The University of Wisconsin system will release a free-speech survey on Monday that was delayed last spring due to political and procedural issues.
The survey, like similar ones in Florida and North Carolina, will ask thousands of students at the system’s 13 campuses about their perspectives on “campus free expression, diversity of views and self-censorship,” according to its description. Originally scheduled for April, the survey was quickly pushed back after some campus leaders raised concerns about the issue and after the interim chancellor of one of the system’s campuses resigned in protest.
The topic of the study and concerns that Republican lawmakers could misuse its results prompted several student government leaders in the system and the state chapter of the American Association of University Professors to call for the study to be delayed or canceled. Chronicle Spring reports indicated that institutional review boards at all of the system’s campuses may not approve the study. And James P. Henderson, in a notable disagreement with the system’s leadership, cited the conduct of the survey as the main reason he abruptly resigned as interim chancellor of the Whitewater campus, saying he and his fellow chancellors were not given enough input. into it.
The study has advanced since the spring controversy, system president Jay O. Rothman said in an interview with the magazine. Chronicle on Friday. Rothman, who took office June 1, said he fully supports the poll and that “the opportunities for free speech and civil dialogue are one of the reasons I took this job.” He added that the study includes feedback from campus chancellors, shared governance leaders and an advisory board.
The survey gives system leaders statistically reliable information about what’s happening on campuses, Rothman said. “We’re trying to learn,” he said. “We want to know what the climate is, and then we can respond to the question, what are some things we can do to improve the climate?”
Rothman announced Friday several other projects aimed at promoting civil society dialogue, including the creation of the Wisconsin Institute for Citizenship and Civil Dialogue, which will coordinate efforts and potentially offer joint programs among research and policy centers across the system to strengthen civil society dialogue. The system also convenes a series of “peer-to-peer conversations on challenging topics,” in which Rothman participates, and sponsors the Wisconsin Civic Games for middle and high school students.
The Wisconsin study joins similar efforts in Florida and North Carolina to gauge students’ views on free speech and other hot-button issues. Florida enacted a law last year requiring an annual survey of students and staff at public universities to assess the climate of intellectual diversity on their campuses. However, only 2.4 percent of the more than 364,000 students sent in April completed it, and the faculty and staff response rate was 9.4 percent.
The United Faculty of Florida, a union representing professors, encouraged students, instructors and staff to ignore the poll, saying it was not conducted in good faith and represented an attempt by Republican lawmakers to bolster the claim that conservative students feel unwelcome in the poll. college classrooms. (A Republican state representative who supported the law mandating the survey said Tallahassee Democrat (that he did so so that future legislators could “use this data as a basis for making policy decisions.”)
A free-form survey distributed to students in the University of North Carolina system last spring produced a slightly stronger response, with 7.9 percent of students completing it. In that study, researchers found “little evidence that faculty create a highly politicized climate in UNC system classrooms.”
They also found that most students’ ideological views had not changed during college. Respondents, especially those who identified themselves as conservative, were more likely to engage in self-censorship because they were concerned about the reaction of their peers than because of the attitude of their professors.
The questions on both surveys are similar to those asked in Wisconsin. Students are asked if they have felt pressured by professors to conform to a particular political or ideological opinion discussed in class; how open they are to considering positions that differ from their own on issues such as abortion, gun control, immigration, police misconduct, and transgender issues; and whether controversial speakers should be invited or protested on campus.
The survey also presents hypothetical scenarios — such as a teacher criticizing an elected official on a personal Twitter account or a group of students posting on social media that a student of a certain race or ethnicity is not welcome on campus — and asks whether students believe those scenarios are protected under the First Amendment. Respondents are asked which political party and ideologies they most identify with, although the survey notes that “you don’t have to answer any questions you’d rather not.”
The study is being conducted by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, a unit of the system, and the research team includes four professors from the system. It will be sent to a random sample of students at each campus with the goal of receiving approximately 500 responses per campus, and those who complete it will each receive a $10 electronic gift card. It will close on December 14 and results will be announced early next year. A spokeswoman for the system said data may be weighted based on response rates.
Funding for the study came from the Menard Center for Research on Institutions and Innovation, and its political ties worried some critics. Although the center is nonpartisan, it is named after the Menard family, owners of the Menards chain of home improvement stores, who donated $2.36 million for its expansion in 2019; Menards founder John R. Menard Jr. has a long history of donating to conservative political candidates and organizations. And the Menard Center, based on the system’s Stout campus, was established in 2017 with a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.
