College Students Mostly Feel Comfortable Speaking in Class, Study Finds Despite Itself

This week, Heterodox Academy—an organization founded in 2015 to promote “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement” in universities—released the results of a survey conducted in the fall of 2020 on U.S. college campuses.

This second annual Campus Expression Survey, in a report authored by Melissa Stiksma, a doctoral student in industrial-organizational psychology at George Mason University, purports to substantiate Heterodox Academy’s claim that “students and professors have been ‘walking on eggshells,’ censoring their opinions and thereby depriving others and themselves the opportunity to learn from counterarguments and constructive debate.”

Republican students are especially susceptible to self-censorship on campus, according to the report. To be sure, the report attributes this self-censorship primarily to the fear of other students’ opinions, rather than to fear of reprisals from professors or administrators. But Stiksma told Inside Higher Ed that it shows “that Republican students are not part of the conversation on some of the biggest issues” on American campuses.

These are bold claims related to heated public debates about the future of American higher education. But I find that the survey—on the whole—does not support these assertions.

First, some background remarks.

Do I Support Free Expression in College Classrooms?

Let me begin by affirming the importance of open inquiry and constructive disagreement in universities—two of Heterodox Academy’s core principles.

My teaching evaluations, for whatever they’re worth (which admittedly is very little), consistently indicate that I uphold these principles in my own courses. For example, after my most recent modern U.S. history survey course—which necessarily covers highly controversial issues, and which coincided with the contentious 2020 election—my students gave me a mean rating of 4.73 out of 5.00 on having “encouraged students to express ideas or opinions.”

The third Heterodox Academy principle, “viewpoint diversity,” however, is a hopelessly flawed concept that produces incoherent opinions about what higher education is for. (I’ve discussed a very small part of that problem before at this blog. It deserves a fuller treatment here at some point.) Therefore, to the extent that the concept of viewpoint diversity is central to its mission, I can’t endorse the work of Heterodox Academy. It takes a wrongheaded approach to what are sometimes real problems.

At the same time, the 2020 Campus Expression Survey was conducted carefully enough that I think we can draw some interesting conclusions from it. Some of my conclusions are consistent with the views of Heterodox Academy. Others are not.

Is This Glass Half-Empty … or Three-Quarters Full?

My first major problem with the Campus Expression Survey is that it’s an alarmist presentation of unsurprising—and largely positive—information about how well U.S. colleges are doing as places for discussing controversial topics.

There are two parts to this problem with the survey report.

First, the 2020 Campus Expression Survey does not compare college students with the U.S. adult population at large. If it did, it would probably find that college students feel at least as comfortable discussing controversial topics in class as most American adults feel discussing the same controversial topics in other settings, and often more comfortable.

According to the Campus Expression Survey, for example, 30.5% of college students said they would be either somewhat or very reluctant to discuss a controversial religious issue in the classroom. That doesn’t sound ideal, I admit. But among U.S. adults at large, 46% say they seldom or never discuss religion with people outside their families, and 27% say the best thing to do is “avoid discussing religion at all” when someone disagrees with you about it. (That’s according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014.)

At worst, then, U.S. college students seem to feel approximately as awkward as everybody else discussing religious controversies. But it’s possible that they are significantly more open to at least some forms of religious discussion, at least in the classroom.

Regarding politics, similarly, the Campus Expression Survey found that 41.2% of college students would be either somewhat or very reluctant to discuss a controversial political issue in class. Again, that doesn’t sound ideal. But this summer, a survey by the Cato Institute found that 62% of all American adults say “the political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe because others might find them offensive.”

Particularly interesting: American conservatives at large (77%) and moderates at large (64%) are much more likely to self-censor, according to Cato, than Republican college students (43.8%), Libertarian college students (44.2%), or independent college students (45.6%) say they are, at least in class.

A plausible inference: American college classrooms are significantly more comfortable places to express controversial political opinions, especially conservative opinions, than other settings in American life are.

Far from being a harbinger of the campus-free-speech apocalypse, that’s very good news.

That leads directly to the second part of the Campus Expression Survey’s framing problem.

