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Student affairs officers have low view of students’ understanding of free speech, survey finds

‘It’s unlikely that they’ve taken the time to really think’

Slightly more student affairs officers believe students do not “understand why free speech is important in academe” than believe they do, according to a new survey.

Even more agree that attempts to squelch the speech of others threatens academic freedom, according to the survey commissioned by Inside Higher Ed. The Gallup firm conducted the survey Jan. 16 through Feb. 12, before the novel coronavirus shut down much of higher education.

The results did not surprise right-of-center education groups. “Many students have never heard of ‘academic freedom,’” Jenna Robinson, president of the North Carolina-focused Martin Center for Academic Renewal, told The College Fix in an email.

The only time that most students have had any serious exposure to the concept of free speech is a brief mention during a high school U.S. history class, she said. “It’s unlikely that they’ve taken the time to really think about why our founding fathers and universities themselves have enshrined the freedom of conscience and action in their institutions.”

David Randall, director of research at the National Association of Scholars, agreed that “students have not been taught, at any level, the documents of liberty by which freedom of speech was established, the history of its establishment, or why it is important.”

Instead, he told The Fix in an email that students are “taught about ‘social justice,’ by social justice advocates in higher education – notably, student affairs officers” like those polled for the survey. This is what constitutes their definition of academic freedom, Randall said.

The survey covered 506 student affairs officers across 248 public universities, 254 private universities, and four for-profit institutions. It polled them on issues including student mental health, race relations, violence, substance abuse and free expression on campus.

‘Ineffective tut-tutting doesn’t mean much’

Concerns over free speech and tolerance have been at the forefront of public debate over colleges for the past five years, which have seen an explosion of student protests and disruptions of guest speakers and faculty.

Two incidents in November 2015 helped kick off the controversy. University of Missouri faculty and staff tried to stop student journalists from covering racial protests that shut down campus, claiming to act in the interest of student mental safety, and Yale University students mobbed the head of their residential college for defending freedom of expression in Halloween costumes (below).

The Gallup survey found a roughly three-way split among student affairs officers on whether “students understand why free speech is important in academe.” A plurality (37 percent) was “neutral,” followed by 34 percent who strongly disagreed (8 percent) or disagreed (26 percent), and 29 percent who strongly agreed (6 percent) or agreed (23 percent).

The results were even more skewed among those at public doctoral universities, with nearly half disagreeing and about one in five agreeing.

MORE: Documentary calls Yale a ‘squid monster’ that puts comfort over learning

Student affairs officers were closer to the same page on the question of whether “those who interrupt, shout down or otherwise attempt to disrupt campus speakers represent a threat to academic freedom.” More than half (54 percent) agreed, while 20 percent either strongly disagreed (8 percent) or disagreed (12 percent).

Yet respondents were reluctant to endorse punishments for disrupting campus speakers: 33 percent of all student affairs officers disagreed with punishments, while only 27 percent agreed. Again, “neutral” drew the plurality with 41 percent. Two-thirds of the student affairs officers interviewed are between ages 40-49 (30 percent) and 50-59 (38 percent).

The path forward for academic freedom lies with college administrators taking appropriate action to combat disruptive students engaging in shoutdowns and other mob-like behavior, said Randall of NAS: “Ineffective tut-tutting doesn’t mean much.”

Mental health problems in response to speech results from ‘coddling’ practices

However, the findings that are most potentially unsettling concern student mental health. A whopping 99 percent say that “the total volume of student visits to see mental health professionals” has increased a little (21 percent) or a lot (78 percent) in the past five years.

Randall and the Martin Center’s Robinson both saw the survey results as vindication of the argument made in the 2018 best-seller The Coddling of the American Mind.

The book was written by New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President Greg Lukianoff. It traced the disintegration of campus free speech to harmful trends in parenting and education that teach ideas such as “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” “always trust your feelings” and “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

Robinson faults “victimhood culture” for creating unhealthy attitudes toward speech and leading students to seek psychiatric help. Randall laments how colleges and society have been “defining ‘mental health challenges’ down for a generation” while redefining the “suppression of free speech as a measure to protect ‘mental health.’”

The survey results show possible reluctance among students affairs officers to uphold freedom of expression when it is perceived to cause mental discomfort in students. Only 37 percent agreed that colleges should “not interfere with invitations to outside speakers extended by student groups or faculty members,” with 32 percent disagreeing.

MORE: Sociologists explain how ‘victimhood culture’ is used for social control

Respondents also recognized that one political viewpoint is favored more at any given campus: 83 percent said liberal academics and guests are treated with respect compared to 68 percent for conservatives.

Heterodox Academy, whose goal is to “improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement,” was somewhat mum on the survey results.

“Student affairs professionals play an essential role in the development and education of students,” Director of Academic Engagement Cory Clark told The Fix in an email. “As such, they offer critical perspectives about campus climate that must be considered alongside the views of students and others on campus.”

She added: “Conversations about how best to create viewpoint diverse campuses” are the best hope for making progress.

The more welcome reception of liberals is a result of a generations-long process of “treating conservatives as hate figures,” Randall told The Fix. This has resulted in both formal and informal hiring procedures “to make sure that no conservatives are employed in higher education,” he said.

MORE: Professor investigated for playing devil’s advocate in class

Pessimistic on race relations because university policies ‘divide students’

The survey also found notable pessimism about race relations among student affairs officers in contrast to more optimism from college presidents.

About one in five student affairs officers said campus race relations were “poor,” while only 15 percent said that they were “good.” Two-thirds called them “fair.”

This may simply be due to the tendency of college officials and student affairs officers to “view race relations at colleges throughout the country as worse than on their own campus,” the survey says. Yet there’s a 23 percentage point gap between presidents (77 percent) and student affairs officers (54 percent) on believing their own campus race relations were “good.”

A notable segment of student affairs officers (15 percent) even says that they face “pressures” from other campus leaders “to say that race relations are better than they are.” At private universities, this rises to 19 percent.

The Martin Center’s Robinson attributes these findings on race to the tendency of university policies “to divide students rather than unite them,” the result being to “actually hurt race relations in recent years.”

MORE: Young leftists are brats because they’re desperate for meaning

IMAGE: Barnaby Chambers/Shutterstock

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Henry Kokkeler is a student at Washington State University studying political science and history. He is a contributor to The Libertarian Republic and enjoys studying conservative intellectual history.