Even before its official postponement, the Wisconsin poll had been questioned by emails, text messages and other materials obtained by Chronicle through open registry applications. After the proposal was made in January, it was scrapped once, in March, over the chancellors’ objections, and restarted. “No one is interested,” Rebecca M. Blank, then chancellor of the system’s flagship Madison campus, wrote to colleagues. “So we’re on the hook for that.”
But a day later, Blank wrote in the same email chain that careful scrutiny of free speech issues is warranted. “I think there is some pressure on us from the system, the legislature, etc. to say we are going to do SOMETHING about this,” he wrote. “So it’s important to be proactive about it. It’s much better to have some plans in place than to have to scramble and create something this fall.
Blank may have been relieved to be “off the hook,” but other major stakeholders were not happy with what at the time appeared to be the cancellation of the project. Menard Center Director Timothy Shiell, who described himself Chronicle in the spring as a “liberal professor funded by a conservative donor to run a nonpartisan center,” wrote in an e-mail to a colleague about the decision’s political optics. Shiell, a philosophy professor on Stout’s campus, wrote that the chancellors feared the results would be bad and the legislature would attack them. God forbid that we allow routine research into matters of national, national and even international importance.
Shiell said in an April interview Chronicle that he had wanted to collect data on students’ views on free speech for several years. Although there is no evidence that politicians were involved in the study’s conception, Republican leaders in state government took a keen interest in its fate and progress. Among them was state Rep. Dave Murphy, who is chairman of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee. Murphy wrote in a June 1 email to Michael J. Falbo, who served as interim president from March until Rothman’s term began, that he was “deeply disturbed” by news of the poll’s cancellation. “Members of my committee,” added Murphy, “would find the results of such a survey invaluable.”
Murphy sent the email on March 30, and he copied Robin J. Vos, the powerful Republican speaker of the Wisconsin state assembly. Emails that have been received Chronicle show that Murphy and Vos, along with a Republican state senator and two system regents, contacted Falbo to ask him to reconsider his decision.
The next day, Falbo sent a copy of the proposed survey to the chancellors, saying he found nothing objectionable about it, and met with them via Microsoft Teams to discuss it. Later that evening, the survey advisory board received emails that the project was back on track. (An attempt to contact Falbo on Friday was not immediately successful.)
That didn’t sit well with Whitewater Chancellor Henderson, who tendered his resignation on April 3. When Falbo and the chancellors met, “the overwhelming response was no,” Henderson wrote to system president Edmund Manydeeds III. Board of Regents. At the end of the meeting, Henderson wrote, Falbo “rejected our comments and said he would continue. And then an email came out saying the system supported the study.
A day after his resignation, Henderson wrote in a text to campus chancellor Renée M. Wachter, “I was just freaked out when Mike told me we were going to be ordered to do this study,” referring to Falbo. Wachter responded sympathetically, regarding the inquiry as a “win-win situation.” Henderson lamented that people at the system level were “trying to force a political position on campuses.”
On April 7, the system announced it was postponing the survey for a second time after days of internal discussion among members of the research team. In one such message on April 5, Geoffrey Peterson, a political science professor at the Eau Claire campus, said the poll had become a “political football” and advocated a pause. “The notion that members of the Legislature supported the system to distribute the poll, whether accurate or not, now defines the poll and clearly suggests that the poll is an unbiased instrument,” Peterson wrote. “The truth is that the content of the poll is irrelevant now. What is important now is the perception that is rapidly developing about it, and these perceptions are diametrically opposed to the real goals of the study.
April Blesche-Rechek, an Eau Claire psychology professor and member of the research team, suggested in the same email thread that concerns about campuses engaging in political indoctrination may be overblown. “Many parents worry that their college kids are being pressured to conform to a radical left-wing ideological point of view. How often students actually perceive this, and the contexts in which it occurs, if ever, may prove those assumptions wrong,” he wrote. .
For his part, Rothman said Friday that the only contact he had with state lawmakers about the study was to inform them early in his term that the system was moving forward with it.
“The results of the survey tell us one thing, but if we can’t have open and honest and fair discussions about really difficult issues — whether it’s religion, abortion or whatever it happens to be — that’s a real challenge for our democracy,” Rothman said. “If universities can’t lead by example, I’m not sure who will.”