The Goucher Political Science Capstone has spent the entire semester focusing on issues of college campus ideological diversity, campus speaker protests, and the overarching issues of free speech on campus. We examined this issue because of the importance institutions of higher education have in American life, as well as the growing political and cultural dissatisfaction with academia, particularly on the right. According to a Pew poll conducted in June 2017, 58% of Republican leaning Independents say colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, a 21-percentage point increase in this attitude from the same group two years prior. This development may suggest that funding for higher learning could very well become a political football in our polarized electorate—if it is not already.
The first half of the semester was spent trying to understand if this so-called “campus free speech crisis” even existed and if so, what its roots were and what could or should be done to address it.
We looked into issues of faculty ideology across the country: The professoriate is about 30 percentage points more liberal than the rest of the country—about 19 percentage points more liberal than it was in 1990. We examined campus speaker protests: According to FIRE’s (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) campus speaker protest database, there have been 368 instances of campus speaker protests across the country since 2000, at public, private-religious, and private-secular institutions alike. Of these instances, 31% have been from the right side of the ideological spectrum and 69% have been from the left. This dynamic of protest from the left has become more pronounced in recent years—since 2014 there have been 121 instances of speaker protest, 18% of which have been from the right and 82% of which have been from the left. Of the 121 total instances of speaker protest since 2014, 45% have resulted in the dis-invitation of the speaker. In short: Protests of speakers on campus are rapidly becoming more frequent, they are being conducted in large part by students on the left, and nearly half of the time, colleges are rewarding these protests with the dis-invitation of the speaker.
We debated, at great length, the meaning of these statistics and actions, their validity, what consequences there should be for them, and Goucher’s place in this story. Implicit in someone’s understanding of freedom of speech at the university is their conception of what the purpose of the university itself is. Generally speaking, people fell into two camps on this matter: Either the fundamental purpose of the university is to pursue truth through questioning and learning at the risk of offending others, or the fundamental purpose is to more or less create an open community where risk of offense to all groups is mitigated at the expense of open expression for all groups. There was also a middle ground on this issue, where people found themselves agreeing with portions of both purposes of the university—a tricky stance to hold once concrete policy details are considered.
The second section of the class was built around assessing the Goucher community’s attitudes on these topics. We sought to address questions like: What is the ideological breakdown of the student body? How do students perceive the ideological orientations of their professors? What would student’s reactions be to a controversial speaker coming here? These were only some of the dozens of questions we wanted empirically supported answers to. To achieve this, we designed a survey and focus group protocol over the course of several weeks, sent the survey to the field and subsequently carried out our focus groups, and then analyzed our results. We procured some very interesting results, however, the most important findings (from my perspective, I do not speak for the class—we will have an executive report detailing our findings) are in part, what wasn’t there—conservative viewpoints.
The survey, which was sent out to every single student email on campus, was completed by 257 students; a representative sample large enough to make statistically significant statements about the campus population. Of those 257 students, 3% identified as conservative, 22% identified as moderate, and 60% identified as progressive or liberal. This is not only a low number of conservatives compared to the country’s general population, but it is so small as to make it impossible to make any generalizable statements about the group. To remedy this, in our analysis we had to combine conservatives and moderates into a single category to compare against progressives/liberals. The combination of conservatives and moderates has significant implications for analysis because we do not know what someone means when they self-identify as a moderate—whether they consider themselves center-left, center-right, or legitimately middle of the road—and comparisons between these two groupings (conservatives/moderates and progressives/liberals) should be looked at with that caveat in mind. However, even noting this, the largest differences of opinion in our results were still between ideological groups, rather than between other factors such as race, gender, age, religiosity, etc.
Many of our questions yielded little difference in opinion, but several highlighted distinct differences among students of differing ideology. When asked to pick between two options of “Which it was most important for colleges to do” either “(1) create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people” or “(2) create an open learning environment, where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?” the majority of respondents (60%) chose the second, more free expression oriented option, but a sizeable minority (25%) chose the first. Among ideological groups, 77% of moderates/conservatives chose the second statement (9% chose the first) as opposed to liberals/progressives, of whom 53% chose the second statement and 29% chose the first.
When asked if “Students in your classes are willing to share and discuss different ideas and beliefs,” nearly a quarter of respondents disagreed with this assertion, and when broken down by ideology, conservatives/moderates disagreed at an even higher rate of 36%, while only 20% of liberals/progressives disagreed. Additionally, when asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Students should be allowed to express their opinions in class, even if those opinions are offensive to other students” 27% of students disagreed—22% of conservatives/moderates and 31% of progressives/liberals doing so.
Students also answered questions pertaining to what they perceived the ideological makeup of Goucher’s faculty to be. When asked to think about the personal politics of the Goucher faculty they have interacted with and whether they were conservative, moderate, or liberal, 97% of students of all ideologies said that “a third or less” were conservative, 73% said that “a third or less were moderate”, and nearly half said that “two thirds” were liberal (see chart to the right). Despite this ideologically monolithic perception of Goucher faculty, students are still more likely to conceal their particular political viewpoints from peers out of fear of consequences than they are to conceal them from faculty and administration—33 percent of respondents noted concealing political opinions from peers, while only 15 percent concealed opinions from faculty.
These numbers suggest a narrative that Goucher College could consider both a warning sign and an opportunity. Conservative students are in a tiny minority on this campus, likely less than 5% of the population; many students of any political persuasion have concealed their political opinions due to fear of repercussions from peers; and the entire student body agrees that the faculty are composed of not only less than 5% conservatives but are at least somewhere between 60-80% liberal.
Additionally, out of the 63 students that answered our open-end question concerning other “thoughts, comments, or perspectives” they had on viewpoint diversity, free speech, and campus speakers, 16 specifically noted a desire for more diversity of opinion on campus, while 10 specifically noted groups or individuals they did not support having at campus under any circumstances (all traditionally associated with the right, perceived or actually), and most everyone else was conflicted. This suggests that Goucher has an opportunity to teach students how to grapple with unorthodox opinions, and in fact many of these students are not only willing to learn about diverse viewpoints, but some are even requesting such an introduction. Nearly a quarter of respondents noted that they were “not aware of Goucher’s policies” concerning free speech—this could be a good place for the administration to start.