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  • Writer's pictureCorey Lee Wilson

Campus Expression Survey (CES) Reveals Interesting Findings

The Campus Expression Survey (CES) from 1,078 currently enrolled college students in the United States was developed by members of Heterodox Academy in response to students and professors who say they feel like they are “walking on eggshells,” not just in the classroom but in informal interactions on campus as well.

These analyses revealed a number of interesting findings, including:

• 53% of students surveyed reported that they do not think their college or university frequently encourages students to consider a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives.

• 32% of conservatives (vs. 8% of liberals) were very reluctant to discuss politics in the classroom.

• 29% of conservatives (vs. 8% of liberals) were very reluctant to discuss gender in the classroom.

• 30% of conservatives (vs. 15% of liberals) were very reluctant to discuss race in the classroom.

• When discussing potentially controversial topics (politics, race, and gender), the students surveyed were most concerned about criticism from their peers followed by criticism or a lower grade from their professor. They were least concerned about criticism on social media or the potential for a harassment complaint against them.

In the intellectual sphere, as it turns out, ideological intolerance is not the monopoly of any particular party. Rather, what we are seeing is a wider, systemic pattern. Oliver Traldi locates it in belief-intensity or “zealousness”–in which the long-documented polarization of the political climate is bleeding into a polarization of the academic sphere. That polarization is being expressed at different levels of the university, against different groups, in different ways.

Bipartisan Problem, Transpartisan Solutions

The academic freedom crisis is multifaceted, covering multiple dimensions of the intensely complicated social fabric of the modern campus. Dr. Jonathan Haidt has focused particularly on students; others have persuasively argued that administrations are a more potent variable; still others have emphasized the role professors have played in the changing campus climate—or the pernicious influence of outside groups.

If approached in a partisan way, it’s easy to cherry-pick individual dimensions of the crisis to support a grievance politics that one’s own side is being systematically wronged (or wronged more): the Right will point to patterns of disinvitation and a perceived hostile climate for conservative students and faculty driven by left-leaning activists. The Left will point to patterns of faculty dismissal, as well as the professional and media harassment of professors, especially by the Far Right. The result is a systematic, partisan missing of the forest for the trees.

For a principled commitment to speech rights and intellectual pluralism, all of those levels need to be treated with care, judicious examination of data, and appropriate concern. And concern is appropriate—regardless of one’s political or ideological commitments.

Cultivate a Campus Culture that Welcomes Diverse Thought and Open Discussion

Given the importance of intellectual inquiry, of subjecting ideas to rigorous back-and-forth testing, it is critically important for universities to cultivate a campus culture that welcomes diverse thought and open discussion–even, or perhaps especially, on controversial topics. And while removing any and all restrictive speech codes is an important first step towards cultivating such a culture, FIRE’s ratings don’t tell us everything we might like to know about the intellectual “openness” of any school.

After all, just because a particular university has no speech code restrictions does not necessarily mean that its students will feel free to exercise their First Amendment rights–especially if they sense that viewpoints other than their own are “privileged” on campus. Accordingly, it may be useful to think of campus speech having a “hierarchy of needs” similar in some ways to those Abraham Maslow identified for the individual.

That is, at the most basic “survival” level, students need legal protections that ensure their right to free expression; but building on this, students need an intellectually-rich environment that fosters respect for diverse viewpoints and allows them to engage in spirited intellectual debate without feeling like they must constantly “walk on eggshells.”

Sadly, Haidt and the Heterodox Academy reports that a growing number of the college students he encounters say they pointedly avoid engaging in such spirited discourse–and that this self-censorship often begins in high school.

Unfortunately, when they graduate the most effective policymakers that weave together the best ideas from a range of perspectives in order to address society’s most intractable problems will be lacking.

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