Surveys reinforce UW–Madison’s longstanding commitments to free speech, civil dialogue and belonging
The results of a survey conducted by UW System in November 2022 and released February 1, 2023, reinforce the importance of the university’s ongoing efforts to ensure students feel a sense of belonging on campus, while also embracing the values of free speech and respect for viewpoint diversity. They also demonstrate there is more work yet to be done.
The survey affirms that a substantial majority of students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and across the UW System largely believe that their instructors encourage diverse viewpoints in the classroom.
At the same time, many students across the political spectrum report they often do not express their views on controversial topics in class, in part because they worry about the reaction of other students. The survey data also suggests that these concerns about the consequences of sharing controversial viewpoints in class are more prevalent for politically conservative students than for others.
Helping students engage with diverse viewpoints and find ways to take part in civil dialogue even when they disagree has been an ongoing focus and priority for UW–Madison.
“A university education should challenge students to think in unfamiliar ways. Part of our job is to help students critically examine information and ideas in ways that challenge their preconceived notions and that may, sometimes, be uncomfortable,” says UW–Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin. “We have a responsibility to help them become informed citizens and must continue to work to ensure students of all backgrounds and political perspectives have opportunities to engage on our campus.”
In 2021, the university conducted the UW–Madison Campus Climate Survey that, in part, examined issues closely related to the UW System November 2022 survey. The results of the System survey in many respects amplify the findings of the campus survey — together they demonstrate that classrooms continue to be places where students can engage in meaningful discussion and talk across differences. They also add to growing data from college campuses nationally.
For example, the UW–Madison Campus Climate Survey — which is a distinct, recurring survey — showed that 82% of students felt very or extremely respected by their teaching assistants and 76% felt very or extremely respected by their faculty or instructors, and these results were consistent across political views. The survey, sent to all UW–Madison undergraduate and graduate students, included 13,400 responses from a representative sample of UW–Madison students.
Similarly, more than 75% of respondents to the UW System survey reported that their instructors create a classroom climate in which students with unpopular views would feel comfortable expressing them “sometimes,” “often,” or “extremely often.”
The UW System survey was sent to a total of 10,000 UW–Madison students, with 1,108 responses received. About 63% of respondents identified as women (53% of students overall at UW–Madison are women). About 25% of respondents identified as members of an underrepresented minority (URM) group, compared with 15 percent undergraduate URM students at UW–Madison overall, making them significantly overrepresented in the UW–Madison sample. These differences likely had an effect on the survey’s results, the survey report states.
The UW System survey results suggest students may feel less comfortable sharing their views with others of different political backgrounds, an unsurprising finding given that this reflects trends observed throughout broader society. This includes recent data from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showing people of different political leanings find it increasingly difficult to interact with one another, and trends that signal that public discourse in the U.S. is becoming more polarized.
The results are also consistent with data from other colleges across the country, including the Campus Expression Survey from Heterodox Academy, conducted in fall 2021, and the 2021 Knight–Ipsos College Student Views on Free Expression and Campus Speech report. Taken together, they can help the university better meet the needs of students and meet its commitments to free speech and belonging.
“We know it’s important on a large and diverse campus like ours to help students feel they belong, whether they’re from rural communities or major cities, are politically conservative or politically liberal, are of any race or ethnicity, or are first-generation or the fifth in their family to attend college,” Mnookin says. “At the same time, it’s also important for us to help them engage productively with ideas and values that are different from their own.”
The survey also canvassed students’ exposure to and knowledge about free speech. As part of continuing efforts to help educate campus and share information, UW–Madison recently launched a new web hub including FAQs and policies on free expression at https://free-expression.wisc.edu.
The university’s longstanding commitment to free speech and civil dialogue is reflected in other efforts underway on campus. For instance, UW–Madison’s Discussion Project is working with instructors to ensure that classrooms campus-wide engage in high-quality discussions to promote effective learning, and to provide students with robust opportunities to engage in productive discussion on important issues and topics.
UW–Madison students have also worked to find common ground. In 2021, undergraduate Yonah Davis began a series of conversations called “It’s Just Coffee”, bringing students with different viewpoints and backgrounds together over coffee and baked goods. Inspired by this effort, UW System launched a version of that initiative with the release of the survey results.
“We have a long tradition at UW–Madison of recognizing that sifting and winnowing helps us get to truth,” says Mnookin. “We certainly have ongoing work to do, but as a public university, we have both the opportunity and the obligation to help students recognize the value of civil discourse and the importance of engaging across difference.”
The full results of the UW System survey can be found on the UW System website. The results of the UW–Madison Campus Climate Survey are available through the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement.