BY HANK REICHMAN
It’s a common trope among conservatives and many media commentators that college and university campuses are liberal strongholds where students who hold conservative political views are intimidated from expressing them. In Wisconsin last month this led to adoption of a “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression” policy designed to curtail the rights of campus protesters in the name of protecting “free speech.” As Rachel Buff pointed out on this blog, “Academic freedom is a principle so crucial to the University of Wisconsin that the policy quoted the Wisconsin Idea of ‘untrammeled inquiry’ as justification for imposing harsher sanctions against political protest than sexual assault on campus. But, inconsistent with the very ideas of democratic inquiry it cited, this new policy passed with no time allotted for a broader vetting by governance, or by students, parents or other constituencies with an important stake in campus life.”
Now a first-of-its-kind survey of University of Wisconsin-Madison students found that politically conservative students, far from feeling intimidated, are actually more likely to report feeling safe, respected and like they belong than students holding other political views. In fact, the 2016 Campus Climate Survey released November 1 also found that conservative students were more likely than liberal students to say they feel comfortable approaching faculty members with their concerns. They are also less likely than liberal or moderate students to be expected to represent their point of view in class, but felt more positive about doing so than the others.
The online survey of all students garnered 8,652 responses, representing some 21% of the student body. In the survey, more students at UW-Madison identified themselves as liberal (4,477) than conservative (1,568). In addition, 1,654 identified themselves as moderate and 854 as holding other or no political views. Participants included 5,784 white students 1,441 students of color, 786 LGBTQ students, 485 students with a disability, and 113 trans/non-binary students. Students of color make up 16 percent of the UW-Madison student body
According to a summary in the Madison Capital Times,
Not only are [conservative students] more likely to say they feel safe “very or extremely” often, 84 percent compared to liberal students’ 75 percent; conservative students also were more likely to report typically feeling respected, 85 percent compared to 78 percent, and as if they belong, 77 percent compared to 67 percent.
At just under 80 percent, conservative students and liberal students were about equally likely to say they usually feel respected in class by faculty members or other instructors. Conservative students were a little more likely, 68 percent, to say they usually feel respected by other students in class, than liberal students, 64 percent.
In addition, conservative students were more likely to say that racial, ethnic and sexual identity minorities are respected on campus than are liberal students. 73 percent of conservatives said transgender students are somewhat or extremely respected, compared to 47 percent of liberals. That split is 80 percent versus 44 percent regarding respect for African-American students, 79 percent compared to 47 percent for Latino students and 76 percent versus 52 percent for Asian students.
Conservative students are more likely than liberal students, by 70 to 39 percent, to say that UW-Madison is “very or extremely” committed to diversity and just 45 percent of conservative students ranked a commitment to diversity as very or extremely important, compared to 85 percent of liberals.
Yet if conservatives don’t really feel disrespected and think the campus is committed to diversity, the same cannot be said of racial and other minorities. Only half of those students of color responding to the survey reported that they usually feel like they belong on campus, compared to 69 percent of students overall who reported feeling “very or extremely often” that they belong. In addition to the 50 percent of students of color, 56 percent of students with a disability, 51 percent of LGBTQ students, and 35 percent of transgender/non-binary students reported usually feeling they belong on campus.
And though about 80 percent of students overall reported very or extremely often feeling safe, welcome, and respected, that figure dropped to just over half of trans/non-binary students, and about two-thirds or less of students of color and disabled students. About 12 percent of students said they had considered leaving school this semester. Of that group, more students of color, 58 percent, reported campus culture or climate as the reason than did other groups.
Speaking on his CNN show May 28, Fareed Zakaria declared that “conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely” on campuses. “American universities these days seem to be committed to every kind of diversity — except intellectual diversity,” he charged, adding that “an attitude of self-righteousness” is leading to “the ideas we find offensive” being drowned out. Yet this survey suggests that at Madison — and arguably at many other similar institutions — the media narrative of conservative isolation is, well, simply false. Instead, it is not conservatives but those minority students too often decried by the likes of New York Times columnist David Brooks as “fragile thugs who call themselves students” that really feel themselves unwelcome and even endangered. And that has been much of the point of the protests that the Wisconsin regents, conservative politicians, and media pundits absurdly complain pose the primary threat to “free speech.”