By Eric Johnson
CHAPEL HILL (May 26, 2022) – Across the UNC System, most classes barely touch on politics, and most professors are fair-minded when they raise political subjects. Yet students are still reluctant to share their views on contentious topics, and conservative students are especially nervous about being ostracized for their political beliefs.
Those findings from a group of faculty researchers, presented at this week’s meeting of the UNC System Board of Governors, don’t fit neatly into partisan narratives about free speech on campus. But they do suggest a real cultural challenge when it comes to preserving higher education’s role as a place for open debate and civil disagreement.
“People do indeed express concern about sharing their sincere political views in class,” said Tim Ryan, a political scientist at UNC Chapel Hill and one of the study’s authors. “And they reliably express more concern about their peers than their instructors. When it comes to problems with free expression on campus, a lot more has to do with social pressure from your peers.”
The months-long study reached more than 3,400 students across eight UNC System schools, creating a nuanced picture of how America’s polarized political environment is affecting college life. The main findings include:
- Faculty generally do not push political agendas in class. In courses where politics comes up, students generally indicate that their instructor handled political discussions inclusively.
- Campuses do not consistently achieve an atmosphere that promotes free expression. A significant number of students have concerns about stating their sincere political views in class and have self-censored because they were concerned about the potential reactions, especially from peers.
- Students who identify as conservative face distinct challenges. Self-identified conservatives express free-expression-related concerns at a far higher rate than self-identified liberals.
- Students across the political spectrum want more opportunities to engage with those who think differently. We find remarkably broad support for increasing the availability of conservative speakers.
The researchers highlighted clear evidence that most students want to hear a wider range of viewpoints but don’t always feel comfortable engaging. That leaves campus debates dominated by a strident minority of hard partisans, mirroring the ‘exhausted majority’ problem in the country’s political culture.
“We find that students who show higher levels of open-mindedness, who are more likely to consider others’ perspectives, and who are more able to describe political groups dispassionately are less likely to be politically engaged,” the survey found.
“Similarly, students who are more likely to be politically involved have a higher tendency toward closed-mindedness, toward disliking the outgroup, and toward believing negative stereotypes about the outgroup—a pattern that has the potential to lower the appeal of campus political activities.”
That makes the current challenges to free expression more difficult to address, the researchers noted, because they have more to do with broad cultural forces than with campus rules.
Most UNC schools have a green-light rating from FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, with formal policies that are supportive of free expression and academic freedom. Translating those policies into a more constructive political environment will take work.
“A culture of free expression is absolutely core to our mission as a public university,” said UNC President Peter Hans, speaking to BOG members after the presentation. “We can’t earn public trust, prepare students for democratic citizenship, or conduct rigorous research if we don’t have open and honest dialogue.”
The Board also heard comments from Seth Waxman and Noel Francisco, both former Solicitors General of the United States with deep expertise in the First Amendment and campus speech controversies.
They pointed to a long history of case law, all the way up to the Supreme Court, that emphasizes the importance of free expression and academic freedom. Universities have a special obligation to create an environment for debate and open inquiry, they stressed, and administrators should look carefully at the free expression survey results.
“I haven’t seen a more thoughtful study than the one this group performed,” Waxman said, praising the nuance of the faculty-led effort. “I think in some ways, it’s quite encouraging.” The strength of the University’s formal speech protections should give faculty and administrators confidence in trying to encourage more students to take an open-minded interest in politics, he said.
“In the age of social media, in an environment in which there is a shocking level of incivility in our political discourse by political figures and pundits who model exactly the wrong kind of behavior… it’s not surprising that students are reluctant to express their political opinions,” Waxman said.
“If universities aren’t up to the task of remediating that, I fear for our democracy. I can’t underscore enough how important this mission is.”
Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He works for the College Board, UNC Chapel Hill, and the UNC System.