Flawed methods and leading questions paint an unreliable picture of the climate on Wisconsin campuses.
Last spring, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater interim Chancellor Jim Henderson unexpectedly resigned over UW System interim President Michael Falbo’s decision to move forward with a controversial free speech survey, after Falbo had initially said the institutions would not.
In a brief message to UW-Whitewater, Henderson explained that he could not advance his goal to help the campus hire “the best chancellor possible” to fill the position long-term. He later told the Wisconsin State Journal that he could not encourage someone to take the chancellor role because of a lack of support from UW System leadership. In fact, several UW Chancellors pointed out inherent issues with the UW System Student Views on Freedom of Speech Survey.
In response to the chancellors’ concerns, Falbo initially told UW-Stout’s Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation, which funded and designed the survey, that he would not move forward with it. (One potential source of partisan bias is the survey’s connection to the Menard Center, which was started by a donation from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation and is named after John Menard, a notable Republican donor.) State Rep. David Murphy (R-Greenville) told Wisconsin Public Radio that he and other lawmakers “pushed back” when they heard that Chancellors did not want the survey to be posted. Eventually Falbo relented and agreed to send the survey out.
After months of pushback, delays, and vocal opposition from chancellors and students, the survey was distributed in November to around 83,000 students across the UW System. A little over 10,000 student responses were recorded. The results of the survey were released on Feb. 1, but students and student organizations question if the results say what its supporters claim, if they say anything at all.
Politically motivated? A history of controversy on campus
The survey was proposed following several controversial free speech-related incidents on campus. In 2016, right-wing political commentator Ben Shapiro visited UW-Madison to deliver a speech titled “Dismantling Safe Spaces: Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings.” He was met with fans as well as protestors, who he mocked in the opening of his presentation.
Last semester, the same group that invited Shapiro to campus, Young America’s Foundation, invited Matt Walsh, another right-wing political commentator and self-described “theocratic fascist,” to visit UW-Madison. Similarly to Shapiro, Walsh was met with both fans and protestors. He mocked both the protestors and the campus LGBTQIA+ community at the start of his speech.
Speakers have been the subject of debate not just at UW-Madison, but at schools across the UW System. Former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at UW-Milwaukee in 2016 and called out a transgender student by name, resulting in UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone condemning the speech in a campus-wide email. Yiannopoulos was later banned from multiple social media platforms for inciting harassment. He eventually resigned from his Breitbart job after making comments condoning pedophilia.
Tim Shiell, director of the Menard Center, told WPR that the motivation for the survey was “legitimate academic research” to inform public debate over free speech on campus, so “policymakers have actual data to look at and not just their own biases or speculations or assumptions.”
Then-UW System president Jay Rothman said the survey was not looking to serve any political agendas.
Rep. Murphy’s involvement in “free speech” legislation and the survey suggests its purpose was to bolster pre-existing political goals—not to inform policy based on new findings. In 2021, Murphy and other lawmakers introduced a bill that would require an annual survey of all students and faculty within the UW System to gauge First Amendment knowledge, perceived political bias, and whether campus culture promotes self-censorship. In the last legislative session, Murphy also cosponsored a bill, Senate Bill 729, that would allow students to satisfy their ethnic studies course requirement with a class on the First Amendment or the Bill of Rights.
MGR Govindarajan, Legislative Affairs Committee Chair for the Associated Students of Madison (ASM), testified against the bill in February 2022, explaining the importance of the ethnic studies requirement and that the benefits of the ethnic studies courses could not be replaced with a Bill of Rights or First Amendment class.
“A course on the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights may teach students about the origins of the amendments and our basic rights as Americans,” Govindarajan said in his testimony, “but will not teach students about the struggles of those who for the majority of our history were not considered nor treated as Americans.”
Govindarajan also pointed out that most of the students in the UW System went to high school in Wisconsin, where public schools require students to pass a 100-questions civics test before they graduate.
Rep. Dave Murphy has been quick to respond to the survey’s results. One point he highlighted was that around 44 percent of all respondents felt offensive speakers should not be disinvited, while around 31 percent felt those speakers should be. In a recent panel discussion, Murphy said it was “scary” that nearly a third of students thought they should.
Student backlash and revisions
After the ASM reviewed the survey draft, one member compared the survey to an inkblot test because “you see what you want to see.”
Govindarajan told Tone Madison that he and other ASM members thought the survey was an ineffective way to gather qualitative data on an important, yet controversial topic. For example, one of the survey questions was, “Since you have been a student at your current university, have you been taught anything about the First Amendment in your classes?”
