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USG Students Queried Regarding Free Speech Climate on Campuses

Atlanta — August 19, 2008

Georgia’s public college campuses are populated by students holding a wide range of social, political and religious beliefs and students are pleased with their overall academic experiences. Yet some students admit to low participation in student organizations and feel as though their fellow students should be more respectful of differing viewpoints.

These are some of the key findings in a survey conducted for the University System of Georgia (USG) by Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer Susan Herbst and Dr. James J. Bason, director of the University of Georgia Survey Research Center, and presented today to the Board of Regents.

The anonymous survey of student speech and discussion was conducted in April 2008 and involved a random sample of students across institutions in the University System who were questioned regarding individual attitudes on academic quality, free speech, and discussion. The survey also collected information on partisanship, political and social views, religious orientation and other student population characteristics.

The student survey was conducted because there has been increasing scholarly and political interest in the practical issues surrounding First Amendment rights in American higher education, said Herbst. “The University System hopes to enhance its role as a leading advocate for free speech, political debate, and excellence in inter-group campus dialog,” she said.

The survey was undertaken to assess whether USG campus environments are perceived by students – representing a diverse range of viewpoints – as restrictive of free speech and the open discussion of ideas. “In evaluating the data, I saw no pattern of political discrimination of any particular sort,” said Bason.

Herbst said, “We welcome discussion of free speech issues in the University System and have worked to ensure that our students have appropriate, transparent avenues to register any concerns they may have. This survey makes it clear that our students have a powerful desire to learn how to discuss issues in a way that is respectful to others, even when passions run high. This is a responsibility that we as educators hold – to help our students learn how to argue with vigor, as well as to have a high respect for logic and empirical evidence.” The survey findings were grouped into broad categories including the overall academic experience, classroom discussion and environment, student attitudes toward free speech, the importance of ideas and campus “free speech” zones.

Almost 85 percent of survey respondents rated their overall academic experience at the USG institution attended as excellent or good. In terms of classroom discussion, 70 percent reported being able to freely discuss important public issues in class, while 58 percent reported being able to freely discuss religious issues in class.

Despite the overall sense of being able to discuss issues freely, lower percentages of respondents felt that other students were respectful of the religious beliefs of all students (55 percent) and only 47 percent of other students were respectful of the political opinions of all students. Of those students who reported that students were not respectful of the political opinions of others, similar proportions reported an anti-Democratic/anti-liberal bias (12.9 percent) or an anti-Republican/anti-conservative bias (10.1 percent). But a majority of student respondents (52.8 percent) reported that students have no respect for views that differ from their own, despite the fact that 65 percent of respondents reported that it was very or somewhat important to them that they debate different points of view with their friends.

Looking at the classroom environment, the survey found a wide range of opinion regarding the role of professors in challenging existing beliefs or introducing new ideas into the classroom. While 31 percent of student respondents reported that it was very or somewhat important to them that instructors not challenge their personal beliefs, 52 percent reported it was very or somewhat important to them that instructors challenge their beliefs in order to introduce new ideas.

When it comes to the classroom and free speech, only 13 percent of students agreed that professors had inappropriately presented their own political views and just over 4 percent agreed that professors in classes had inappropriately presented their own religious views. In both cases, students holding this viewpoint also noted that students felt free to argue with the professor (62 percent in cases of political disagreement and 52 percent in cases of religious disagreement).

While a majority of students reported that there were a variety of student organizations representing many different political views (59 percent) and religious views (49 percent), fully 60 percent of students also admitted that they were not very active in student organizations.

The full report can be accessed online.

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