By delaying free speech survey in response to criticism, University of Wisconsin System errs

April 15, 2022

Just days before the launch of a survey on the campus climate for free speech, the University of Wisconsin System caved to public pressure baselessly alleging the survey would lead to illiberal legislation, and delayed the initiative until the fall semester. 

The response to the survey, which included the resignation of the interim chancellor of UW Whitewater, has been so disproportionate that it is itself a worrying sign for free speech on UW campuses. Abandoning nonpartisan research on free speech will backfire, as it signals that stakeholders are, at best, more invested in burying their heads in the sand than facing potential problems — or, at worst, hiding the evidence.

Notably, critics do not take aim at the actual substance of the survey, including its questions. They would have no reason to: The survey questions are methodologically sound, widely used by different researchers and nonprofit organizations, and designed to produce viewpoint-neutral responses. FIRE’s research staff consulted with the survey’s research team on question wording and survey methodology to ensure as much.

Those who want to stop the survey should consider the good that surveying free expression can do.

Furthermore, our own data indicates that the topic of the survey, the campus climate for free speech, is important: Students whose ideological views are in the minority on their campus — regardless of whether the dominant view among students is liberal or conservative — self-censor more often when it comes to various topics (e.g., abortion, gun control, racial inequality, transgender issues). Those who aim to solve this problem know that understanding its impact and scope is essential.

Free speech survey is not ‘political’

Confoundingly, critics allege that the survey is meant to undermine the university system and provide ammunition to critics or legislators who seek to pass legislation restricting the academic freedom and free speech rights of faculty. While fear of bad legislation is not unfounded — FIRE’s legislative department has been working overtime fighting unconstitutional bills that would limit discussion of topics of race and gender in higher education — halting the gathering of data on free speech will not stop these bills. This line of attack is nothing but motive-mongering: It baselessly imputes malevolent intent to the researchers.

What is unclear is how obstructing data collection will do anything to prevent bad legislation. 

Legislators bent on introducing ideologically-driven higher education bills will persist with or without data. What is unclear is how obstructing data collection will do anything to prevent bad legislation. In fact, it seems much more likely that efforts to shut down research that will shed light on campus culture will lead to the development of worse legislation, more likely to be irrelevant or poorly fitted to the context in which it will operate.

When lawmakers propose an illiberal law impacting student or faculty speech rights at institutions of higher education, FIRE will be there to oppose it, as we have with bills attempting to ban the teaching of critical race theory. That will be true regardless of the anecdotal and/or empirical evidence presented to justify such legislation.

Why free speech surveys matter

Those who want to stop the survey should consider the good that surveying free expression can do. If, as many critics believe, free speech problems on campus have been exaggerated in the media, then a well-designed survey should bear that out in the data. These surveys also identify and highlight challenges unique to marginalized and underserved groups in ways that could better focus efforts to ensure all voices are heard. That benefit should not be sacrificed based on the undifferentiated fear that the results might pose as many challenges as opportunities. 

FIRE is very concerned that this posture towards research will become more widespread, and that basic data gathering will become another culture war football.

If critics think the survey will not help further these goals because the questions are biased, then they should criticize it on those grounds and suggest improvements, or, even better, create a survey of their own and contribute to the body of knowledge. Attitudes toward free speech need more research from more scholars, not less. This is why, for years, FIRE has encouraged universities to survey the climate for free expression as a way to improve that climate, and why we surveyed 37,000 students at 150 colleges with our College Free Speech Rankings survey. You cannot fix a problem if you aren’t willing to understand it.

FIRE is very concerned that this posture towards research will become more widespread, and that basic data gathering will become another culture war football. Last year, a bill in Florida contained a provision calling for “an objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid survey to be used by each institution which considers the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the college community feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.” 

FIRE opposed this bill on grounds other than this requirement. However, we noticed that the coverage surrounding this particular provision of the bill was egregiously inaccurate, with Salon’s headline falsely stating “DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state,” and The Hill’s headline similarly claiming “Florida Gov signs law requiring students, faculty be asked to declare their political beliefs.” 

These partisan misrepresentations actively impede the gathering of knowledge, and if we let ourselves concede that the act of gathering data about free speech only serves evil, we condemn ourselves to a willful ignorance that is unfit for the academy and antithetical to its aims.


Schools:  University of Wisconsin – Whitewater University of Wisconsin System