Conor Friedersdorf’s recent article in the Atlantic, “Evidence That Conservative Students Really Do Self-Censor: Is Free Speech Imperiled on American College Campuses?” discusses the recently published findings from the research on free expression and constructive discourse conducted by Timothy Ryan, Jennifer Larson and me. We are all professors at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and our report is primarily based on a survey offered to all UNC undergraduates, as well as to three small focus groups.
There was some positive news. In a random sampling of classes, we found that the majority of students felt that their professors tried to discuss both sides of political issues and encourage opinions from across the political spectrum. We also found that students across the political spectrum want more opportunities to engage with those who think differently.
However, a portion of students who identified as liberal, moderate or conservative did not share their sincere beliefs in class when politics was being discussed. There were a number of reasons for this: including fears that they might receive a lower grade, that their professors or peers might embarrass them or think less of them and that their peers might publish their comments on social media.
Furthermore, the data below show that students who identify as conservative are more concerned about this than students who identify as liberal. Conservative students are anywhere from three to ten times more concerned than liberal students about the reactions of their professors and peers. This may be one reason why conservative students were far more likely to self-censor (68%) than liberal students (24%) in classes in which politics came up.
Why Do Conservative Students Self-Censor More Than Liberal Students?
Why are conservative students more likely to self-censor? Obviously, the above data provide one set of reasons. Based on our other data, there may be three additional reasons for this.
1) Conservative students reside in a mainly liberal community at UNC. The ideology of the respondents (whose demographics mirror UNC benchmarks for race, gender and residency status) was 62.7% liberal, 17.7% middle of the road and 19.6% conservative. Liberal students outnumbered conservative students by about 3 to 1. One study, based on the state voter registration database, illustrates that the faculty is more imbalanced: with a 12–1 Democrat to Republican registration ratio. In addition, 17 of the 34 departments searched showed no professors registered as Republicans. The perceptions of student respondents about faculty mirrored the above data. Asked if, based on behavior, they perceived their instructors to be liberal or conservative, 49.7% believed that they were liberal, 6.2% thought that they were moderate and 2.6% thought that they were conservative (the remainder responded either that they were “unsure” (40.9%) or “other” (0.06%). Could it be that conservative students, realizing that their opinions are in the minority, decide it is best not to offer them up in class?
2) Many liberal students have negative stereotypes of their conservative peers. Neither conservative nor liberal students were eager to attribute positive traits to their political outgroup (27.7% of respondents who identify as conservative say that liberal students are open-minded while 8% of respondents who identify as liberal say that conservative students are open-minded). More problematic for conservative students was the finding that the majority of respondents who identify as liberal describe conservative peers as “racist” (68.9%) or “sexist” (69.7%). Perhaps another reason conservative students are reluctant to speak up in class is that they are aware of liberal student perceptions of conservatives and choose not to out themselves.
3) Conservative students may be concerned that they will be socially excluded. Conservative students reside in a primarily liberal community. We asked respondents if they were willing to have students from the opposite ideology as roommates or friends or to date them. The majority of conservative students were willing to have liberal roommates (83.7%) or friends (92.1%) or to date liberals (55.5%). Liberal students were less willing than their conservative counterparts: 51.8% were willing to have conservative roommates, 63.0% were willing to have a conservative peer as a friend and 25.0% were willing to date a conservative. It may be that conservative students intuit or have experienced some liberal students’ unwillingness to interact with them socially and, living in a primarily liberal environment, have done the math and decided that it’s better to have more friendship and dating options than to share views in class.
These are inferences from the data as to potential reasons why conservative students are more likely to self-censor than liberal students. There may be other reasons and further study is needed to more fully determine the explanation for this phenomenon.
What Are Conservative Students Not Saying?
What is it that students, especially conservative ones, are not saying when they self-censor? Are conservative students self-censoring views that would be inappropriate to bring up in class, such as racist or sexist comments or non-scientific views (e.g. a belief in creationism). Or are they withholding important views that would add much to the classroom conversation?
Our research did not ask students which beliefs or ideas they would have liked to express but kept to themselves, as asking this question presents a number of difficult measurement issues. Therefore, we have no data that specifically answer this question.
However, while it is possible that some conservative students are withholding inappropriate views, there is some indirect and anecdotal evidence that conservative students may avoid expressing thoughtful comments that would add to the classroom conversation. The evidence for this includes such considerations as (a) the high standards that must be met by all students in order to enter North Carolina’s flagship university; (b) professors I’ve spoken to whose students have told them of views they were unwilling to express in class, which were in no way inappropriate; and c) my personal experience of having a law student come up after my presentation to say she self-censored when she wanted to make a valid constitutional argument in class but decided against it because it was a conservative argument and would thus out her as a conservative.
