The percentage of college students who believe the political and social climate on their campus prevents people from freely expressing themselves rose from 54.7 percent in 2019 to 63.5 percent in 2021, according to a new survey conducted by Heterodox Academy.
At the same time, the percentage of students who describe themselves as reluctant to speak freely on certain topics deemed controversial was far lower—nearly 41 percent felt that way in 2020, according to the nonpartisan education research organization. The survey also found that 39.5 percent of students felt reluctant to freely discuss political topics in 2021, and 30.5 percent and 31.8 percent of students, respectively, in those years were hesitant to discuss religious topics.
The survey found that students nonetheless overwhelmingly favor free and open expression among themselves and others on campus, with the percentage of those supporting it rising from 85.4 percent in 2020 to 87.4 percent in 2021.
Heterodox Academy noted that the findings coincided with the contentious events surrounding the 2020 presidential election at a time when Americans were deeply politically polarized.
The results of the survey left observers concerned about the effects of the perception of stifled expression on college campuses and about whether that perception is rooted in reality.
The survey report “points to a paradox,” said Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It says that students value open discourse and free expression, and at the same time it reports a crisis-level killing of discourse. All of us need to be focused on this paradox; it’s at the core of so much we’re thinking about.”
While the data reflect how the 4,310 students surveyed over the three-year span answered the questions, they may not give concrete reasons for students’ expressed reluctance to speak openly about their beliefs, said Elizabeth Niehaus, senior fellow at the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement at the University of California, Berkeley.
Niehaus, an associate professor of educational administration at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, said while she did not want to cast doubt on the survey or the motives of the Heterodox Academy, she did question whether the answers to the survey painted a true picture of what the students believe.
“I do think the dominant narrative is about politics—it’s about Republican or conservative students being silenced on campus,” Niehaus said. “But I have doubts about whether it reflects reality or if it creates the reality.”
Her greatest concern is that people with ulterior motives will use the results of the survey, and others like it, in bad faith and to further the narrative repeated in conservative circles that American colleges and universities have largely become liberal bastions of left-wing administrators and faculty members imposing their personal political beliefs on students and punishing those who do not agree with them.