Although Heterodox Academy’s report focuses on deficits in student comfort levels when discussing controversial issues in the classroom, there’s an equally plausible positive way to present the same information: Colleges in 2020 generally seemed to be comfortable places for most students, including most conservative students, to express controversial opinions in class.

Let me show you.

When I went through the first layer of crosstabs for the survey data myself, here’s part of what I found. (Bear in mind that I was examining these numbers quickly by hand, so there may be typos and rounding errors.)

First, when asked about their comfort speaking in class, 85% of all U.S. college students responded that they would be somewhat or very comfortable discussing a “noncontroversial” topic in class. This varied slightly by political party, which may be interesting. But basically, about 75-85% of students indicated they were comfortable talking at all in class, across political affiliations.

This seems very useful to know. It suggests that about 15% of college students can be assumed to be uncomfortable talking in class, period—with no apparent political self-censorship involved.

Then, when I looked at the various kinds of specific topics asked about in the survey, here’s how I found students of different political affiliations responding. Instead of looking at students who said they would be reluctant to talk in class, I focused on those who said they would be comfortable:

If you look carefully at the above results (which I’ve marked with a line at the 50% point), here’s what you see: Across almost all categories and issues, well over half of U.S. college students said they would feel comfortable discussing a hypothetical controversial issue in a hypothetical college classroom.

It’s true that conservative-leaning students appeared to be less comfortable discussing most controversial issues in the classroom than liberal students were. This may well be a problem.

But the big political comfort gap in this survey isn’t between conservative and liberal students. It’s between politically affiliated and unaffiliated students. Only those who didn’t identify themselves as Republicans, Libertarians, Democrats, or independents were more likely than not to be reluctant to discuss political issues in the classroom. (And it’s easy to imagine perfectly valid reasons that students who “haven’t thought much about” their political affiliation might be reluctant to talk about political issues.)

Indeed, strong majorities of conservative (Republican and Libertarian) and independent students said they would feel comfortable discussing controversial topics related to race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender in a college classroom. Smaller majorities of these groups said they would be comfortable discussing controversial issues related to politics in general, the 2020 presidential election, or the Black Lives Matter movement.

This is despite the fact that (as this survey’s responses suggest) Democrats clearly outnumber other political groups among U.S. college students.

On this evidence alone, the self-censorship crisis proclaimed by Heterodox Academy—in which “Republican students are not part of the conversation,” in Melissa Stiksma’s words—probably does not exist.

It’s true that liberal college students are more comfortable than conservatives talking about most controversial issues in a classroom. But a difference like that is not necessarily something to panic about. It’s what we would expect to see in any situation where liberal college students outnumbered conservative college students, which is the case across the United States.

Colleges are not Gardens of Eden for unselfconscious expression of controversial ideas; they are real-world institutions in which psychologically normal human interactions take place. The evidence in the 2020 Campus Expression Survey suggests that, in spite of this limitation, most students in classrooms, including most conservative students, do feel pretty comfortable expressing controversial opinions—probably more comfortable than American adults in many other settings do.

But let’s ask some other questions about the Campus Expression Survey.

Are We Sure Discomfort Is Bad?

In addition to that problem with the way the results are presented, there is a basic difficulty with the report’s governing assumptions. The Campus Expression Survey’s creators evidently assume that it is generally good to feel “comfortable” talking about one’s views of controversial topics in class, and generally bad to feel “reluctant” to talk about one’s views of controversial topics in class.

That assumption may be true in general—indeed, I tend to hold that assumption myself—while being untrue in a large enough number of specific cases to make this study tricky to interpret.

It’s possible, for example, that it is generally good for anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists or religiously inspired flat-earthers to be “reluctant” to waste class time expressing their “views” on certain “controversial religious issues.” Those are, of course, extreme examples, but people who hold such opinions do take college classes.

In a more mundane way, it may sometimes be good for college students to recognize that their own opinions on a controversial topic are vague and hastily formed, compared with those of students who have given more thought to the topic—or those of professors who have specifically studied the topic—and to be reluctant to charge into a class conversation about it. This kind of reluctance, in many cases, is a sign of maturity as a student.

Conversely, it may be good for students who are unwilling to listen to others’ views to be reluctant to monopolize class time “expressing” their opinions to the detriment of other students’ ability to engage in good-faith dialogue. I don’t think the survey instrument allows us any way to differentiate among such flavors of reluctance—though, to be fair, that would be a tall order for any study of this kind.

More importantly, it is also possible that the need to feel “comfortable” before expressing a controversial opinion is simply inappropriate to college-level discussions as such. Whether you feel comfortable is a question about your interior life, not about whether you are willing and capable to participate in a rational discussion—or even whether your views will actually be received poorly by other students.

This should be evident to anyone who got upset a few years ago about the so-called trigger warnings that college professors were supposedly issuing before addressing controversial or disturbing content. Critics charged that trigger warnings were inimical to a university’s mission because college students should boldly confront difficult topics as part of their education. (I wrote in Vox First Person about how misleading that whole debate was.)

Well, guess what? Sometimes students who encounter difficult topics in college classes are reluctant to discuss them! This isn’t particularly difficult to understand. Discomfort, as critics of trigger warnings so emphatically told us, can be part of college.

That is not to suggest that these things are entirely irrelevant to each other. Students who perennially feel uncomfortable talking about controversial topics, even after several years in college, probably are less likely to contribute to discussions of those topics when they ought to. And when those topics directly concern their sense of identity—which is often true of controversial topics—those students probably are less likely to feel welcome on campus as people, which I think we can usually assume is a problem.

In fact, a lot of college professors I know spend a lot of effort trying to convince shy students that it’s safe to participate in class discussions despite their fears. Unfortunately, those efforts are not always successful, probably for reasons outside any professor’s control.

But let’s take another step back. We’re talking about “controversial” topics. Isn’t it likely that students’ sense of what is “controversial” in the first place, for purposes of responding to the survey, will be affected by their comfort level discussing the topic?

Some students will, e.g., define “a controversial issue about religion” as including virtually any discussion of religion, or else virtually any discussion that touches on their own faith, while others may have much narrower criteria for deciding which religious topics count as controversial. Students in a minority group, similarly, may view a certain topic as simply part of their everyday experience, while students in the majority view any discussion of that topic as involving a controversial claim—or vice versa. So there’s at least some tautological element to the question whether a student feels comfortable discussing a “controversial” topic, which I suspect is likely to result in overstatement of students’ reluctance to discuss actual topics that will come up in class.

With all that said, it’s probably consistently good, on the whole, for students to become more willing to discuss controversial topics during their time in college. To the extent that discomfort prevents that from happening at all, colleges have a problem. But here we should again take a closer look at the Campus Expression Survey’s actual findings.

Are Students Self-Censoring More Often Than Before?

The short-form report for the 2020 Campus Expression Survey claims that reluctance to speak about controversial issues in class appears to be rising: “In 2020, 62% of sampled college students agreed the climate on their campus prevents students from saying things they believe, up from 55% in 2019.”

Reflection, however, raises two immediate questions about these claims.

The most obvious problem to consider is that the fall of 2020 was a very different kind of academic term from the fall of 2019.

Not only was it a presidential election year in the United States—raising the stakes, or at least the temperature, of all kinds of controversial discussions—but the United States had also seen massive street protests during the summer, possibly the largest mass protest mobilization in U.S. history, according to some researchers. Some of these protests involved significant violence by or against protesters.

Politically, 2020 was intense. That may have affected students’ comfort discussing controversial topics for reasons that had nothing to do with how campus itself had changed since 2019.

Moreover, in the fall of 2020, most students (according to the Campus Expression Survey) were taking most of their college classes remotely because of the pandemic. For many, that meant heightened awareness of being recorded on video; having their classes overheard by parents, friends, and other non-classmates; or never actually meeting their classmates at all.

For most American college students, therefore, expressing an opinion “in class” was probably a fundamentally different thing—a more difficult and indeed more risky thing—from what it had been the year before. For this reason, too, we should be wary of drawing any conclusions about the long-term climate for free expression at college from the differences between 2019 and 2020.

So Is There Anything Truly Alarming in the Report?

As a college instructor, I have exactly one major concern about the findings in the Campus Expression Survey.

