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UW System to relaunch student free speech survey

Survey was initially planned to go to students in May but was delayed after a UW-Whitewater chancellor resigned in protest

Golden light shines on Van Hise Hall
Van Hise Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus Friday, April 2, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The University of Wisconsin System will relaunch a student free speech survey that spurred the resignation of a chancellor six months earlier. The survey is aimed at gauging attitudes toward free speech, viewpoint diversity and self-censorship at the state’s 13 universities.

The 29-page survey will be sent to random samples of students on each UW campus with researchers hoping for a minimum of 500 responses, according to a UW System press release issued Friday.

The questions are multiple choice and ask students things such as how likely they are to consider viewpoints they disagree with on topics like abortion, immigration, racial inequality and gender identity.

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It also asks students whether they’ve felt pressured by an instructor to agree with political or ideological views expressed in class and if they’ve been reprimanded for disagreeing with an instructor.

Toward the end of the survey, students are asked to provide their enrollment status, race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation and what political party they most identify with. Those who complete the survey will receive a $10 gift card.

During a call with reporters Friday, UW System President Jay Rothman said the research project is aimed at ensuring the UW System is “committed to being a marketplace of ideas, a place where nuanced and complicated issues can be discussed openly, freely and civilly.”

“We want passionate debate on tough issues in a way that people can learn and ask questions without being labeled or tainted,” Rothman said. “We’re not going to solve the issues that we have as a society, which are challenging and complicated, by soundbites and tweets.”

Rothman said the survey has been vetted by outside experts and UW System shared governance groups.

Funding for the survey was provided by the Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation at UW-Stout, with private donations from billionaire John Menard.

The research team behind the effort includes Tim Shiell, UW-Stout philosophy professor and director of that campus’ Menard Center; Eric Kasper, UW-Eau Claire political science professor and director of the Menard Center for Constitutional Studies; UW-Eau Claire political science professor Geoffrey Peterson; and UW-Eau Claire psychology professor April Bleske-Rechek.

The survey and its implementation is overseen by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service at UW-Stevens Point at Wausau.

The UW System’s initial plan was to send the free speech survey to students at the end of the spring semester in May but was delayed after UW-Whitewater’s interim Chancellor Jim Henderson resigned in protest.

At the time, former UW System interim President Michael Falbo said some chancellors had raised concerns about the survey, “and it regrettably led to a resignation.”

The delay disappointed some Republican state lawmakers like Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, who told Wisconsin Public Radio at the time that he and others complained about the delay. Murphy, who chairs the State Assembly’s Committee on Colleges and Universities, said he thought the quality of the study would suffer in the fall because there would be fewer new freshmen in the sample.

Some Republican lawmakers and candidates have long accused the UW System of stifling opinions from conservative students and speakers. In December, a bill was introduced that would punish state universities and technical colleges for free speech or academic freedom violations.

Murphy supported that bill. On Friday, he told Wisconsin Public Radio the survey’s results could inform similar legislation in the future.

“If we would do something again, it would be nice to have some data to be able to use to either bring that legislation again or to modify it because it isn’t exactly what it should be,” Murphy said.

Some UW System Faculty, students and the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin union have been skeptical about the survey and voiced concerns about it being driven by partisan politics.

Rothman, UW System president, has said that’s not the case. He said it’s an effort to get usable data to understand what students think about free speech rights and responsibilities.

“I don’t think we should be afraid about what we’re going to hear,” said Rothman. “I think we should be open to what we hear so that we can continue to focus on enhancing the experience for our students around freedom of expression and around civil dialog.”

UW-Madison student MGR Govindarajan is the Legislative Affairs Chair for student government group Associated Students of Madison, or ASM. He told WPR that while ASM isn’t taking an official stance on the survey, he has personal concerns about leading questions and thinks answers could be weaponized by Republican lawmakers.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of the results, like the president said,” Govindarajan said. “However, there is a very real possibility that the results will be manipulated. That is something that students in student government are preparing for and something that we know will have a negative impact on students directly.”

In concert with the survey, Rothman announced the creation of a Wisconsin Institute for Citizenship and Civil Dialogue aimed at coordinating research and policy centers around the UW System focused on the U.S. Constitution and public affairs to elevate civil dialogue on the First Amendment.

The system will also sponsor and promote the Wisconsin Civics Games at middle schools and high schools in the state.