Report on UNC System campus free speech provides insights into climate, student experiences

By: - June 15, 2022 6:00 am

Conservative writer and podcaster Ben Shapiro drew more than 2,000 people to UNC-Greensboro in April. (Photo: Joe Killian)

Conservative writer Ben Shapiro drew more than 2,000 people to UNC-Greensboro in April. (Photo: Joe Killian)

Some conservative students say they feel stifled, but generally not by faculty members

When Policy Watch reported on conservative writer and podcaster Ben Shapiro’s visit to UNCG in April, it had all the hallmarks of the current debate over free speech on campuses.

A highly partisan figure drawing huge crowds with divisive — in this case, transphobic and homophobic — language. Students protesting, holding a competing event and verbally sparring with the speaker. Questions about whether the student group who sponsored the talk should be banned from campus. A university tying itself in knots to support free speech, but not the language or viewpoint of the speaker.

But after a year’s work on eight UNC System campuses that included surveying more than 3,400 students, a team of researchers say Shapiro’s visit isn’t indicative of the important questions surrounding free speech on campuses. It is, they say, indicative of one of their key findings: the loudest, most passionate voices often dominate the conversation and get the most attention without actually representing the campus community.

Dr. Timothy Ryan

“Probably everyone who was at this thing, either for Shapiro or the counter event, are really politically engaged people — and that’s a very small sliver of the population on any campus,” said Dr. Timothy Ryan, a political scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill whose survey work is at the heart of a report on free speech and constructive dialogue in the UNC system that was released last month.

“Everyone knows what [Shapiro] is going to say, everyone knows he’s going to get yelled at,” Ryan said. “How is that an enriching event? We can do a lot better. And an insight of the work that we’ve done is to lay that out more systematically. The stuff that is going on on campus — the real stuff — is not what you’d think from events like this.”

In 2019, Ryan and fellow UNC-Chapel Hill professors Mark McNeilly and Jennifer Larson launched a study at Chapel Hill that looked at speech issues on campus. The results have something to delight and to disappoint people at both ends of the political spectrum.

Their work found students — especially conservatives, who are in the minority on campus — reported self-censoring in conversation for fear of being ostracized by their peers. Students who self-identified as liberal were less likely to want friendships with those who disagreed with them politically.

But it also dispelled the myth that faculty members push liberal political views, pressuring or indoctrinating students to agree with their own world views. Most students, the study found, leave college with much the same political view with which they entered.

Over the past year, Ryan’s team — now including UNC-Greensboro political science professor Andew Engelhardt — expanded its work. In addition to the system’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill, the team surveyed students at Appalachian State University, N.C. Central University, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke and UNC-Wilmington. Students answered a range of core questions given to all participants and a smaller set of questions given only to students at their institution.

The results did show some interesting differences — particularly at historically minority serving institutions UNC-Pembroke and N.C. Central, where the survey also got the least participation. But on its larger questions, the data were remarkably consistent across campuses.

Self-censoring and cherry-picking

One of the findings that got the most attention in the 2019 study was that conservative students tend to self-censor more on campus than students identifying as moderate or liberal.

Republican lawmakers seized on that part of the report, citing it a number of times in political disputes with students, faculty and administrators.

In September of last year, a group of faculty members, staff, students and alumni announced the launch of the Coalition for Carolina, an effort to combat what they describe as a years-long pattern of political meddling and overreach by the Republican dominated General Assembly into university affairs.

Sen. President Pro Tem Phil Berger

The office of Republican state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger fired back, using the UNC-Chapel Hill study as ammunition.

“These perpetual malcontents should examine why 68% of conservative students at UNC reported self-censoring their views in class,” said Lauren Horsch, Berger’s spokeswoman, in a statement. “Perhaps it has something to do with top university staff putting to paper their desire to extinguish viewpoint diversity.”

Faculty members and administrators denied they had any desire to eliminate viewpoint diversity and said the study didn’t back up the attack — most students did not report censoring themselves for fear of the views of faculty or staff but because they feared they would be ostracized by their peers.

Ryan and his team said they were displeased with the way their research was cherry-picked for political purposes, but that is not uncommon in research touching on political issues.

“I did see that quote and I was disappointed by it,” Ryan said of the statement from Berger’s office. “The full report is there for him to be asked a tough question the next time he’s talking about it. If you think this report is so credible, what’s your thought on the rest of it?”

Larson said it was obvious people only concentrating on that stat had not read the full report.

“Or if they did, they didn’t read it carefully,” Larson said. “You can cherry-pick anything, but to me the counter argument is so clear. If you’re concerned about this one part of the report, what do you think about the other parts of it? Do you acknowledge they are valid?”

Professor Mark McNeilly

When they began their research, McNeilly said, they had a lot of conversations about whether certain data points would be cherry-picked to make political points or to create clickbait headlines.

“I don’t know if there’s a way around that,” McNeilly said. “We think this is as close as we can get to the truth.”

Ryan lamented the fact that state officials from Florida were inspired by his team’s original 2019 report to design and roll out a full university system survey in that state. Unfortunately, he said, that process was politicized and resulted in “a survey that was very different in character than ours.”

Critics called it a push-poll and a partisan attempt to gather information on students and faculty, and urged students and faculty members alike not to participate.

One of the strengths of the UNC system research team was the political diversity of the members themselves, McNeilly said. He identifies as conservative and has acted as faculty advisor for Carolina Review, a conservative publication at UNC-Chapel Hill. Larson identifies as politically liberal — but not, she said, as politically liberal as some of her fellow faculty members.

