Free Expression and Constructive Dialogue at UNC-Chapel Hill

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: A survey of UNC undergraduates and in-depth focus group interviews with campus political groups on the issue of free speech on campus finds that UNC professors attempt to discuss issues from across the political spectrum, yet many students -- especially conservative ones -- worry that if they express their sincere political views openly, instructors and/or peers will think less of them. Students generally want an opportunity to engage with those who think differently.

This study was undertaken to better understand what UNC’s culture for free expression looks like in the current, politically-charged moment and to better understand UNC's potential place in the national debate about issues of free expression on college campuses.

The study's findings include:

  1. 30.8% of students feel they have become more liberal during their college years; 15.9% feel they have become more conservative; and 47.8% feel their ideological leanings have not changed.
  2. In most classes, politics rarely comes up.
  3. Students generally perceive course instructors to be open-minded and encouraging participation from both liberals and conservatives.
  4. Students almost ubiquitously perceive political liberals to be a majority on campus.
  5. Both liberal and conservative students worry about how students and faculty will respond to their political views, and students across political perspectives engage in self-censorship.
  6. Anxieties about expressing political views and self-censorship are more prevalent among students who identify as conservative.
  7. Students worry more about censure from peers than from faculty.
  8. Students harbor divisive stereotypes about one another.
  9. Students across ideologies report commonly hearing disparaging comments about political conservatives.
  10. Many respondents are open to engaging socially with students who don’t share their political views, but a substantial minority is not.
  11. Over 25% of students endorse blocking a speaker they disagree with.
  12. Students across the political spectrum express interest in having more opportunities for constructive dialogue—in particular conversations that include conservative speakers.
Based on these findings, the report offers a few recommendations:
  1. Remind students of the importance of free expression and teach them appropriate ways to engage in constructive dialogue.
  2. Support faculty by offering suggestions for and training on how to foster a welcoming and inclusive environment in the classroom.
  3. Provide students, faculty, and staff more opportunities to hear external speakers presenting ideas from across the political, social and cultural spectrum.
  4. Expand research on free expression and constructive dialogue to include issues confronting faculty, staff, and the administrators; and perform the research at regular intervals to track progress and identify emerging issues.
Read the full study here
Feature Charticle

Students’ Ideological Shifts Over Time

UNC

Findings:

  • 30.8% of students feel they have become more liberal during their college years; 15.9% feel they have become more conservative; and 47.8% feel their ideological leanings have not changed.
  • UNC professors attempt to discuss issues from across the political spectrum, yet many students -- especially conservative ones -- worry that if they express their sincere political views openly, instructors and/or peers will think less of them.
  • Students generally want an opportunity to engage with those who think differently.  
Read the full study here.