How well does your college encourage students to freely express views?

A new study from Heterodox Academy shows many are afraid to speak out on topics such as politics and religion.

Although college and university students overwhelmingly want their campuses to be open to expression and different ideologies, less than half say they are willing to share their personal views because of barriers at their institutions.

Those results come from a three-year study done by Heterodox Academy as part of its Campus Expression Survey, which showed that some students not only are watching what they say when it comes to politics but are also tamping down conversations on religion, race, gender and sexual orientation.

Over just one year, the percentage of students who said “the climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive” rose by 10% to 63.5% overall. The vast majority want open inquiry but say their colleges don’t do enough to encourage faculty members and students to share their thoughts and also be more receptive to the inclusion of all viewpoints and groups.

“Campuses must welcome and encourage respectful discussion and debate,” the study’s authors wrote. “However, more and more frequently students and faculty report being silenced—and even feeling threatened—after expressing their perspectives on controversial topics.”

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The survey has been done annually since 2018, but researchers at Heterodox took the past three years to show the transformations of student input before and during the pandemic. There were increases in self-censorship across all five categories from 2019 to 2021, but the strongest were around politics, where 39.5% of students said they were avoiding talking about it, a jump of nearly 8%. Dodging discussions on religion also increased by 8%.

Data from the survey showed how changes around politics and religion may be impacting their conversations:

  • The number of Democrat students has stayed virtually unchanged at around 45%, while the number of Republicans has decreased by nearly 3% to 16.1%. After an increase of 5.7%, Independents now far outnumber Republicans at 23.9%. There are about 6% fewer Christian students than there were in 2019, and about 2-3% more agnostics or atheists.
  • Students who lean Democrat are far less likely to be impacted in their speech. For example, only around 20% of Democrats said they watch what they say on race, gender and sexual orientation compared with Republican backers (31-33%). In terms of politics, just under a third of Democrat students are reluctant to chat about it, while Republicans, Independents and Libertarians are at 40% or higher.

One of the most notable takeaways was why some students remain silent on tough topics. The No. 1 fear is responses they will receive from peers (52.2%). They also are concerned that faculty members will say their views are wrong (29.2%) or are offensive (28.7%) and fear that their views will end up on social media (28.7%). About a quarter believe their stances might affect their grades.

During the survey, Heterodox asked students how they would react to a student expressing different views. Around two-thirds said they would ask questions to understand their views rather than pass judgment.

“These results suggest that students are self-censoring to avoid negative consequences that are unlikely to happen,” authors wrote.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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