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‘Fishing for answers’: Free speech survey delayed until Fall 2022 amid campus community concerns

A survey intended to measure the support of free speech on all University of Wisconsin campuses was set to be released to students on Thursday, but Wednesday night, the survey was postponed until the fall of 2022. 

The survey also led to the resignation of Jim Henderson, the interim chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater last week. 

Organizers cited an “avalanche of questions arising” about the survey and its intentions as the reason for its delay in a statement Thursday. 

Campus community members across the University of Wisconsin System took to social media, questioning the data collection process, the survey’s purpose and its abrupt release. 

“If you want to figure out if there are free speech problems on campuses, you need to benchmark against the scale of problems in other institutions/populations,” University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Mark Copelovitch said via Twitter. “You can't just assume more serious problems on campus & then ask ‘how can we measure them?’”

The survey was created as a way to collect data about free speech on all UW System campuses to inform decisions in the state government. It pays special attention to identifying whether certain voices on different universities are being silenced by fellow campus community members. 

In an interview with The Daily Cardinal, Director of the Menards Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation and survey organizer Dr. Timothy Shiell, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, emphasized the validity of campus community members' concerns and the postponement of the survey. 

“The delay is due to us being inundated with questions, and they're not wacky or irrelevant questions,” Shiell said. “There just isn’t time to answer all the questions we're getting from people, so there’s no point in forcing a survey along that people aren't prepared for or understand.”

The research center was established in 2017 by a donation from the Charles Koch Foundation and was renamed as the Menard Center following a donation from the Menard family who own the home improvement company Menards. The family is a major donor to the Republican party. 

“People were worried about the politics of the donor influencing the center,” Shiell said. “We've been very careful to have agreements with our donors that make clear we get to make independent decisions and that we have full academic freedom.” 

Another concern for campus stakeholders is the lack of communication regarding the communication of the survey. 

“It was mostly the manner in which the survey was rolled out,” Will Scheder, the president of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Student Government Association stated. “It was very shady and lacked any transparency.”

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“Typically, I'd say that anytime the University of Wisconsin System tries to roll out something super controversial, act like it's gospel and tell us two days before it happens, they are going to face public backlash,” Scheder added.

Scheder continued on to explain his and the Student Government Association’s disdain and opposition to the survey. 

“We were not interested in supporting that survey at all,” Scheder said. “We were very upset that we weren't even aware, we weren't consulted, faculty governance and shared governance weren't consulted.”

UW-Madison student and press officer of its student government body, the Associated Students of Madison (ASM), Tyler Katzenberger is concerned about the survey and its content. Katzenberger also serves as a state politics reporter for the Cardinal.

“[It is] problematic because it's a survey that is looking and fishing for correct answers which is definitely not appropriate for a research study,” Katzenberger said. “[It] creates a lot of leading questions.” 

Scheder reiterated this view, emphasizing that free speech as a principle has been used to provoke “unwarranted fear about our campuses being liberal indoctrination centers and how we silence the conservative voice” by Wisconsin state legislators. 

“[State officials will] weaponize the rules of the survey in the November election, in the next legislative session, to attack our system — as they always have,” Scheder emphasized. 

Schiell highlighted the research center’s commitment to the content of the survey and its questions, but emphasized that no tool is “perfect.” 

“We're happy with the instrument,” Schiell said. “It was created by a team of experts. It was vetted by a variety of student groups to get their feedback.”

Both Scheder and Katzenberger are working with their respective student government bodies at UW-Stout and UW-Madison in response to the survey. 

At UW-Madison, Katzenberger emphasized the importance of shared governance efforts.

“We're currently trying to finalize plans for a new statewide shared governance system, the University of Wisconsin Statewide Student Government Association (UWSSGA),” Katzenberger said. “The idea there is that UW System campuses and UW System students are going to be working more closely with each other to make sure that students are heard at the system level and heard in state government.” 

Scheder said that the SGA will use the summer months to reflect and take the time to consider how the survey could be distributed in a “better fashion.” 

“I don’t think that a free speech survey is necessarily a bad idea,” Scheder said. “But I think the way they were going about it was just terrible.” 

For Katzenberger, the survey has confirmed the power of students and faculty across the UW System. 

“We want the UW System to know that students are not about to be divided from faculty on this, and we’re not going to be working alone,” Katzenberger said. 

ASM, according to Katzenberger, plans to work with university leaders and researchers to ensure that the survey is going to be accurate and valid. 

“As students, we're not just going to sit here and protest and shout,” Katzenberger concluded. “We're going to be working with established professionals to make sure that academic integrity isn't compromised for the sake of political gain.”

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