Millennial College Students Are Torn Between Open Speech and Protecting the Vulnerable

We recently completed a poll of 1,000 college students on the topic of free speech on campus. Previous postings (here and here) have shown that students are reticent to support controversial speakers on campus and do not support any speakers who might have viewpoints that some students find to be uncomfortable.

In this final post on our poll results, we take a look at some contradictions in our data that demonstrate that today’s college students are torn between a desire to favor a campus that promotes free and open debate and an ethos that makes them want to protect the vulnerable from feeling uncomfortable.

There has been a long-held belief by conservatives that colleges are bastions of liberal thinking and perhaps indoctrination. Our poll results lend support to this viewpoint, as 52% of college students feel their professors tend to be more liberal in their thinking than the nation as a whole while just 23% feel their professors are more conservative:

Compared to the views of the nation as a whole, would you say that your current professors/instructors tend to be:
More conservative in their thinking 23%
About the same as the nation as a whole 25%
More liberal in their thinking 52%

Students tend to express a desire for their professors to be given a wide latitude to express their views and are largely not in support of administrators censoring how professors express their views to students.

Which statement below comes closest to your opinion?
College administrators should closely monitor what professors/instructors teach to make sure all students are comfortable 33%
College professors/instructors should be given a wide degree of freedom to express their views to students 67%

The result below shows that students report that colleges should encourage students to have an open mind to ideas that they may find uncomfortable. At first glance, college students seem to favor an atmosphere of openness on campus.

Which statement below comes closest to your opinion?
Colleges should attempt to shield students from ideas and opinions they may find unwelcome and offensive 25%
Colleges should encourage students to be exposed to ideas and opinions they may find unwelcome and offensive 75%

Millennial college students also recognize that free and open speech is central to university life. For example:

  • Two-thirds (66%) agree that the intellectual vitality of a university depends on open and free expression of ideas.
  • 63% agree that free speech, including controversial speech, is central to college teaching and learning.
  • 57% agree that student-run newspapers have a first amendment right to publish controversial stories without running afoul of college administrators.

That said, this poll also shows that Millennials also hold some views that run counter to the free speech ethos they express:

  • 57% agree that students should be encouraged to report instances of professor bias to administrators.
  • 48% feel that students should be provided warnings in advance to alert them to potentially troublesome readings.
  • 45% feel that colleges should provide intellectual safe spaces, where students can retreat from ideas and perspectives that are at odds with their own.

And, as we discussed in our previous postings, students shy away from permitting almost any type of speaker on campus that could potentially communicate anything that might cause a subgroup of students discomfort.

So, there are some contradictions in our findings that needs explaining. We feel that there is likely some nuance on Millennial opinion. The Millennial college student seems torn between realizing that exposure to ideas counter to their own is essential to their education and a strong ethos of protecting the vulnerable.

Which statement below comes closest to your opinion?
It is more important that colleges stick up for the vulnerable 50%
It is more important that colleges stand up for a spirit of inquiry 50%

This nuance is difficult for Boomer and Xers (who make up most college administrators and professors) to grasp. Older generations grew up not only at a time when free and open speech was held to a higher standard but also at a time where the college/university campus was the nexus of student opinion and influence. Today’s Millennial student has experienced more cultural diversity on campus and has established digital meeting spaces are their nexus for opinion and community. Millennials are exposed to diverse and controversial opinions constantly, to the point where their desire to protect the campus from controversy and discomfort may be a defense mechanism. It is an environment they can control.

What this all means for the university has yet to be seen. But, campus life is changing, and it will be key that the pendulum that is now swinging towards safety and comfort doesn’t swing so far as to limit student exposure to valuable viewpoints and a well-rounded worldview.

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