than students at all other schools surveyed. 

The S&B spoke with five students who say they have self-censored their speech on campus. Four students The S&B contacted declined to interview, citing concerns over backlash. 

FIRE ranked schools using a 2023 College Pulse survey of 55,102 undergraduates at 254 schools, including 108 Grinnell students. This is the largest survey about campus free expression ever performed, according to FIRE, though the survey represents just a fraction of the country’s 15.4 million undergraduates at nearly 6,000 schools.

Among Grinnell students, 77% said they worry “a little” or “a lot” about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstood them. This percentage was the highest among schools FIRE surveyed. 

Additionally, 72% of Grinnell students said they would feel uncomfortable expressing an unpopular political opinion in a public campus space, with 39% indicating they would feel “very uncomfortable.” Both percentages were the highest among schools FIRE surveyed. 

“Pretty much everyone I’ve met that I’ve had a conversation with about politics or social climate stuff have said they felt the need to self-censor,” Rusty Valenty `27 said. 

Valenty did not take College Pulse’s survey because he was not enrolled when the survey was fielded between January and June 2023. 

Since he arrived at Grinnell, Valenty said he has spoken to several students who express opinions in classroom discussions different from opinions they share in private.

Pretty much everyone I’ve met that I’ve had a conversation with about politics or social climate stuff have said they felt the need to self-censor

— Rusty Valenty `27

“There is an accepted level of opinion you can have in class,” Valenty said about his humanities courses. “And it’s like, if I even couch it wrong, people are like ‘You can’t say that.’” 

FIRE’s survey showed 71% of Grinnell students said they’d feel “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable expressing their views on a controversial political topic during an in-class discussion. The national average was 57%.

Similarly, 80% of Grinnell students said they’d feel “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial political topic. Nationally, 69% of respondents said the same.

Clark Lindgren, professor of neuroscience and chair of the faculty, and Stephanie Jones, professor of education, did not respond to requests for comment on students’ comfort expressing controversial ideas in class.

Valenty described himself as far-left but said some of his views do not align with other left-leaning students on campus, which has caused him to self-censor. 

 Valenty, who sometimes wears green hunting shirts and a camouflage hat, also said three separate students told him they “thought he was racist” because of his clothing.

FIRE: 50% of Grinnell students identify as “strong Democrats”

FIRE’s survey identified Grinnell as one of the most left-leaning and politically homogeneous schools in the country. 

Results showed 71% of Grinnell respondents identified as “somewhat” or “very” liberal. Nationally, 38% of respondents said the same. 

When asked about partisan affiliation, Grinnell had the highest percentage of students who identified as “strong Democrat” among all schools. Exactly 50% of Grinnell students labeled themselves a “strong Democrat.” The national average was 17%.

Even students who identify as left-leaning said they self-censor. 

College Pulse provided an option for students to anonymously describe a time they felt like they could not express their opinion on campus. One student in the class of 2024 wrote, “I do not think people are open to views either left of theirs or right of theirs on this campus. My views skew to the left of the campus, and I frequently am uncomfortable expressing my opinion.”

Another student in the class of 2024 wrote anonymously, “At lunch, there are so many things that I am not comfortable saying because I worry about getting ‘canceled.’” 

Anne Harris, president of the College, was unable to meet with The S&B to discuss the FIRE rankings, citing lack of time. In an email to The S&B, she wrote that students’ concern about reputation “is meaningful within a residential community context such as Grinnell’s, as students learn and live together on the same campus in ways that will have contrasts in terms of scale and campus conditions at other institutions.” 

Harris also wrote that she would need to review FIRE and College Pulse’s methodology before making proper pronouncements about the results. 

In the survey, students were recruited from web advertising, email campaigns and university partnerships. Once recruited, students opted-in to the survey, which some critics say may make obtaining representative responses difficult.

Grinnell’s sample size of 108 constitutes approximately 6% of Grinnell’s student population.

Sean Stevens, Chief Research Advisor at FIRE, said Grinnell’s sample size forms a more representative population than many other schools, where student respondents constitute only 1 to 2% of the population. 

“It’s fairly strong,” Stevens said. “I think we have better information, survey-wise, on Grinnell.” 

Responses were weighted based on race, gender, class year, financial aid status and voter registration status, according to College Pulse’s methodology. The overall margin of error was +/-1%. Within schools, the margin of error was +/-2  to 5%. 

Matthew Rosen `24, who described himself as conservative, said in two social sciences classes he remained silent and modified his speech to acclimate to the professors’ views.

Other times, Rosen said he submitted papers that did not reflect his beliefs to appeal to the professor.

“I’m pretty good when it comes to playing to my audience,” he said. “And I kind of had to do that in terms of what I was saying.”

In College Pulse’s survey, 67% of Grinnell students said they’d be “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable expressing disagreement with a professor on a controversial topic in a written assignment. The national average was 55%.

While Rosen said he is open about his conservative beliefs, he said he prefers not to discuss politics among peers outside of class.

“I just think it’s better to leave politics out of the discussion,” he said. “There are just certain subjects you don’t touch.”

Jeremy Roberts-Kleban `26, who did not complete the survey, said he has several times self-censored his speech for fear of it being taken out of context. He described himself as a Democrat.

Roberts-Kleban, who studies political science and Russian, said his classroom discussions often relate to international political topics that aren’t as controversial on campus as domestic political issues. However, Roberts-Kleban said he thinks Grinnell’s ideological homogeneity has affected his education by fostering limited ideological diversity in class. 

“I would much prefer to be in an environment with a more diverse range of political views,” he said. “I see value from that at an educational level.” 

Despite Grinnell earning the county’s worst rating on “comfort expressing ideas,” survey results show Grinnell was ninth in the country for “openness.” FIRE and College Pulse said they determined this metric based on students’ responses to a series of questions asking if specific political issues, like abortion or climate change, were difficult to have an open conversation about on campus. 

FIRE’s representative Stevens said Grinnell’s high openness ranking makes sense because the student body is so politically homogeneous. 

“The question is asking to identify the topics that are difficult to have an open and honest conversation about,” he said. “So if they’re not having difficult conversations, they’re not going to identify that topic.” 

FIRE: Majority of Grinnell students “very uncomfortable” voicing dissent on social media

Survey results showed that 79% of Grinnell students expressed discomfort with posting an unpopular political opinion on social media. This percentage was the highest of any school FIRE surveyed.

Victor Thorne `26 described Grinnell as “running on the rumor mill.” 

Thorne said at the beginning of his first year in fall 2022, he conversed with some students through text on a Discord channel for Grinnell students. Thorne, who is transgender, said he found it “stupid” that feminine hygiene products were abundant on men’s dorm floors in response to a student who said these products had run out on women’s floors. 

Thorne said he thinks his words were taken out of context, and that some other students spread a rumor that he expressed bigotry towards transgender people. At the time, Thorne said he was not open about being transgender. 

“I think it was kind of a systemic thing of people being too quick to jump to conclusions,” he said. 

Thorne described himself as center-left. Thorne said he does not self-censor often anymore, but did when he entered Grinnell. Today, Thorne runs a free speech club which meets twice weekly. Thorne said usually 5 to 6 people attend, but other times 10 students have arrived. 

Thorne said the mission of the club is to bring together anyone in the Grinnell community who wishes to discuss issues affecting the campus and the town, or broader issues affecting the United States and the world. Previous topics include the College’s endowment and ecoterrorism.

“If you think there’s something you wish you could talk about, I think you should speak up,” he said. “It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Every little bit helps.” 

Thorne did not complete the College Pulse survey and has never worked for FIRE, but said he accepted an internship with FIRE for the summer of 2024. Thorne’s Discord comment and the creation of Free Speech Club preceded his application to FIRE.

Samuel Grayson `27 also described himself as center-left, and said his political views align with “what would be considered the dominant view on campus.” 

Grayson described the campus’s dominant views as left-leaning, but said he still self-censors around twice per week in common campus spaces or around his friends. 

Grayson said he thinks others perceive students who talk about self-censorship on campus as right-leaning. 

“You self-censor when you talk about self-censoring,” Grayson said. “People are afraid to bring it up.” 

Grayson said if he did not self-censor, he thinks he would lose a large number of his friends and acquaintances. 

You self-censor when you talk about self-censoring. People are afraid to bring it up.

— Samuel Grayson `27

“People would not be happy with me,” he said. “It’s really not advantageous to set yourself up for failure like that.”

Grayson said he thinks many Grinnell students claim to be open to discussion, but are only open to discussion within a specific range of ideas on the left. 

“It would be social suicide for someone to say something different,” Grayson said.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited to clarify Victor Thorne’s future internship with FIRE.

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  • B

    Barry AnconaApr 23, 2024 at 1:04 pm

    “Despite Grinnell earning the county’s worst rating on ‘comfort expressing ideas,’ survey results show Grinnell was ninth in the country for ‘openness.’”

    So Grinnell students *can* openly express their ideas but they don’t want to offend other Grinnellians when they do? Sounds like the Grinnell I remember.

    Barry Ancona ’68

  • J

    JVApr 17, 2024 at 1:34 pm

    Is this really any different than what it’s like in the world at-large, right now? Given the fact that virtually every topic is framed around one’s political identity, people are afraid to say a lot of things. And frankly, if people can’t stand up for their beliefs, they’re going to have a difficult time navigating the world because it’s no different when one leaves college.

    • L

      LBApr 18, 2024 at 11:52 am

      The survey indicates that this is a much larger problem at Grinnell College than other schools. So yes, it is different.

  • D

    DRBakerApr 16, 2024 at 10:44 pm

    OMG this writer should be proud of themselves and commended for their research, interviewing skills and attention to detail. Great job!

  • B

    BennettApr 16, 2024 at 8:10 am

    What a load of Koch Institute funded propaganda.