This post originally appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.
In June of 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill requiring public universities to implement a yearly survey assessing viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom. This decision is in line with national trends, as other states have adopted similar bills, and education dominates much of our contemporary political discourse.
A central component of this debate is whether students feel able to express their sincerely held beliefs and views while on campus. My review of current campus climates surveys suggests that political ideology indeed plays an outsized role in how students answer this question.
In recent years, numerous surveys of college campuses have attempted to assess student opinion on viewpoint diversity and their ability to express themselves. Across most studies, identification as a conservative or a liberal is the only demographic characteristic to consistently impact student opinion on this issue. Other characteristics measured in these studies were gender, race, major, public vs. private university, and upperclassmen vs. lowerclassmen.
Unlike political ideology, none of these other factors had a significant effect on views of campus climate. Across the country, researchers have found that conservative students, on average, feel less able to express their beliefs than their liberal counterparts.
A 2021 study by Yale University’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program found that 50% of students often felt intimidated sharing their opinions or beliefs in class because they were different from those of their professors or peers. That number drops to 46% for students who identify as liberal but rises to 62% for conservatives. There were no similarly significant effects based on other demographic differences.
Likewise, a national survey conducted by Gallup in 2020 reported that 63% of college students felt that their campus climate prevented some students from expressing their beliefs because others might find them offensive. Interestingly, 93% stated that liberal students can openly express their views, while only 73% said the same of conservative students. This difference is attributed mainly to the views of conservative students themselves.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted a similar study in the spring of 2019. They found that 12.5% of self-identified liberal students worried that expressing their views would cause an instructor to have a lower opinion of them. But 49.6% of self-identified conservative students felt this way.
Moreover, the proportion of conservatives who engaged in self-censorship at least once was 67.9%, a figure almost three times as large as the 24.1% of liberals who did the same. These differences were not present when comparing students across other demographic characteristics.
Across all three surveys, no demographic characteristic alters these views on political climate as consistently or to the same degree as a respondent’s political ideology. Substantial differences in rates of self-censorship and willingness to express sincerely-held views persist.
These and numerous other studies make it clear that further investigation into why political identification affects these views is necessary.
Future surveys of this kind should place a greater emphasis on obtaining accurate measurements of both partisanship and political ideology and isolating the causal factors in this difference of opinion. Identifying why these gaps in opinion exist is a vital step toward correcting them.
Eli Mckown-Dawson is a research assistant in the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University and is double majoring in Political Science and Philosophy.