Throughout the fall 2022 semester, over 83,000 students across all University of Wisconsin System schools were invited to participate in a survey regarding the state of civil dialogue on their campuses. The survey received more than 10,500 responses gauging students’ comfort with expressing their opinions in academic settings as well as their receptiveness to classmates. The results were reported by UW Systems President Jay O. Rothman on Wednesday, including the data analyzed in relation to factors like political affiliation, gender identity and race.
The survey found that a majority of students across the political spectrum felt comfortable expressing their opinions and exploring new ones, but the proportion of conservative students who reported feeling this way was smaller. Further, it indicated that liberal students are generally more comfortable expressing their opinions on controversial issues than their conservative counterparts.
The survey came in response to a report released in November 2021 by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), which encouraged universities to analyze whether or not they foster an academic environment that encourages open discussion and debate, even on controversial issues. This caused controversy due to its potential use as a political tool by the right. Furthermore, the way the launch of the survey was handled led to the resignation of UW-Whitewater chancellor Jim Henderson.
The BPC assembled this report in response to what it called “overwhelming […] evidence the intellectual climate on many college and university campuses is being constrained,” although only 29% of BPC report respondents reported believing that this is the case.
With the UW System being a crucial talent pipeline for the state of Wisconsin, President Rothman emphasized the importance of fostering a “marketplaces of ideas, where students are exposed to various ideas and perspectives that will help them improve their ability to think critically.” Rothman deemed these values essential to “our long-term economic prosperity, the advancement of knowledge and the viability of our democracy.”
The survey found that a significant majority of UW System students deemed their academic environment conducive to exploring and expressing new viewpoints, with 58% saying their professors encouraged them to do so “often” or “extremely often.” Only 9% of respondents indicated that they are discouraged from doing so often or extremely often.
However, students were more likely to feel uncomfortable speaking up about their opinions if they identified themselves as “conservative” or “extremely conservative.” Of this subset, 15% and 20% respectively said that they felt discouraged from sharing their opinion. Only 2.6% and 3.5% of “liberal” and “very liberal” students reported the same.
Conservative students were also more likely to report that those with opposing views spoke up more often, whereas liberal students assessed this discrepancy as far narrower. However, a majority of students across demographics — from over 50% of liberals to over 70% of conservatives — reported wanting to express a controversial opinion and deciding not to. The most commonly cited reasons for this were fear of offending classmates or instructors, followed by fear of receiving a bad grade.
With controversial issues like abortion and transgender rights, conservative students were more likely to withhold their opinions than liberals; this is consistent with the fact that a majority of college students are left-leaning in the United States, something that is mirrored in the data from UW System schools. One of the largest discrepancies between political affiliations is that liberal students are far more likely to consider offensive views to be harmful. 69.4% of “very liberal” students believed this to be the case, compared to just 12.1% of the “very conservative” bloc.
President Rothman said these results were reflective of the political division present in America, and the first step to rectifying it at a university level is to “acknowledge that some students at our universities simply don’t feel comfortable sharing their views in class or elsewhere on campus.”
Of his goals in the wake of the survey’s results, Rothman said that “we need to create a culture that more openly values free expression — and make sure students understand their rights under the First Amendment.”