An increasing number of students believe their campus climate is detrimental to freedom of expression, a new survey by Heterodox Academy revealed.
The nonpartisan nonprofit conducted the campus expression survey between 2019 to 2021 on 4,310 students. Reports show that 63 percent of students in 2021 said, “the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe,” compared to 55 percent in 2019.
At the same time, students’ reluctance to discuss controversial topics (about gender, politics, race, etc.) remained consistently high across all three years. For instance, nearly 40 percent of students felt disinclined to discuss political topics in 2021 compared to 30 percent of candidates three years ago.
Heterodox Academy noted that the findings coincided with the contentious events of 2020 — a global pandemic, widespread protests, the US presidential election, and doubts over the validity of the electoral process itself.
Director of Programs at Heterodox Kyle Vitale said the pandemic played a significant role in the survey results. “A potent cocktail of loneliness and of media bombardment” during the lockdown, he said, influenced students’ responses to the survey.
Nonetheless, the survey found that students overwhelmingly support free and open expression on campus, with the percentage of those favoring it rising from nearly 85 percent in 2020 to 87 percent in 2021.
Director of the Campus Free Expression Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, believes the survey report “points to a paradox. It says that students value open discourse and free expression, and at the same time it reports a crisis-level killing of discourse.”
Merrill also noted the psychological pressures on students during the pandemic and suggested that schools working on advocating free expression prioritize students’ mental health needs as part of their strategies.