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The Florida effort became the second major institution-specific survey of free expression on college campuses, joining a project in the University of North Carolina system that began in 2019. Next to arrive on the scene was the University of Wisconsin, which released results from its own survey in January. On Wednesday a national survey from Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit membership organization that promotes viewpoint diversity in higher education, became the latest piece of research to shed light on the state of campus discourse, which is typically the stuff of newsmaking incidents or opinion pieces. The results of the surveys are consistent. Contrary to the fears expressed by Rodrigues, which implicitly affix blame to a liberal professoriate, students are more concerned with their peers’ judgment than with their professors’.
In other words, experts say, the surveys don’t necessarily reveal a worsening crisis of free expression. Rather, they could be evidence of a phenomenon that has long existed on college campuses: Students are working to figure out what they think and why, and how to talk through tough subjects. The findings may not be surprising in the context of student-development research; they’ve acquired a politicized valence only in this sharply partisan time.
Still, the topline data are head-turning: 58.5 percent of students surveyed by Heterodox reported being reluctant to discuss at least one of five controversial topics they were asked about — gender, politics, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
The Wisconsin survey, which moved forward in the fall after months of controversy, identified a source of reluctance similar to the one observed by Heterodox: When students hesitate to share their views, it’s most often because they fear negative consequences from their peers. (Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the Heterodox survey said the top reason for being reluctant to express their opinions in class was concern that “other students would make critical comments with each other after class.”)
The North Carolina results also found that students were more concerned about their fellow students’ opinions than about those of their instructors. The survey additionally showed that faculty members weren’t pushing political agendas in class and that most students didn’t significantly change their political views throughout college. (It’s more difficult to draw conclusions from the Florida survey, given its 2.4-percent response rate among students, but a majority of respondents there agreed that their campus fostered free expression.)
“I didn’t see this overriding impression that students seem closed off to each other, to new ideas, to even disagreeing outwardly,” Park said of the Wisconsin results. “I thought the picture was more complex,” she added, “than some soundbites that I think people might try to run with if they decide to interpret the data in a certain way.”
Take, for example, the finding that more than half of Wisconsin students choose not to express their views on controversial topics in class. At first glance it’s an eye-popping statistic, until you consider, Park said, that their reasons for doing so were often anodyne. Of the top five reasons students reported for not sharing their thoughts on touchy subjects, two related to fears about how their peers would perceive them. The other three were more mundane: not feeling they knew enough about the topic, not wanting to share about their identity or experiences, and a simple tendency to stay quiet in class, no matter the subject.
The top five reasons students gave in open-ended comments in the Heterodox survey for hesitating to share their opinions on controversial subjects were remarkably similar: fear of negative social consequences from peers, a general dislike of conflict or debate, a lack of knowledge on the subject, a desire not to upset or offend others, and general shyness about speaking up in class.
A reluctance to share views on controversial topics because of a lack of knowledge could be seen as an expression of intellectual restraint and maturity, Park said. “That’s a good reason to take a step back and think, ‘Oh, maybe I want to learn more about this before I share just what I think off the top of my head,’” she said.
It also aligns with the process of self-discovery that’s traditionally associated with college, said Rosemary J. Perez, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Students are often trying to discern and articulate their own views, independent of the ones they were exposed to growing up, through family, friends, school, church, or other environments. They may not feel as passionately about some hot-button topics as their peers do, which only adds to their skittishness about speaking up, she said. And, particularly in the early years of college, some students are highly attuned to peers’ opinions when forming their sense of self.
The emotional resonance of that dynamic has been heightened in the current partisan climate, said Amy J. Binder, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. “There is just this expectation in the last eight or so years that you fall on one side or the other, and you’re supposed to have an opinion, and if you don’t have an opinion, then just shut up,” she said. “So much of this just has to do with the polarization of our political times.”
In Wisconsin, while nearly two-thirds of students reported being concerned about their peers’ opinions and about whether they knew enough about the topic, smaller percentages feared that their instructors would dismiss their views as offensive or that they’d get lower grades — 46 and 41 percent, respectively. “That is much more about peer interactions and developmental stage and what they see as peer pressure,” Binder said. “That’s really different from top-down indoctrination.”
Students’ preoccupation with their peers’ opinions is also not surprising, said Park and Perez, because young people prioritize belonging — particularly on a campus and in a community unknown to them. Without knowing what the people around them think, Perez said, students might hold back their own opinions in the interest of making friends, or at least not unwittingly making enemies.
For students, the consequences of making a wrong impression with peers can be much worse than with professors. If students have a bad experience in a certain class, Perez pointed out, they can simply avoid taking that instructor’s courses in the future. But they’re much more likely to run into their fellow students again — in other classes, in the cafeteria or the dorm, at student-organization meetings or out on weekends. No wonder, then, that they’d be more concerned about their peers’ opinions.
While such concerns may be understandable, they may also be overblown. The Heterodox survey found that students overestimate their peers’ negative reactions to their views by about three times; two-thirds of students, when asked what they’d do if another student expressed a different viewpoint than their own, said they’d ask questions to better understand their peer, while just 15.6 percent said they’d “speak out to criticize them as being offensive” and 21.7 percent said they would stay quiet during class but “make critical comments after.”
Those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, since people completing a self-reported survey are likely to view their own behavior more positively than others’, said Nicole Barbaro, Heterodox’s director of communications and a co-author of a report on the findings. Still, she said, students’ outsize fear of their peers’ judgment “seems like a larger campus and academic-culture issue that we need to address.”