This information is anecdotal, so we cannot say for sure what conservative students are not saying. However, if they are holding back intelligent views and arguments then classroom discussions in which politics come up are not as rich or varied as they could be because conservative students are holding back. This is not only a disservice to conservative students, but to liberal students as well.
There may be many factors contributing to conservative students’ tendency to self-censor more than their liberal counterparts at UNC. Concerns about reactions from faculty and peers, the realization that they hold a minority viewpoint, concerns about being stereotyped and fear of social exclusion may all contribute to their staying silent in class. These fears create less rich and viewpoint diverse classroom discussions, to the detriment of conservative and liberal students alike.
On April 2, “Anonymous” commented on Mark McNeilly’s article on why conservative students self-censor that “you have to be prepared to finish every fight you start,” which is “exhausting,” a “situation where ‘fighting off’ the bully could take hours of careful debate.” That, I think, may be one of the most common and important reason for students of any political viewpoint ”self-censoring,” or just not expressing political opinions or engaging in political debate. They may simply not feel up to long, exhausting, pointless arguments with a stubbornly, even fanatically opinionated opponent who won’t change or reconsider their views no matter what, or even admit that you might have a point, who may even call you names. Also, they may not feel well-informed and expert enough on all the ins and outs of an argument to possibly win or even survive a debate with someone who considers him- or herself an… Read more »
Plus, you have to be prepared to finish every fight you start. That is exhausting.
Imagine being bullied in a situation where “fighting off” the bully could take hours of careful debate. Most of us prefer the strong silent type anyhow
With respect both to charges of academic faculty indoctrination and to the realities of campus intimidation, it may be interesting to read an article that appeared in AREO about a year ago, and some of the articles cited by its author. In “Virtue Signaling or Piety Display?” (AREO, March 5, 2019), M. “Lorenzo” Warby argued that we “must not…overstate the role of academics,” finding both fellow-students and university administrators far more to blame than professors for our day’s campus madness. “Research,” he noted, indicated that “strong engagement with academics by students actually has a moderating effect on student opinions,” the more studious and academically serious students generally being more moderate and nuanced, less extreme and dogmatic, in their political views whether left or right of center. It was, rather, “intense involvement in student life, an area in which the role of university administrations is strongest, which has the most powerful… Read more »
Intimidation of conservative or less liberal students is real and deplorable–but it may not be the whole story. There has also been a major sociological shift in American academia in recent decades as well, which I hope to explain below. Briefly, I call it the decline of the Joycean “Stephen Dedalus aspirants” and of David Riesman & Nathan Glazer’s “eager strivers for cosmopolitanism and culture.” It seems to me that American conservative criticisms of liberal academia have undergone a major shift of emphasis in the last few decades. Conservatives used to accuse liberal professors of brainwashing and indoctrinating their students, a charge we still do sometimes hear, but now we hear far more often about liberal professors–and liberal classmates–intimidating and censoring conservative students. Half a century ago, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, conservative politicians like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and George Wallace, and pundits like William F. Buckley… Read more »
Many students whether liberal, conservative, or middle-of-the-road may simply be temperamentally averse to arguing or debate, reluctant to antagonize anyone, feeling that whichever way they will be preaching to the already otherwise very stubbornly converted, basically just pissing in the wind. As for declaring yourself unwilling to room with, hang out with, or date somebody of different politics from themselves, they may be happy enough to let comparative strangers (e.h., the guy across the hall you nod and say “hello” to but seldom have any real conversation with, or people sitting three seats away from them in class whom they never see outside class) argue about politics to their heart’s content, but also still feel the need for something more quiet, harmonious, peaceful, and restful in more private, intimate times and spaces, e.g/., close friendship and love (and the search for love)–in effect, I think they have a sort of… Read more »
I appreciate that you have to examine whether or not the things conservatives are keeping to themselves might be what you consider racist, sexist, or anti-scientific. I don’t know what’s more funny, the fact that you’re treating conservatives having ideas worth hearing as a novel idea you need to prove to your audience, or the fact that you’re casually assuming that progressive standards of what is or isn’t appropriate will be used to judge a conservative even as you wonder why they keep their mouths shut.
«Why Do Conservative Students Self-Censor?» – The answer is simple. “Progressive movement” is the synonym of Red Guards movement led by leftist professors. The only thing that comforts me is that the Red Guards will kill the left professors with particular zeal. In a way, Red Guards already started doing it.
For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind