• August 30, 2015

Most Students Say It's Safe to Hold Unpopular Views on Their Campuses

Slightly more than a third of American college students strongly believe it is safe to hold unpopular viewpoints on their campuses, according to a report released on Thursday by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Approximately 35.6 percent of all students said they strongly agreed with that statement, while another 45 percent reported they agree somewhat with it.

The report, "Engaging Diverse Viewpoints: What Is the Campus Climate for Perspective-Taking?," was based on the results of a survey taken by 24,000 students and 9,000 campus professionals at 23 institutions of different types nationwide. The survey was designed to determine whether educational environments encourage students to learn from viewpoints different from their own.

Though nearly three in five students strongly agreed that such a philosophy should be a major campus focus, just 39 percent strongly agreed that faculty members frequently advocated the need to respect differing opinions. The survey was conducted at six research universities, six master's institutions, seven liberal-arts colleges, two community colleges, and two military academies.

The consensus varied slightly between students at liberal-arts colleges and research institutions, with liberal-arts students more likely to strongly agree that such advocacy occurred in their own classrooms, by a gap of seven percentage points. However, there was less than two percentage points of difference in opinion between students at the two institution types who strongly agreed about the safety of holding unorthodox perspectives, with 36.8 percent of those attending research institutions and 35.2 percent of those attending liberal-arts colleges expressing that view.

The report states "there is a troubling gap on campuses between aspiration and reality," and recommends that campus professionals continually and clearly stress the importance of engaging differing opinions.


1. swish - September 17, 2010 at 11:44 am

We still haven't heard from our friends livefreeordie or rightwingprofessor (etc) after several hours, so I'll play devil's advocate and post the thought that came into my mind:

I wonder if the 19.4% that did *not* agree with the statement were the same ones who actually hold unpopular or minority opinions? Those who would be most aware of the consequences of expressing them?

I'm sure the folks I mentioned above could go on for many paragraphs, expounding and expressing great certainty about this ... but I'll just stop there.

2. _perplexed_ - September 17, 2010 at 01:23 pm

I'm wondering which unpopular views are unsafe to hold? The unpopular view that I would be most afraid to express is a preference to repeal the 2nd amendment.

3. mrsdillie - September 17, 2010 at 01:33 pm

Considering how unpopular it would be to suggest that free speech is squashed on campus, why would any student give an honest answer to this poll?

4. abichel - September 17, 2010 at 02:45 pm

Voicing support for the use of military force in pursuit of American foreign policy objectives or the right to bear arms will usually cause a commotion in class, especially if the speaker defends their opinion. Daring to challenge the professor's views on race, sexual preference and/or religion gets you a quick trip to the principal's office for some ad-hoc diversity training. Funny how the left is all about "speaking truth to power" until they are the one's in truth's crosshairs.

5. alan_kors - September 17, 2010 at 04:22 pm

And just what diversity of viewpoints do most universities provide on controverted matters of political belief?

6. arthist030 - September 18, 2010 at 04:12 pm

Dare one suggest that "safe to hold" is a pretty low bar? OK, great, so institutions that are nominally dedicated to the free exchange of ideas are less conformist than Saudi Arabia. Great.

I think it would be more pertinent to ask whether groupthink among faculty who are convinced that only misinformed idiots could be conservative allows them to subtly shape the rules of discourse -- which, of course, their students by definition aren't in any position to challenge -- to rig the rules of the game in advance and guarantee that discussions will be subtly herded in a certain direction.

Top Ten Beliefs Taken Unquestioningly For Granted By Faculty And Used To Define Courses Without Explicit Debate:

1. Inequality is bad.
2. Valuing one group of people more than another is bad.
3. Government should be presumed efficacious.
4. Social criticism is more valuable than support for social institutions.
5. Brilliant ideas are valuable irrespective of their truth.
6. All cultures are equally valuable
7. The problems of Western civilization are presumed to be more urgent than its successes.
8. The race, glass, gender and sexual identity of a thinker are presumed to be significant.
9. Society should value academic work as highly as academics do; if this is not the case, that is a problem.
10. If market-rate salaries for graduates and/or faculty of different academic disciplines are disparate, this is an injustice.

7. zefelius - September 19, 2010 at 02:40 am

I'm torn on this one. I think there's quite a bit of group think on campuses, just as there is everywhere else on this planet. I remember a professor of mine, while I was in graduate school, asking one of her students how she could possibly be friends with someone who supported the Iraq war. That was right after class finished, and didn't quite strike me as being professional.

Based on that and other anecdotal experiences, I've sometimes assumed that I need to be cautious in expressing my opinions, especially as a lecturer on an extremely liberal campus in the heart of an equally liberal city. But to my pleasant surprise, I have been able to express some of my more controversial political views without any repercussions whatsoever. Perhaps I am fortunate to work in such an open-minded environment, but I have always been treated with respect by my colleagues, whether fellow lecturers or TT and tenured faculty.

8. needmorecoffee - September 19, 2010 at 08:42 am

What constitutes 'unpopular' on a particular campus is, i think, highly site and even discipline specific. The assumption of many of the comments above seems to be that holding 'unpopular' views means unpopular in the context of contemporary political debates (ie conservative on a 'liberal' college campus). But I dare say that the poltiical environment at West Point and Oberlin and Harvey Mudd and a small christian college in the midwest somewhere are radically different. I was in a minority of precisely 1 in my very conservative undergraduate program of study, was routinely and stupidly called a communist, etc.,

The real question, it seems, is whether faculty, administrators, and others create an environment in which students feel safe to express minority views that may be unpopular on that particular campus or in particular disciplinary settings. I imagine that the fierce advocate of cooperative, worker-owned enterprises at Wharton Business School would feel pressures similar to the creationist in the science department or the opponent of US wars at a military academy or the anti-abortion or right-libertarian student at Vassar.

More relevant, what are things like in your class, and how are minority opinions revealed as such? What do you do, or not do? Since my personal political leanings emerge as a matter of course in my class, which is very much bound up with deeply political issues, I have to work very hard to make students who hold what seem to be minority opinions feel that class is a safe space where they should expect to have their beliefs and views challenge and in turn should challenge others - in the context of the rules of the discipline - so that they can see how scholars adjudicate disputes. I try and create exercises where students are occasionally forced to advocate positions they don't agree with, through role-playing, etc. I surely fail as often as I succeed, but I hope that students emerge convinced that their grade doesn't depend on agreeing with me or their peers.

9. dank48 - September 22, 2010 at 01:52 pm

Safer to hold a divergent view than to smoke a cigarette in one's dorm room.

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