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Monday, November 2, 2015

Intellectual Diversity and the University

The university’s Campus Climate Report, issued in January 2015, provides a wealth of information to explore climate on the Twin Cities campus. In addition, the report details a number of diversity efforts at the university over the past 10-15 years. The report is tremendously rich, well worth reading, and we can all learn much from it. I would also recommend reviewing the university’s helpful Improving Campus Climate site, which pulls together analysis, news reports, and university news on climate-related issues.

One of the less-noted aspects of the student survey results in the 2015 climate report concerns the expression of political and religious beliefs on campus. These results were obtained in the annual Student Experience in the Research University survey over several years preceding the climate report. Response rates range from 24 to 34 percent across the years of the survey. The respondents are not necessarily a representative sample of the entire population of students. 

The chart below presents the results on climate, sorted in order from most supportive of diversity to least supportive. Students were asked a series of questions and given a 6-point scale to respond, ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The chart indicates the percentage of students strongly agreeing or agreeing with the particular statement. Those who “somewhat agree” are not included.

Across these items, there is room for improvement. Given our scholarly commitment to free speech and academic freedom, the bottom four items in the list may be surprising to some readers.

Between 1/3 and 2/5 of our students convey concerns about their ability to express their political or religious beliefs and convey skepticism about whether students are respected regardless of their political and religious beliefs. When an instructor is looking at his or her class of 50 students, on average 20 of those students would say they do not agree or only somewhat agree that they feel free to express their political or religious views on campus.

To relax the test, we can include students who offer an answer of “somewhat agree” in response to these questions—although it is reasonable to wonder whether a student “somewhat agreeing” he or she feels free to express political or religious views is a standard to which we aspire. The results appear in this chart.

With this revised measure, the results improve across the board, with strong majorities agreeing that there is a positive campus climate. Expressing political and religious beliefs still finish toward the bottom of the list. About 1/5 of our students under this relaxed standard express disagreement that they are free to express their political views or that students are respected regardless of their political beliefs.

The most recent SERU results, from the survey in spring 2015, parallel the results shown above from earlier years. Fifty-nine percent of students strongly agree or agree that “I feel free to express my religious views on campus,” while 57 percent strongly agree or agree that they feel free to express their political views on campus. These results parallel the earlier surveys—about 2/5 of students disagree or only somewhat agree that they feel free to express their views. Adding in those students who “somewhat agree,” the percentages increase to 85 percent and 83 percent, respectively.

The 2015 survey replaced globally-focused items of the form “Students are respected here regardless of their religious beliefs” with personally-focused items stating “Students of my religious beliefs are respected on this campus.” For respect and religious belief, the results in 2015 differed little from those of earlier years. For political beliefs, in 2015, 67 percent of students strongly agreed or agreed that “students of my political beliefs are respected on this campus,” while in earlier years 61 percent strongly agreed or agreed that “students are respected here regardless of their political beliefs.”

We should ask what might generate these results. An experience in the classroom that suggests to a student that his or her views cannot be safely expressed? A perceived “approved” way of thinking in a major or department or program? Experiences outside the classroom? Hearing comments or jokes about religious or political beliefs that a speaker assumes “everyone” within listening range will agree with or find funny?

The concerns expressed by students about expressing intellectual diversity in the form of religious and political beliefs exist across student racial and ethnic groups. The Campus Climate Report (p. 8) indicates that there were no statistically significant differences between students of color and white students on the four questions concerning political and religious beliefs, while there were significant differences on 13 other climate items.

An extensive analysis of SERU data by the Office of Institutional Research shows that students who described themselves as liberal were more likely to say they felt free to express their beliefs than were students who identified as middle of the road or conservative (see slides 41-45). Differences appear also across religious identities. With 26 religious categories represented in the survey, however, patterns are more difficult to summarize (see slides 46-60). The analysis does not indicate if these differences across political and religious groups were statistically significant. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the larger numbers of students on campus than faculty or staff, students were more likely to say they heard “negative or stereotypical views” from other students (slide 75).

In a blog post earlier this year, I wrote that “diversity is a close relation to intellectual pluralism. A great college welcomes and values pluralism. But intellectual pluralism isn’t always easy. . . . Pluralism requires an honest self-appraisal of whether we are being truly open to a range of ways of defining which questions matter and being truly open-minded about how one might answer those questions.”

We want our students to be confident that faculty, staff, and other students respect their right to express a belief. But free speech and free expression can be challenging. To be able to express a belief does not necessarily mean your belief or idea will not then be criticized or challenged. Anyone engaging in speech needs to acknowledge that this is part of the price, and the beauty, of free speech. The exchange of ideas is precisely that—an exchange.

Those expressing the criticism also need to be mindful of the manner of their disagreement. Stating criticism in a manner that is perceived more as a personal attack than as a difference of opinion or belief would almost certainly make it harder for a student on the receiving end of the comments to feel free to state his or her views in the future. At some point it becomes easier to simply put your head down and keep your views to yourself, and that is not what we want on an intellectually vibrant campus.

Can we do better than only three out of five students strongly agreeing or agreeing they feel free to express their political and religious beliefs? We should all think carefully about what we might do to ensure that our students feel they can express their beliefs and that they are accorded respect as members of our campus community.