Universities used to be a place where students could leave their bubbles and learn to encounter, understand and contend with the world. They are supposed to be a place where students learn to think openly so that they can go out and understand the world’s problems to fix them.

This requires free speech for students. If students are led to agree with their professor or classmates and aren’t purposefully encouraged to articulate what they think, they lose the opportunity to grow and develop a better understanding of the world.

Unfortunately, it seems many leaders of University of Wisconsin System schools have lost sight of the proper role of higher education institutions and their dependence on free speech.

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Recently, the interim President of UW-Whitewater Jim Henderson resigned over his apprehension about a survey asking students at UW System schools about their views of free speech and whether their free speech rights were being protected on campus.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Henderson believed the survey was not necessary.

“First Amendment rights are vital to the UW-Whitewater community, and they have demonstrated that they are able to assure that a variety of voices are heard on campus in a respectful way, so we didn’t view this as crucial to serving our students,” he said to the State Journal. 

If he was so sure all students felt they were allowed to articulate what they think both in and outside the classroom, why would he be opposed to the survey? If he were correct, the survey would shed light on how well UW schools encourage free speech and could be the model for other schools across the country.

According to a 2020 Knight Free Expression Research Series Survey that randomly surveyed 1,000 college students at different colleges across America, only 47% of college students think that their speech rights are secure, and 65% believe their school’s climate stifles speech others might find offensive.

Considering an interim president resigned over a similar survey being distributed and the possible blowback he and other UW System leadership might receive as a result of this survey, he might think results for Wisconsin students would likely not be very different.

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In addition, objections came from other UW chancellors in addition to Henderson and UW-Whitewater. The survey was initially canceled because of objections to the sponsorship of conservative entities like the Menards and Koch Foundations and because they thought the survey was meant to appease conservative representatives in Wisconsin. After further deliberation, the survey was moved to the fall instead. 

But, if free speech was actually accepted on campus and students felt they could say what they think, the fact that this survey was sponsored and pushed by Republicans should not be a problem. In fact, it may even make the UW System leadership look good to work beyond party lines. 

This reaction by the heads of our university should be concerning to all who not only care about students being able to speak freely and develop their ideas but also to those who want institutions of higher education to flourish in the future. Our leadership needs to encourage students to speak out when they don’t feel they have free speech. Otherwise, universities will lose their credibility as institutions that teach people to think for themselves.

According to the Pew Research Center, between 2015 and 2019 the percentage of conservatives who thought higher education had a negative effect on the country increased from 37% to 59%. This is in large part because they don’t think a wide range of opinions and viewpoints are being presented in the classroom and on campus. According to the same study, 96% of Republicans 65 and over and 58% of Republicans between 18-34 thought that professors bringing their opinion into the classroom was a major reason why universities were heading in the wrong direction.

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A large part of the dislike for professors bringing their personal political or moral opinions into the classroom is that though they might still allow free speech in the classroom, students might feel they can not contribute an opposing view. This destroys the idea and reason for free speech, which is to allow students to better learn how to argue and articulate what they actually believe and learn from others.

Students need to not only have free speech guaranteed, but they also need to feel and be actively encouraged to voice what they think in the classroom. Without these important qualities, universities could move away from providing an important liberal arts experience and instead become glorified trade schools for engineering or medical jobs. They will no longer be the place for young people to learn how to articulate what they think and change the world for the better.

If you are part of the leadership at a UW System school and are scared of the blowback you might receive because of this free speech survey, follow Jim Henderson and leave. Let someone who understands the proper role of higher education and is willing to accept criticism and the opinions of all students take your place and restore true free speech on campuses like UW-Madison. 

Jonathan Draeger ([email protected]) is a freshman studying economics and pursuing a certificate in German.