“The majority of students are going to say ‘no,’ because most students learned that in high school,” Govindarajan says.
Instead of collecting students’ general knowledge of the First Amendment, this question focuses on students’ knowledge specific to college courses, which vary greatly depending on major. Many students may also learn about the First Amendment through extracurricular activities, which is not accounted for in the survey.
So it’s unsurprising that the survey results show that almost 70% of students reported that they did not learn about the First Amendment in their college course. This data point does not accurately reflect students’ knowledge of the First Amendment, only their experience learning it in a specific college course.
Govindarajan also says he is “very worried” regarding the outcome of the survey in relation to the state legislature because he believes there will likely be legislative action taken directed by the survey. He believed Republican lawmakers may use this data point to “prove” a need for a bill similar to Senate Bill 729.
“They’re going to introduce a very similar bill, if not the same bill all over again,” Govindarajan says.
The survey does include a series of questions to further test students’ knowledge of the First Amendment. However, the results are only compared to themselves, which does not reveal how much UW System students know compared to the public or other groups. Without knowing how the students scored compared to other schools or the public, the survey does not give enough information to know if their scores are reason for concern.
ASM spoke with several other student governments across the UW System and pushed for more student involvement with the survey. At the start of the 2022-2023 school year, students involved in student government were given the opportunity to submit feedback. As part of the editing process, ASM sent the survey draft to a random selection of other ASM members and asked for their honest feedback. Govindarajan explained that much of the feedback said the survey questions seemed “leading.”
When ASM critiqued the questions for their leading nature, the survey creators refused to edit or reject the questions. They responded to ASM via email saying, “… fear of how people will react to data on students’ responses to a given question (have they learned about the First Amendment in any of their classes?) is not a valid reason to not collect the data.”
“Their response was very defensive of what they were doing rather than making a lot of changes,” Govindarajan says. “It felt like they were giving students the opportunity to speak but not necessarily listening to students.”
The survey was edited during the revisions period. However, it did not address all of ASM’s concerns.
“It is still just as problematic as it originally was,” Govindarajan says. “There are still many leading questions. It is looking for a very specific outcome.”
Unreliable data collecting procedures
Another facet of the survey that causes concern is how the data was collected. The survey was initially sent to around 5,000 students at each school with the hopes of a 10% response rate, which would be about 500 students from each school.
The results showed that there was a response rate of 12.5 percent, which is higher than projected, but significantly lower than the average response rate of other online education related surveys, which is 44.1 percent.
The largest school in the UW-System is UW-Madison, with around 34,000 students. The smallest is UW-Parkside, with about 2,000 students. The drastic differences in the number of students at each school is not reflected in the survey methods. Instead of each school being equally represented in the survey results, the results disproportionately reflect smaller campuses.
In an FAQ sheet, the survey creators said that they could not do a random universal survey of all UW System students. They also said that there would be higher margins of error if they made the survey weighted because it is “highly complicated and could potentially produce greater standard scores…”
“The survey’s only looking for 500 people from UW-Madison and the same for 500 people from any other university,” Govindarajan says. “It’s going to set a very uneven balance of who actually has a good say in this survey.”
More student voices
One UW-Madison student who took the survey, Leanne Blum, believes a conversation about free speech would be good because, she says, a lot of activist and leftist spheres can be inaccessible to those with different backgrounds.
“I think that we’ve become a really closed off movement,” says Blum, referring to leftism. “Our movement is supposed to preach inclusivity, growth, restorative justice … and we’re doing the complete opposite of that.”
Blum explains that her concerns regarding protecting free speech were related to a very “niche” community.
“I’m talking about issues in the activist bubble,” Blum says, explaining that she does not think “free speech” means someone has a right to be homophobic, transphobic, or racist.
“I think freedom of speech needs to be protected until it becomes harmful,” she says.
While Blum does think there is room for productive conversations about free speech on campus, she thinks it would be “crazy” to replace an ethnic studies course with one on the First Amendment.
Any course that counts toward an ethnic studies requirement is “intended to increase understanding of the culture and contributions of persistently marginalized racial or ethnic groups in the U.S.,” according to UW-Madison’s General Education policy.
Blum already believes that some of the classes that fulfill the ethnic studies requirement at UW-Madison are questionable.
“A lot of stuff qualifies for that, that I don’t feel should be ethnic studies,” Blum says.
The survey results may not capture students’ beliefs about free speech with the nuance they deserve. With the possibility of Republican lawmakers proposing new legislation, the conversation regarding free speech on campus is sure to continue.
“I’m getting myself ready to get prepared to…defend the student perspective on this,” Govindaranjan says. “The real student perspective.”