We have often discussed complaints from conservative, libertarian, and other groups about the rising intolerance for opposing views in the University of Wisconsin System. That has ranged from controversies over attacks on student columnists to speech codes. Now, a survey of students to gauge their views on free speech has been postponed. Faculty and students have objected that such a survey is unwarranted and might be used by the legislature to take action against the various universities in the system.
The survey has caused faculty and administrators to go into seemingly unhinged panic. The Interim Chancellor of UW-Whitewater Jim Henderson resigned in opposition to the survey asking his students whether they felt that they could speak freely on campus. He said that he felt the survey showed a lack of “collaboration” with faculty.
UW System interim president Mike Falbo said that he initially decided to block the System’s participation in the survey due to opposition from chancellors weeks ago, but then the survey’s authors raised their own objections and he relented.
The Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service sought to conduct the survey with funds from UW-Stout’s Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation. The survey asked students about self-censorship, opinions toward viewpoint diversity, campus climate, knowledge of the First Amendment and fears over expressing oneself.
Such surveys have been conducted at other schools and found that most students feel chilled in their exercise of free speech due to the hostile environment created on many campuses. That sense is far greater among Republican and conservative students than Democratic and liberal students. Most students tend to poll as being more liberal and their views are aligned with those of the faculty and administrators at most schools.
A recent poll found that 65 percent of students feel that they cannot speak freely on campuses. Another poll at the University of North Carolina found that conservative students are 300 times more likely to self-censor themselves due to the intolerance of opposing views on our campuses.
In a relatively short time, faculty and administrators have destroyed the status of campuses as bastions of free speech. Students now expect less freedom of speech in higher education where a new orthodoxy and speech intolerance has taken hold.
Rather than address such hostile environments, some at Wisconsin have an easier solution: just don’t ask the students.
They have succeeded to a degree in postponing the survey as many continue to try to block it entirely.
Former Wisconsin Law Professor Ann Althouse has objected that Wisconsin is now “censoring the censorship survey.”
Some of the arguments against the survey do seem transparent and opportunistic. For example, one objection to the survey was raised by Tyler Katzenberger, press secretary of Associated Students of Madison (ASM) who said that ASM challenged the legitimacy of the survey because it received an exemption from UW-Stout’s institutional review board. That board is tasked with the protection of human research subjects.
However, the Capital Times reports that Eric Giordano, executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, “said in a statement that representatives from most other campus institutional review boards (IRBs) also ‘reviewed the project and determined that the research did not qualify as human subjects research.'”
Katzenberger also objected that free speech is being given greater attention than “diversity issues” in the system:
“We get what the survey’s trying to address and we think it’s an important cause to discuss, but why is there not a survey addressing diversity issues in the System? Why are we prioritizing this over other more pressing diversity issues?”
First, any suggestion that Wisconsin has not pursued diversity issues in both studies and policies would be demonstrably untrue. Moreover, free speech is the right that allows all such issues to be raised and addressed. It is the foundation for advocacy for all issues and causes.
Second, this is not a zero-sum game where asking students about free speech means that you cannot ask about diversity issues.
Finally, and most importantly, this is about diversity. The survey is looking at whether there is a diversity of viewpoints allowed in the system or whether students feel that they are unable to express opposing or dissenting values.
Faculty objections are equally dubious. Mark Copelovitch, a UW-Madison professor of political science and public affairs, objected to the absence of an expert on public opinion research on the board. However, the advisory committee includes academics from the law school and political science department.
Copelovitch also objected that
“If you look at the survey, there is almost nothing asking about policies of universities or actual things faculty or administrators have done to restrict free speech on campus. It’s almost entirely a survey of people’s feelings.”
That’s right. It is a survey on whether students feel that they can speak freely on campus. It addresses the environment created and maintained by the faculty and administrators. If there is a feeling that students cannot speak freely on campus, the next step is to explore measures and reforms to change that environment. It is akin to asking whether students feel that they are safe or given respect on campus in terms of racial or other forms of discrimination. Would Copelovitch object that such a survey is useless because it only asks about their feelings but does not offer specific examples of intolerance?
Copelovitch is more clear about his next objection. He is quoted as saying that he “fears that the research will be used to justify new regulations at the state’s public universities, including budget cuts, because legislators may view them as ‘hotbeds of restrictions to free speech.'”
I have long been an advocate for academic freedom and I have opposed legislative measures limiting academic expression. However, Wisconsin funds these schools and has a legitimate interest in whether faculty and administrators have used those funds to limit or chill free speech. These professors demand funding from the legislature but oppose efforts to determine if they have used those funds in an abusive or biased fashion to the detriment of students.
These legislators have legitimate concerns about the future of the Wisconsin public universities if they become echo chambers for the values of faculty and administrators.
Indeed, many of us have long maintained that faculty are killing higher education in the United States with this anti-free speech movement. Conservative faculty at most schools are a shrinking minority as universities impose more intrusive speech codes and policies.
The anti-free speech movement is a death knell for our higher education, particularly at private universities, which are not directly impacted by First Amendment protections. The anti-free speech movement is making public universities the last line of defense for those struggling to preserve forums for free speech.
If this trend continues, students interested in seeking higher education without losing free speech rights may have to increasingly look to public universities like Wisconsin.
However, at Wisconsin, faculty and administrators are fighting to prevent students from being asked about the environment that they have created. There is a sense that the faculty “doth protest too much.” It is akin to a social worker coming to a home for a child welfare check only to have the parents block any efforts to speak with the children. It tends to make one more curious as to what they have to say.