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Higher ed publication stops asking administrators about trigger warnings, free speech, academic freedom

You would think that questions about trigger warnings, free speech and academic freedom would be particularly pertinent in 2019 on an annual survey of senior college administrators.

You’re evidently not calling the shots at Inside Higher Ed.

The daily trade publication for higher education, a younger competitor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, inexplicably ditched some of the hot-button questions it has long asked provosts and chief academic officers for its annual survey.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess, director of education-policy studies, and research assistant Cody Christensen write in National Review that it’s a “curious time” for IHE to make such a jarring change:

Since 2015, this survey has been the only annual snapshot that captures what senior college administrators think about trigger warnings, free speech, and academic freedom — and thus the only reliable way to gauge changes in their actions or attitudes. In light of the contretemps of the past year, many were eager to see what campus leaders had to say.

Unfortunately, in the latest survey, released last week, those questions had been neatly scrubbed from the survey. Yep, one of the nation’s primary news outlets covering higher education decided that now would be a propitious time to stop asking about academic freedom and free speech on campus.

This year’s survey, by contrast, touts its first-time questions about the impact of the #MeToo movement on higher ed. Two-thirds of respondents said higher ed “has tolerated sexual harassment by faculty members for far too long” but fewer than one in seven agreed that their own institutions have shown tolerance for too long.

The 475-respondent survey, conducted by Gallup, did ask what proportion of students feel “welcome in classrooms.” The results: Conservatives and racial or ethnic minority students feel the most unwelcome, at nearly identical rates, according to provosts and chief academic officers.

“Given that surveys of students have indicated that half of them report having censored themselves in class for fear of what will be said in response, this kind of question provides a useful, sometimes laughable, window into the self-serving bubble that campus mandarins occupy,” Hess and Christensen write.

But the omission of speech-related questions – on academic freedom, interference with invitations to guest speakers, respect for conservative academics and students and the threat posed by student shutdowns – “suggests an unfortunate casualness about the burning question of what it really means for campuses to welcome and support the free and unfettered exchange of ideas,” they continue.

“The results [from past surveys] tended to suggest there are real grounds for concern — over half of provosts, for instance, responded that free speech rights are either ‘threatened’ or ‘very threatened’ on college campuses,” they write. “Even when questions generate self-serving responses, the results can be unintentionally revealing.”

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