For reasons already discussed, I am not alarmed, even a little, that students sometimes feel reluctant to share controversial opinions in class out of fear about what other students will think. This is simply how controversial opinions work. The best college teachers develop strategies to mitigate the problem, if only by encouraging students to face their fears. But we will never eliminate it.

However, I do have qualms about this finding: Although twice as many students expressed concern that other students would find their views offensive if they spoke up in class, 29.2% of the students who expressed reluctance to speak about at least one issue said they were worried that the professor would lower their grade for their views. And 23.3% of the reluctant students said they worried that someone would file a grievance with the college administration over their opinions.

These fears are a problem, even if they are shared only by a small minority of all college students, and even if they are unwarranted. Students should have confidence that professors and administrators will not punish them for expressing controversial opinions. (There are exceptions, since opinions can be controversial because they are, e.g., factually preposterous, but I’m going to set the exceptions aside because this post is already becoming interminable.)

Are these two fears warranted? Do students need to worry about being punished for their views?

It’s important to note that the Campus Expression Survey provides no evidence by which to answer this question. It does not provide evidence that professors are lowering grades for disagreeing with them, and it does not address the frequency or nature of actual administrative sanctions related to student speech.

But this study shows that those fears, warranted or not, are clearly a significant part of some college students’ experience. And those fears clearly are likely to have an inappropriate chilling effect on some students’ willingness to discuss controversial issues in class—even though this study does not measure their actual participation, only their feelings about participation.

Here we run into the great paradox of this entire conversation. Because the more some Americans publicize the claim that colleges are a bad place for free discussion of controversial ideas, the more students are likely to be afraid to discuss controversial ideas, whether or not they have ever run into such trouble themselves.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As I have written before, I shared those unsubstantiated fears when I went off to college. Those fears even played a role in my decision to attend a less distinguished university than I probably should have. So let me get personal again at the end of this absurdly long piece of writing.

Ironically, while I was at my university, which was advertised as something of an ideological safe zone for people like my family, I did find myself almost alone in expressing some of my controversial opinions—not experiencing any pressure from liberals, but feeling pervasive pressure from conservatives.

The editor of my campus newspaper accused me in print of lacking patriotism after I criticized a decision of the then-president of the United States. That was during my first semester! A fellow student, hilariously, once threatened to beat me up over a very mundane theological opinion I posted on a blog. I felt I had to massage the ego of a particularly self-absorbed philosophy professor by parroting his ridiculous opinions in order to protect my A in his course. And I was effectively required by administrative policy to attend a campus event at which a speaker shrieked virulent hatred of another religious group at the assembled students.

Those things should not have happened. Some of them happened because my college administrators violated or ignored the generally accepted standards of academic freedom and even basic academic quality, trying to determine which opinions could be aired publicly on campus. (Again ironically, I heard administrators justify their interference on the grounds that it was necessary to counterbalance mainstream academia’s secular liberal bias.) But most of my negative experiences happened simply because I was outnumbered by other students (and sometimes professors) who had different opinions, as they had a perfect right to have.

And you know what? That silly little college was still the most vibrant and open intellectual environment I had ever experienced up to that point. And I found the resources there to make my own intellectual way.

Most of those resources were provided, one way or another, by professors, including professors who would have preferred that I adopt very different opinions. Then again, those resources wouldn’t have meant much without courage on my part, because that’s what it always takes to be in the minority and be outspoken.

There are no easy answers to the problem of creating an environment where many different kinds of college students can have—and will be willing to have—generously critical discussions of ideas.

There is no easy way to address some students’ fears of causing offense or being embarrassed by disagreement. There is no obvious formula for giving students the courage to defend an opinion when they are right and the majority is wrong—nor for giving them the courage to back down from an opinion when they are wrong, nor for giving them the patience to refine their opinions slowly and carefully rather than to contribute to the cacophony of nonsense that passes for political reasoning sometimes.

Becoming an educated person is an art rather than a science—and so is creating a classroom that will allow students to learn that art.

I am wary of the 2020 Campus Expression Survey, as it has been spun for the public, because I suspect it will serve mostly to help cynical pundits (including some privileged academics) demonize the very people who are doing the actual work of creating generous and free classrooms—and, worse, will give ammunition to those who want to end the entire enterprise of higher education as we both envision it.

I guess it’s all part of the job, though.