Survey to explore student expression on campus

One of the benefits of higher education is the chance to experience new ideas, perspectives and cultures.

People may not embrace or agree with everything that they see or hear, but at least they can learn more about it all. Ideally, they also will be become better able to discuss differences in a way that encourages greater understanding, rather than wider divides.

Yet what happens to this opportunity if people hesitate to speak, or are reluctant to listen? And how do colleges and universities know whether either or both is happening on their campus?

This week, Case Western Reserve is taking a step to try to begin to answer these questions. Starting tomorrow, all law students and a random sample of undergraduates will have the opportunity to share how they feel about articulating their views—both in class and in general at Case Western Reserve.

The university is inviting these students to participate in the Campus Expression Survey, a measure that members of the Heterodoxy Academy (HA) developed in the wake of news reports that some students and faculty are increasingly hesitant to offer their perspectives on issues.

In an analysis of responses to the Campus Expression Survey from nearly 1,100 U.S. college students, HA found that more than half of indicated that they did not think that their school “frequently encourages students to consider a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives.”

In addition, just under a third of students identifying as conservative said they were “very reluctant” to discuss politics, gender or race in class. Less than 10 percent of those identifying as liberal, meanwhile, were “very reluctant” to discuss politics or gender; 15 percent of those identifying as liberal were “very reluctant” to discuss race.

According to their survey responses, the primary reason for their reluctance to engage on these topics was concern about reactions of classmates, followed by concerns about criticisms from their professors, or even a lower grade.

The problem with such self-censorship involves its potential negative effects on education. As Case Western Reserve Professor Jonathan Adler explained in an email inviting students to participate in the survey: “An essential part of learning is exposure to new ideas and perspectives, and campus diversity includes diversity of thought.”

Case Western Reserve as an institution frequently emphasizes the vital importance of free expression, including its value to education. The survey will allow the university to hear directly from students willing to share how comfortable they actually feel about expressing their views.

No one is required to complete the survey. As Adler himself specifically notes in his invitation email: “Your participation in the survey is completely voluntary. Your standing at CWRU will not be affected in any way if you decide not to participate in the survey.”

Those who do choose to participate, however, will receive a $2 credit to their CaseCash accounts after submitting their responses.

Jean Gubbins, director of Institutional Research, is the “responsible investigator” for the project.

A member of HA himself, Adler is the Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and director of the school’s Center for Business Law & Regulation. The center brought HA co-founder and board chair Jonathan Haidt to campus last month as part of the university’s Think Forum series.