While I understand the need to report about how poorly Higher Ed polled last year, I thought that otherwise there was a lot of stereotyping in this piece, so in the reading it felt obligatory (Bruni has written about Higher Ed - quite a lot actually) but not enlightening. Here are some points that might have been considered, but aren't in this piece.
(1) Political views of students vary by their majors. Econ (and Business) students tend to be conservative. And in my class, at least, such students also tend to be outspoken rather than feel they are being silenced. The presence of these students is hardly noted in pieces that talk about Higher Ed.
(1a) I recently posted a map of my student's hometowns as listed in Banner. (I only did this with Facebook friends, not publicly.) Most students are from Chicagoland, particularly the northern and western suburbs. I believe those areas are much more conservative than the city itself and the immediate towns that border the city.
(1b) More generally, if Big Public U draws in-state students the same way that my class does, the students are apt to be more conservative than their professors.
(2) The 2+2 model has been around for a while. (First two years at a Community College. Last two years at a public university.) I believe at the U of I it has been in place for more than a decade. The number of transfer students at the university is way up as compared to before that.
(2a) While I don't believe there are income qualifiers to get into a 2+2 program, one might reasonably guess that students in this program are disproportionately from low to moderate income families. If this is right then while there is diversity of students income-wise at the U, especially starting in the third year, outside of the classroom there may be clustering by income within the U that reduces the benefits of that diversity.
(2b) The first-year experience is its own thing. It's as much social as it is educational, or it is educational about life skills as much or more than classroom learning. (It is the first time for many to be away from mom and dad for an extended period of time with no other adult to answer to.) The transfer students miss this. They do get some formal skills education in courses targeted at them, but they don't get the experiential learning. Likewise, my guess is that the fraternities and sororities disproportionately consist of students who started at the U as first year students. The upshot is a separation of types that I associate with second-degree price discrimination, like first-class versus coach seating on airplanes. Perhaps that is inevitable. However, if much of college education is actually social capital (whom you know rather than what you know) this separation is regrettable. To the extent it is inadvertent rather than planned, we may have to live with it. But it needs some discussion. We're not getting such a conversation now.
(3) Now we get to the slippery slope - consideration of gender and race and how that correlates with the previous two items. In entirely separate pieces, the male-female distinction in college has gotten substantial attention. But this looks at enrollment only, not at performance. GPA is one measure of performance. In my class, this past year I tracked attendance, which is a different measure of performance, though it does correlate with the course grade. My class offers too small a sample of students to make sweeping conclusions, but I conjecture that being male and low income the student is much more likely to be at risk than being female and low income. If you throw in race, in addition, a Latino male who is low income is quite at risk.
(3a) When we first started 2+2 at the U of I there was talk from other administrators about whether the Community College courses were adequate preparation, even when those courses "articulated" with the U of I, so the credits did transfer. I want to think of this from an enculturation angle. Suppose you have a reasonably bright student who is enrolled in classes that don't challenge the student. What happens as a consequence? If there are learned behaviors from that experience and then the student transfers to a University where the classes do challenge the student, what then is the response? Again, I don't have enough data to claim this is true, but I conjecture that transfer students have lower class attendance on average, which would be one indicator of the issue.
(3b) The flip side on the race card is the large number of Chinese and Korean students we have. There is a tendency for such students to be quite diligent (as measured by attendance, for example) but to be quiet in the classroom. As an instructor, the goal is to teach the individual student, who has a distinctive personality and way of going about things. Putting the student in a box defined by family income, educational background, gender, and race might block the instructor to see the student as an individual. I'm afraid this is more true about East Asian student than students in other categories, simply because of their relative numbers on campus. It would be nice to think that instructors aren't influenced this way, but I'm afraid they are.
(4) There is an issue of whether University Presidents actually have a sense of how things are on the ground on their own campuses or if they only have a highly filtered view of these matters. So I found it troubling that Bruni writes a column based on conversations with Presidents, one of whom is Margaret Spellings. She has no background whatsoever as an instructor in a college classroom. Her trajectory is through a political career. There are several other examples of that trajectory landing the person in the job of University President. Can such people see the issues without framing them in a political way? I doubt it.
(4a) As a matter of journalism, I'm not sure whom to interview on these matters, but let me note that many of our distinguished faculty primarily teach at the graduate level. So if the question is how things are going with undergraduates, one has to go much further down the pecking order to get to people with enough real experience to be able to speak to the issues in an informed way.
(4b) The largest issue about school, both K-12 and college, and this evident to anyone who looks at it with some interest at getting at what is really going on, is that there is a massive "gaming of the system" to the detriment of actual learning. This is manifest in a negative feedback loop between how students game the system, how instructors teach, and how academic departments select and retain instructors for teaching. This issue gets no attention among those administrators who are politically inclined. So we are not seeing any attempt to cut this loop and offer remedies that might improve things.
Let me wrap up. The freedom of speech issue, as it pertains to Higher Ed, usually seems to be about discussions of our national politics and whether those happen on our campuses with both the liberal and conservative view represented in the conversation. While that may be interesting to readers of Bruni's column, it really is a tertiary issue on campus. The fundamental issue is about what students are learning and whether they are learning in a deep manner. We actually don't have freedom of speech on this front, but it is not because of censorship. It's because of the current business model of universities, which are so reliant on donations and tuition. For both, it is believed necessary to promote a nice shiny view about what college is about, at least that is the belief by those in charge of marketing the university. So there is discord between those marketers and the people on the ground, students and instructors. I wish Bruni would write about this. That might actually help to improve matters.