Survey: Students report open campus climate, want to punish those who offend

June 28, 2021

Higher education is often criticized for a lack of viewpoint diversity. The recently released American College Student Freedom Progress, and Flourishing Survey, conducted by North Dakota State University’s Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, examined three topics: campus free speech and viewpoint diversity; human progress, attitudes about the future, and national pride; and economics and entrepreneurship. This summary focuses on student perceptions of viewpoint diversity and their attitudes toward regulating free speech. 

These data suggest that a majority of students perceive their campus climate as open to discussing controversial and unpopular ideas. However, political beliefs had a notable impact on how the campus climate was perceived and experienced. Liberal and conservative students differed in how they perceived and experienced the campus climate, with liberal students more likely to report an open campus climate. 

The survey also revealed striking tensions: Roughly two-thirds of students “who believe their professors create a classroom climate that allows diverse views” or that “professors create a classroom climate that allows unpopular views,” support reporting their peers to the university for offensive expression. 

Majority of students perceive an open campus climate

Overall, 57% of students said that they “feel comfortable sharing [their] opinion on a controversial topic being discussed in class.” More than three in four students (78%) reported that their professors “encourage students to explore a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives.” A similar portion of students (76%) said that their professors “create a classroom climate in which people with diverse views would feel comfortable sharing their opinions.” 

Most students were also not supportive of censorship. For instance, 70% said they opposed disinviting a speaker who held views that a majority of students disagreed with; 76% opposed dropping a required reading for a course because it includes views that many students strongly disagree with; the same portion of students (76%) opposed stopping a class discussion of a topic that makes students feel uncomfortable; and 65% said that professors should not drop “a required reading for a college class [if it] includes content that makes students feel uncomfortable.

Sanctions and censorship still popular among a notable portion of students

These are encouraging findings so far, but there are good reasons to temper one’s enthusiasm. 

First, 69% of students agreed that “[i]f a professor says something that students find offensive, that professor [should] be reported to the university,” and three in five students agreed with this course of action when it came to their peers. Over the past year, attempts to sanction faculty and students for expression considered offensive have become more common. The findings from the NDSU survey suggest that these sanction attempts are likely to continue.

The many students whose viewpoints are in the majority and say they are comfortable expressing themselves on controversial topics are also more likely to report their peers for offensive expression.

Second, the sample was 49% liberal and 25% conservative (the remaining 26% did not identify as either liberal or conservative). In response to all of the items asked about expression on campus, liberal students, compared to conservative students (see the figure below), reported perceiving and experiencing a more open campus climate. For instance, a greater percentage of liberal students reported being “comfortable sharing your opinion on a controversial or sensitive topic being discussed in class;” that the “professors create a classroom in which people with diverse views would feel comfortable sharing their opinions;” that the professors “encourage students to explore a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives;” and that their professors “create a classroom climate where people with unpopular views would feel comfortable sharing their opinions.”

Yet, on all of the questions pertaining to censorship, a greater percentage of liberal students, compared to conservative students, supported censorship. For instance, 42% of liberal students supported dropping a required course reading if it made students uncomfortable and 39% of them supported disinviting a speaker that many students disagreed with. An overwhelming portion of liberal students (86%) supported reporting faculty to the university for offensive expression, and a considerable majority of liberal students (76%) supported reporting their peers to the university for such behavior.

Evidence for a spiral of silence

Spiral of Silence theory argues that people intuitively monitor if their opinions are in the majority or minority. Because people are motivated to avoid ridicule, isolation, and ostracism from their community, minority or deviant opinions are expressed less frequently and become mostly “silenced” over time. Attempts to sanction those with controversial, unpopular, or offensive views make it clear to members of the community what views are in the minority and are risky to express. 

On most campuses, liberal viewpoints are predominant among students, faculty, and administrators. Thus, it is not surprising that conservative (and independent) students perceive a more restricted environment for expression on campus. What is more concerning is that among students who say they are “comfortable sharing their opinion on a controversial topic,” two-thirds support reporting a student to the university for offensive expression. The percentage of students who support reporting their peers is roughly the same for students “who believe their professors create a classroom climate that allows diverse views” and for those students “who believe professors create a classroom climate that allows unpopular views.” 

In other words, the many students whose viewpoints are in the majority and say they are comfortable expressing themselves on controversial topics are also more likely to report their peers for offensive expression. As these sanction attempts continue to metastasize on campuses around the country, FIRE remains at the ready to defend faculty and students who become the subject of these efforts.