One can hardly be blamed for not wanting to hear further commentary on the campus speech culture war.
So much of it trades in ideologically charged tropes; flashpoint anecdotes have worn thin. Nonetheless, academics worry about the state of discourse on campus for good reason. A positive discursive culture is core to the pedagogical mission of American higher education.
This was the motivation behind a recently released report on free expression at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC professors Jennifer Larson, Mark McNeilly and Timothy Ryan wanted to get beyond the anecdotes to determine, through an evidence-based investigation, whether UNC had a problem with respect to free expression, silencing and self-censorship.
And if so, could the evidence point the way toward solutions to “foster a campus environment that is tolerant and inclusive and where a wide array of views [is] aired in service of a search for truth”?
Some of the report’s findings confirm what conservative commentators have long been saying. High percentages of students across the ideological spectrum (24 percent of liberal respondents; 68 percent of conservative respondents) report that they withhold sincerely held political views relevant to class discussions.
Students report that they censor themselves out of fear that they will damage their relationship with their professor or lose respect among their peers. In focus groups, students described social fears, such as being labeled a racist or Nazi, for holding mainstream conservative points of view, for instance a stance in favor of limited government.
Other findings do not fit so neatly within the conservative narrative. The researchers find, for example, that most students believe that a majority of their professors make an honest effort to offer both sides of political topics when they arise in class. Further, students believe that when political topics are discussed, most professors encourage students to offer points of view that compete with the left-of-center perspective that is dominant on the UNC campus.
And in contrast to the notion that students want to be in a left-of-center echo chamber, across all categories — liberal, moderate and conservative — a majority of students responded that there are presently “too few” or “far too few” opportunities to engage with perspectives with which they disagree. The researchers conclude that these results reveal “substantial enthusiasm for more constructive disagreement or dialogue across the political spectrum.”
The key insight this report has to offer is the vital role that faculty play in shaping a positive campus culture of intellectual openness and constructive discourse. But good intentions are not enough. Students recognize that most faculty try to be balanced in classroom discussion of political topics. Nonetheless, many students expect retribution and ridicule if they venture a dissenting opinion. Faculty are therefore likely underestimating how much effort is required to overcome students’ impulse to withdraw and self-censor.
As the authors note, “a classroom silence that an instructor might perceive as tacit agreement (or perhaps lackadaisical indifference) might … actually come from apprehension about the consequences of expressing specific viewpoints.”
The researchers recommend that faculty be more deliberate about reminding students of their free expression rights. Just as important, to overcome student fears to the contrary, faculty must clearly signal their commitment to ensuring that the classroom environment is open to dissenting points of view — that dissent will be seen as an opportunity for learning, not an affront.
Creating that environment requires a commitment to practicing and developing in students the intellectual and emotional habits essential to constructive argumentation, such as epistemic humility, listening in a spirit of good faith, and resilience when one hears something with which they disagree.
While it may seem obvious that faculty can and should take responsibility for the quality of discourse and diversity of ideas on campus, the professoriate is generally not considered the go-to solution. Whatever one may think of executive orders, state-level legislation, trustee-driven initiatives, and student efforts aimed at improving the campus climate, it’s faculty who drive lasting change in the academy by defining the curriculum, shaping pedagogical practice, and influencing a campus culture over decades of service.
Their deliberate effort to develop in students the intellectual habits and discursive values that constructive dialogue requires is the most important ingredient in ensuring that the recommendations offered in the report translate into positive and lasting change.
But faculty are busy. As with all academics, it will be tempting for UNC faculty to read the report’s recommendation to hold first-year orientation programs on the value of free expression and training sessions to cultivate the skills associated with constructive discourse as the work of Student Affairs.
With sincere respect for the talented professionals who staff Student Affairs at UNC, this is not the lesson to be gleaned from the report. The lesson is that the caretakers of UNC’s academic culture are the UNC faculty. Full stop. All the good work of this investigation may be for naught if faculty do not see themselves as embracing the problem and owning the solution.
I put this concern to the report’s co-author Jennifer Larson. I asked her what she would say to colleagues reluctant to lean in on this issue. She said, “Few faculty would contest that the classroom holds unique transformative potential, so why not use that potential not only to engage with students about what free expression looks like, but also to practice having empathetic, constructive conversations?”
“Practice,” is the operative word. Students do not acquire the habits of mind that lead to constructive discourse from abstract principles of free expression alone. They acquire them through practice, with an experienced guide — their professor — coaching them along the way.