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Colleges must teach ‘constructive dialogue’ or students will keep getting more intolerant, UNC researchers say

‘Structured debate’ doesn’t work outside the classroom

Most conservative and liberal students at the University of North Carolina want to socially engage with each other, enjoy having classes with the other, and agree that the university is better with their differently minded peers on campus.

Then what’s the problem? Faculty and administrators aren’t teaching them how to engage with each other outside the classroom – a venue for structured debate that doesn’t mirror their daily lives, a professor said in an online event.

UNC researchers discussed the results of their UNC survey on freedom of expression and answered audience questions, including how to conduct similar research at other colleges. The Martin Center for Academic Renewal hosted the Thursday event.

“There’s stuff about how to teach rhetoric, how to teach argument,” said Jennifer Larson, teaching associate English professor and director of undergraduate studies.

What’s missing is an evidence-based method for applying that learning “to what civil discourse or constructive dialogue outside of the classroom looks like,” she said, though a one-year-old program at UNC is trying to remedy this.

Larson and two colleagues, political scientist Timothy Ryan and marketing professor Mark McNeilly, did the study to understand the culture of UNC and scrutinize the large amount of anecdotal evidence about claims of bias, or lack thereof, on campus.

In a departure from similar research, the team decided to conduct theirs by asking about specific classes from a student’s schedule, rather than having the students describe overall experiences in all of their classes. Their ideological differences with each other also strengthened the research, they said.

Asked by an audience member if the UNC team would be willing to replicate their study at other schools, McNeilly said they would be interested in studying a school in another state.

They have already presented their findings at a Foundation for Individual Rights in Education conference, which garnered interest from others, according to Larson: “There are some people doing things like this and we’ve talked about collaborating with different schools.”

Conservatives are ‘racist’ and ‘sexist,’ liberals are’condescending’

While the data were sometimes predictable, the researchers admitted to being surprised by some results.

For example, just over half of surveyed students agreed that their instructors tried to encourage participation from both sides of the political aisle. Even among conservative students, only one in 10 disagreed, which Larson found “promising.”

More than half were concerned about expressing their beliefs, to avoid drawing a lower opinion from their professors and peers, to protect their grades, or to shield themselves from attack on social media.

The researchers concluded that the current campus environment does not consistently promote free expression and constructive dialogue across the political spectrum. More than a third of students said they had engaged in self-censorship at least once, and slightly less said they had done it multiple times.

Low percentages of both liberal and conservative students described their counterparts positively and more than half of both groups described their counterparts negatively. Liberal students called conservatives “racist”’ and ‘sexist,” while conservatives called their ideological foes “condescending.”

MORE: Even liberal students want to hear more conservatives at UNC

Larson said the numbers on students unwilling to tolerate the presence of their ideological foes were both “concerning” and “interesting.” Fifteen to 35 percent said they were unwilling to engage with their ideological opponents, while 22 percent of liberals and 14 percent of conservatives agreed UNC would benefit without the other ideological group.

An audience member asked for examples of what training for civil dialogue would look like. McNeilly cited UNC’s Program for Public Discourse, created last year in the College of Arts and Sciences, whose dean recently appointed the program’s first faculty director from within UNC and its executive director from MIT.

Its goal is to provide tools to faculty and students in order to facilitate civil discourse, McNeilly said. An upcoming event will tackle future COVID-19 lockdowns with experts in civil liberties, economic security and public health.

McNeilly and Larson agreed that teaching skills in civil dialogue is not an exact science, requiring further research and experimentation.

Faculty skeptical of research on campus freedom of expression

Fears of expressing unpopular views were stronger among conservative students, whether in social situations or in class: McNeilly said conservatives faced them “more acutely.”

While some liberal students shared certain fears with conservative students, percentages never approached 50 percent. Conservative students’ fears out-measured those of their liberal counterparts in every category.

More than half of conservatives reported self-censoring and fearing a lower opinion from their peers, while slightly fewer also feared their instructors would have a lower opinion of them.

McNeilly said he somewhat agreed with an audience member that progressive students were more adversely affected by hearing different views because their own views are rarely challenged. Larson added that students need to know the views of others because “it changes the way you think.”

Students were more likely to hear “disrespectful, inappropriate, or offensive” language about groups they were more sensitive to, according to the study. The researchers asked about men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, foreign students, Christians, Muslims, LGBT students, liberals and conservatives.

All political groups – liberal (57 percent), moderate (68 percent), conservative (83 percent) – reported hearing the most offensive language about conservatives. Those on the right were also significantly less likely than liberals to say they would try to disrupt invited speakers they disagree with or prevent audiences from hearing them.

The UNC researchers recommended the administration remind faculty, staff and students of the importance of free expression, and provide training on effective techniques to engage in constructive dialogue. The university should provide more speakers who present evidence-based ideas from across the political spectrum, they said.

UNC should also expand its research on free expression and perform research at regular intervals to identify new issues and track progress, they recommended.

An audience member asked for suggestions on how to “alleviate faculty concerns” at Florida universities, citing significant pushback from faculty when similar research was suggested.

Larson advised that they emphasize that this research wasn’t “about being punitive or singling someone out as doing a good job or a bad job,” but to simply assess what is happening on campus using an evidence-based approach.

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IMAGE: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Julia Johnson - University of South Carolina