Ryan doesn’t like to talk about his own ideology, saying he doesn’t want it to impact perceptions of his work.

“I’ve been working with Tim for years and I couldn’t tell you what he is,” McNeilly said.

Members of the conservative dominated UNC Board of Governors told Policy Watch they were pretty sure Ryan was a solid conservative, given that system staff introduced him as having worked at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. That made them even more comfortable that conservatives would be treated fairly in the research, they said.

But Ryan said he doesn’t identify as conservative and his work with AEI was before he went to grad school and largely under political scientist Norm Ornstein, a Democrat and vocal critic of former President Donald Trump.

“I hate when this kind of stuff becomes focal and people conceptualize what you’ve produced as a liberal or a conservative report,” Ryan said. “If you want my ideology, it’s empiricism. I’m a social scientist and I care about objective, ground truths. That’s that’s the terms in which I want people to think about the report.”

McNeilly agreed.

“We may all have different views on different topics, but the thing we all share is an interest in this subject and being as close to the truth as we can through empiricism,” he said. “There are some things that would surprise us all based on our ideologies and things that didn’t surprise us.

The finding on self-censoring held across campuses, according to the team’s latest report. The data from across campuses suggest that the more conservatives are in the minority at a school, the more concerned they tend to be about expressing themselves.

“Self-identified conservatives at UNC-A and UNC-CH register as somewhat more concerned about expression than at several other schools,” the report reads. “It is perhaps not coincidental that these two institutions are the same ones where self-described liberal students most substantially outnumber self-described conservatives.”

Listening to student voices

The researchers agreed that in the end, across campuses and ideologies, the most interesting part of the report may be student voices themselves. Going beyond the traditional “yes or no” or “to what degree” questions, the surveys had an open-ended component wherein students could explain why and under what circumstances they held back their opinions on a topics ranging from racial issues and gender and sexuality to religion and COVID-19.

The final report reproduces some of those anonymous responses verbatim (see page 32, table 15).

“Our class was discussing race and ethnicity in the workforce and we all had to vote whether [student’s institution] is diverse or not,” one student is quoted as writing in the report. “I kept it to myself because no matter what I would say, someone would take what I said the wrong way.”

Another student testified that they held back their comments in a class studying the Black experience though literature and film for an entirely different reason.

“I participated but also tried to be self-aware I would learn more by listening at times compared to taking over the conversation because I am not black,” the student wrote. “I added to the conversation a lot, but I tried to critically question the amount of input I put because I wanted to uplift my black colleagues while they tied their own stories to the work we were criticizing in class and also not want to misinterpret how I read and saw black American lit and film.”

In discussions of sex, sexuality and gender, students from different ideological viewpoints wrote of having very different experiences in their classes.

“I am a strong conservative and will not apologize for my beliefs,” one student wrote. “However, college campuses have become extremely intolerant in terms of those beliefs. I’m seen as stupid or uneducated for believing in them and I have had teachers express that to me this semester. In [course], I remember the topic of women’s rights and healthcare came up and I believe there should be no abortions period. Had I expressed that I would have been reported by other students and potentially doxxed.”

An LGBTQ student reported a mirror-image experience.

“The Professor displayed all of the characteristics of being extremely religious, and slightly homophobic,” they wrote. “They address all aspects of the book or material but will consciously skip over material related to LGBTQ. The areas that focused on religion were usually noticeably longer than other content, as well. I know if I noticed, others did as well. How is that supposed to feel like a safe space for members of my community?”

Ryan said this section is fascinating because it can reveal examples of the Rashomon effect whereby students describing similar classes or discussions can come away with very different impressions of them.

“On a college campus where people from all over the country and all over the state and all over the world come, there can sometimes not be a lot of sensitivity to the very different cultures and backgrounds of students,” Ryan said.

Faculty members can be as guilty of that as students, Ryan said, but the research suggests it is primarily the opinions of other students that drive students to feel “othered” or in danger of being ostracized.

What to do with that research is the obvious question.

What’s next?

Now that the research team has surveyed half of the schools in the UNC System, they say they hope the report will lead to some constructive dialogue about how to improve the climate for free speech on campuses.

“An irony here that I keep on coming back to is the phrase ‘sensitivity training’ is associated with things liberals run that make conservatives feel bad,” Ryan said. “But there is a need for sensitivity training that acknowledges that there are a lot of little things — I hate the term ‘micro-aggressions’ because it can be misconstrued — but there are things, small little things, that can reveal to someone that they are a significant minority. You hear the little jokes coming all from one direction and you know.”

Professor Jennifer Larson

How to go about changing that is the tricky part, Larson said.

“I would hope that this would lead us to take some steps to create an environment that would help with constructive dialogue,” Larson said. “I think it needs to be student and faculty generated. In order for it to work, it can’t be top down.”

The voices of students were central to the research, she said, and more revelatory in this research than in other more surface-level surveys. Students should therefore work with faculty members toward some solutions.

McNeilly said he is heartened by the number of students in the survey — across ideologies — who reported the same experiences and want more opportunity to hear a diversity of viewpoints and to have constructive dialogue.

“It wasn’t just conservatives who were self censoring,” McNeilly sad. “There were liberal students as well. Not to the same extent. But where are they feeling the concern from? I think that is interesting.”

“Free speech on campus isn’t just in the classroom, it’s outside the classrooms,” McNeilly said. “People try to have conversations in dorms and can’t do that — or on social media.”

“I think the thing that was refreshing is there is a considerable group of students on campus who are interested in hearing diverse viewpoints, including liberal students, conservative students and moderates. That’s a place to start.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.