Jeff Fuentes Gleghorn
The University of Wisconsin system announced on Friday, November 11, that they would begin distributing a survey to students to learn about “attitudes toward free speech, viewpoint diversity, and self-censorship on campus.” The original plan was to send the survey out in May, at the end of the Spring semester, but after hearing concerns from the chancellors, then-UW system interim President Michael Falbo canceled the survey. Falbo later decided that the survey would happen, prompting University of Wisconsin-Whitewater interim Chancellor Jim Henderson to resign.
At the time, Falbo said that “I acknowledge that some chancellors were disappointed in that decision [to participate in the survey], and it regrettably led to a resignation.”
The survey itself will sample between 2,500 and 7,500 students at each campus, with a goal of receiving at least 500 responses from each location. Students who complete the survey will receive a $10 gift card. The questions are multiple choice and hope to find out how likely students are to consider opposing views on topics like abortion, immigration, racial inequality and gender identity. There are also questions to find out if students have ever felt pressured to agree with a professor on a political or ideological point, or if they have been punished or reprimanded for disagreeing with a professor.
In the statement announcing the rollout of the survey, current UW system President Jay Rothman said that “The First Amendment is a bedrock principle of American democracy, and this survey will help us understand what students know and think about free speech rights and responsibilities.” He added that “At the same time, we have an obligation to promote respectful dialogue – inside the classroom, around residence halls, and on the campus square. What better place than a university to foster the vigorous, considerate exchange of ideas and opinions?”
However, many students, staff, and faculty have voiced concerns that the survey will be twisted to serve political talking points and attack the UW system, though not as dramatically as former Chancellor Henderson. Last December a bill was introduced that would punish universities and technical schools for free speech or academic freedom violations. Proponents of the bill, like Representative Dave Murphy (R-Greenville) have said they look forward to seeing the results of the survey. In a call with Washington Public Radio, Murphy said that “If we would do something again, it would be nice to have some data to be able to use to either bring that legislation again or to modify it because it isn’t exactly what it should be.”
The bill in question has run up against strong opposition and legal hurdles. When it was first introduced, Murphy asked a Wisconsin Legislative Council attorney about the constitutionality of the legislation. The attorney said that a key part of the bill “very well could be subject to separation of powers issues” and that “it’s kind of questionable” whether that section of the bill would be legal.