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.