A week ago Heterodox Academy released the preliminary version of our Guide to Colleges– a unique resource that ranks the top 150 schools as listed by US News and World Report on whether the intellectual climate on campus is free, open, and vibrant, or whether it is dominated by political conformity.

The information collected is then used to produce a Heterodox Academy Score (HxA Score), ranging from 0 (high levels of political conformity and orthodoxy) to 100 (low levels of political conformity and orthodoxy). You can see more on our methodology page.

In the week since the guide’s release, we’ve received number of excellent questions about the methodology and suggestions about how we can improve it to better capture each school’s campus climate.  We delve into several of these suggestions, with the goal of starting an open discussion about the guide’s methodology.

Why does the guide include ISI ratings but not an analogous rating system for how welcoming a school is for progressives?

The mission of Heterodox Academy is to promote viewpoint diversity in the academy.  To that end, we would consider a rating system that indicates how welcoming a school is to students with progressive values a valuable resource. Unfortunately, we are not aware of a rating system for left/progressive students that can be considered an equivalent to ISI’s.

NICHE offers lists of the most liberal and conservative colleges in America, based on student ratings of their own politics and the politics of the campus community.  While these rating systems may not be analogous to ISI’s, they may still be valuable resources to consider including as the guide, as a whole, and the scoring system, in particular, are revised.


Should a school’s rating be affected if they are not rated by FIRE or ISI?

The Heterodox Academy Guide to Colleges equally weighs each of its four categories. Yet, there are a handful of schools that have not been rated by FIRE and a larger number not rated by ISI. Currently, the guide assigns a “neutral” score of 0.5 to any school not rated by FIRE and/or ISI and then weighs those categories when calculating the school’s HxA score.

A consequence of this is that schools not rated by either FIRE or ISI receive an increase in their HxA score of 12.5 points.  Hypothetically, under this scoring system a school could receive an HxA score of 25 simply by not being rated by FIRE and ISI. This should be adjusted.

One alternative is to compute each school’s score based on the information the guide has. If, for a given school, the information on all 4 criteria are available, then the current weighting system would be employed.

However, if information was only available for 3 out of 4 of the criteria, then a system where each available criteria was weighted by a third would be employed. Recalculating HxA scores in this fashion would produce some changes, but a correlational analysis of current HxA scores and HxA scores produced by the alternative weighting system outlined above, revealed that the vast majority of schools would remain in a similar position (r = .96).


Should the guide consider a WARNING rating from FIRE equivalent to a YELLOW rating, or is a WARNING rating a more serious offense?

This question touches upon a broader issue that may be masked by the WARNING rating, which according to FIRE is reserved for private universities that clearly and consistently state that they hold a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech. A quick glance at the Heterodox Academy Guide to Colleges reveals that the following schools received a WARNING rating from FIRE (current HxA score in parentheses):

  • Pepperdine University (HxA score = 50)
  • Baylor University (HxA score = 43.75)
  • Brigham Young University (HxA score = 31.25)
  • Louis University (HxA score = 25)
  • Worcester Polytechnic Institute (HxA score = 31.25)
  • Yeshiva University (HxA score = 31.25)

With the exception of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, each of these schools is a private religious institution, and as private religious institutions these schools can legally limit speech and expression on their campuses.

It is reasonable to presume that these private institutions explicitly specify their value system and clearly outline the restrictions to freedom of speech and expression. In turn, students choosing to attend these universities are likely aware of the school’s value system and that more restrictive rules regarding freedom of speech and expression will be in place. In contrast, a YELLOW rating from FIRE is assigned when an institution’s policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression. In other words, students attending a school with a YELLOW rating are more likely to face arbitrary administrative action as a result of vaguely worded conduct policies. The key difference between these two ratings is one of clarity.

Nevertheless, the restrictions on freedom of speech and expression imposed by private religious institutions may limit viewpoint diversity on campus – an outcome that is in direct opposition to the mission of Heterodox Academy.

Thus, the question that is masked by considering how to weight a WARNING rating from FIRE when calculating a school’s HxA score, is: How should the Heterodox Academy Guide to Colleges assign ratings to religious institutions that explicitly declare they will limit free speech and expression? Is it worse to be up front that your institution intends to limit free speech and expression or, are vague policies regarding free speech and expression a larger threat to the exercise of free speech and expression?

Let us know your impressions in the comments below, or email collegeguide@heterodoxacademy.org