It was a Monday in April and everyone followed the script. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro gave a lecture at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. The event’s ClickBeat title – “Men Can’t Be Women” – left little doubt about Shapiro’s intent to provoke controversy. He succeeded. There were all sorts of known traps in the news coverage: attempts to break up the event organizing club; University administrators’ careful wording of freedom of speech; Counterprogramming; And speech interruptions among student protesters.
This practice has played countless times in universities across the country, reinforcing an image of college students as closed-minded, fragile and hopelessly divided by political tribalism. That image is incorrect. Students want to hear different and dissenting views on campus, but they are isolated and sometimes intimidated by powerful partisans who dominate political discussions.
We know this because over the past year, we’ve surveyed more than 3,400 students at eight public universities in North Carolina, including UNC Greensboro, in an effort to get under the tired tropes of the campus speech debate. Our study and the recently published report were led by a politically diverse team of faculty researchers, which allows us to avoid polarity that hinders research efforts in states like Florida and Wisconsin. We wanted to do more than just highlight potential problems. We wanted to start a reality-based discussion on how higher education can fulfill its obligations to democracy.
Students’ aspirations for constructive involvement across political divisions are strong. Take UNC Greensboro for example. Most students at UNC Greensboro indicated that “there is very little chance of constructive engagement with those who disagree with them.” Moreover, although the student body was clearly leaning to the left (self-described liberals were about five to one more than self-described conservatives), more students (42 percent) felt that conservative speakers had far fewer opportunities to listen than those with less. Liberal speakers (28 percent).
Moreover, although the scream-down culture is real, it originates from a minority student. Only 18 percent of UNC Greensboro students indicated that it was appropriate to block campus speakers by supporting students’ offensive views.
Similar patterns have emerged in the eight universities we have studied. Students ত at least most of them চায় want real inter-ideological involvement. So how can universities provide this?
Our research suggests that some of the more prominent reform efforts, such as focusing on the role of professors in classroom “endocrine” and political belief formation, are misguided. It is true that students identified as conservative are more concerned about expressing their sincere views in class than their liberal or moderate opponents. But faculty members do not seem to be the main source of this concern. In our survey, even among students identified as conservative, the vast majority agreed that the faculty “equally encouraged the participation of liberals and conservatives.”
So who are the professors if not to cool the political debate? The students themselves. We have found widespread evidence that students are more concerned about social consequences among their classmates than any injury from professors or administrators. Across the university, students বিশেষ especially those who identify as conservative করেছে have expressed concern about being expelled if they express their sincere views. Their concerns can be well-founded: the number of students identified as conservative is high on all of our campuses, and more than 30 percent of these self-described liberals indicate that they are unwilling to keep a conservative student close. Friend
What we have on most campuses is an environment where students want thoughtful political debate but are reluctant to get involved. We examined the profiles of students who were most politically involved and found that those students were less willing to consider other perspectives and were more likely to have negative stereotypes about those who did not agree with them politically. This pattern is normal, but it probably makes political involvement less appealing to students who are not confident biases – who are curious about politics, but whose opinions are more temporary.
We see a clear need to support programs that build trust among peers and make room for political curiosity. When students build relationships with each other, statements that might otherwise be the cause of the crime may be clarified, retracted, or made relevant in an established relationship. The UNCARA Agora Fellow program, which invites politically diverse students to meet regularly with a mentor to discuss current events, is a good example of this kind of trust building. Much more needs to be done to scale those interactions across campus.
Our research further suggests that universities need to do more to make students aware of the diversity around them. A pattern we have noticed in our results is that people have created divisions by creating misconceptions about the people around them. For example, one respondent’s colleagues assumed that he would be in favor of the principle of social justice, since he was an immigrant. Indeed, he felt that similar policies had failed in the country of his birth. Another respondent felt that reading astrology and tarot was openly ridiculed, although he felt that these practices were as believable as any religion. At this point in time and at other times, we suspect that little has arisen out of a lack of awareness rather than bad intentions. Nevertheless, their accumulated effects may close the scope for engagement.
Universities face real challenges in building a culture of constructive dialogue. But there is hunger, if faculty members and administrators can create the right environment. It is up to the educators, administrators and the students themselves to ensure that the campuses have a place for open curiosity and new ideas.