Such fear could be a product of the perceived risk of speaking up — for example, that a clumsily phrased remark or question in class could wind up going viral. “Students are rightly fearful in today’s climate, where things are quickly labeled as offensive,” Barbaro said. “They’re rightly a little bit nervous and self-conscious to say something, when it should be a space, in the classroom, for them to be practicing in a lower-risk environment.”
And in Wisconsin, just 34.6 percent of students who identified as very conservative said instructors “often” or “extremely often” encourage students to explore a wide variety of viewpoints; more than double that share of very liberal students — 73.8 percent — said the same. Conservative students were also significantly more likely than their liberal counterparts to report having felt pressured by an instructor to agree with a particular opinion — 91.3 percent of self-identified conservative and very conservative students reported as much, as opposed to 30.5 percent of their liberal counterparts. And conservatives were less likely than their liberal peers to feel comfortable speaking up on hot-button topics like transgender issues and abortion.
Asking administrators to intercede against troubling speech was more common among liberal students than conservative ones. Liberal students in Wisconsin were much more likely to favor administrators’ banning the expression of harmful views and to advocate for disinviting controversial speakers — 40.9 and 58 percent of liberal or very liberal students, respectively, favored disinviting speakers from campus if some found their message offensive, while only a quarter of moderates, 13 percent of somewhat conservative students, and 9 percent of very conservative students said they’d do so.
But there’s also nuance that those numbers can’t capture. In her interview-based research, Binder has found progressive students to be more ambivalent on the matter, often making what she described as “contradictory back-and-forth comments about administrators’ responsibility to protect vulnerable students.” A student might start a conversation with Binder by stating adamantly that administrators should ban controversial speakers, she explained. “Then we’d say, ‘Really? There’s no place for that person to speak on campus?’” The student might then backtrack and suggest that perhaps instead of banning a speaker, a university leader should make a statement about how the speaker “is not in keeping with the principles of community on our campus.” In general, Binder said, progressive students in her research hesitate to give definitive answers on whether speakers should be banned.
Self-identified liberal and very liberal Wisconsin students were somewhat less likely to say their instructors should remove a reading or an assignment or stop discussing a topic in class if some students felt they included harmful views than the liberals were to say administrators should bar speakers from campus. Binder said that suggests students are more trusting of their professors than of administrators, which her research indicated was true of students across political lines.
“There’s this national conversation about how higher education is enemy No. 1 in the culture wars,” Binder said, “but when students are actually in professors’ classrooms, it’s hard to really keep up that discourse because the professors are treating them with respect.”
That’s puzzling, the Heterodox report points out, because “there are frequent top-down reminders from institutions for students to consider varying perspectives,” but such administrative messaging doesn’t penetrate students’ perceptions of campus climate.
One possible explanation for the disconnection might be seen in Binder’s research, which finds that administrators are perceived by conservative students as “always falling on the side of progressive issues,” particularly as they send out community emails about topics like police shootings, global warming, and anti-Asian hate. “It’s easier to characterize them as hopelessly, consistently on the side of progressive issues, whereas if you have more face-to-face time with people, i.e. your professors, then you don’t have that same sense of it all being the same,” she said. For their part, Binder added, liberals are often skeptical of what they see as administrators’ “lip service” to tough topics.
Absent that nuance, Binder said, “I think it would be a mistake to just say, ‘See, here’s the smoking gun; all of university life is tilted against conservatives.’”
At least one Republican legislator sees cause for action in the University of Wisconsin survey results: State Rep. Dave Murphy, chair of the Wisconsin Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities, who advocated for the survey from the start. “I sometimes think that you hear anecdotal complaints, that maybe they’re exaggerated a bit,” Murphy told The Chronicle last month. “The survey kind of tells me now that they probably weren’t exaggerated at all.”
Murphy said he planned to hold several hearings on the survey, from now to the summer. He also plans to introduce a bill, similar to one he proposed in 2022, that would block universities and technical colleges from enforcing time, place, or other restrictions on free-speech events anywhere on campus except classrooms. While Murphy doesn’t see the survey results as a means to justify cuts to the university, he said earmarking some money with “some strings attached” was a possibility.
“I have no particular inclination or need, necessarily, to tell the university what to do or how to run itself. I would prefer to give them solid information, back it up, have hearings on it, bring in experts to talk about what the surveys are telling us, and then let the Board of Regents act accordingly,” Murphy said. “There might be some legislation that we might be able to put together that would hold their feet to the fire a bit more.”
One antidote to the problem of self-censorship comes from the Heterodox survey: Respondents who reported high levels of interaction with their peers were less likely to self-censor and more likely to share their views in class — at least 10 percentage points more likely, in fact, across five controversial topics — than were those who had lower levels of peer interaction. (That’s not entirely a function of in-person versus virtual instruction, the Heterodox report notes; while in-person learning was more conducive to high peer interaction, “it does not imply that online learning was driving students’ reluctance to share their views in the classroom.”)
It stands to reason, then, that “if the legislature is going to think about something, maybe they should think about just investing more money generally in teaching and learning,” said Park, the Maryland professor. That could mean bringing in more instructors to facilitate small-group discussions, given that many students probably don’t feel comfortable speaking up in a lecture hall with hundreds of their peers. She and Perez suggested intergroup dialogue programs, already prominent at both of their home institutions, as another possible remedy. Ensuring that students, even if they’re in a large lecture hall, have at least one opportunity per class session to engage with one another could go a long way toward improving the situation, Barbaro said.
In other words, the most effective way to alleviate fears about indoctrination might be to rely more, not less, on professors to skillfully guide discussions of fraught topics — and to give them the resources to do so.