Monday, March 6, 2023

A Response to Sen. Kapenga on the UW System

The following is the headline from the newsletter my Wisconsin State Senator Chris Kapenga sent to constituents on March 3, 2023.

“Survey Finds UW-System Students Afraid to Express Views on Campus”

He goes on to explain that the ones who are afraid are those with “conservative” political views, stating “Though disheartening, the results revealed what many of us have known for a long time. College campuses have become “safe spaces” for liberal thought and quite the opposite for conservative leaning students and faculty.”

I went through the 97-page report, and it definitely is interesting. There were very detailed questions about how the student feels about topics (both in classrooms and beyond), if they have opposed a class-focused idea of a topic, and what happened. I fail to agree with Sen. Kapenga’s analysis. For example, on page 18 of the report, in regards to how likely a student would be to “consider viewpoints they disagree with”, the findings were “Across the various topics [bridges and roads, religion, police misconduct, racial inequality, climate change, Covid 19 vaccines, immigration, gun control, sexual assault, transgender issues, and abortion], only about 1 in 10 students reported that they would be extremely likely to consider viewpoints they disagreed with.” So, regardless of where the student was on the spectrum of support for a topic, it seems less than 10% of ALL would “consider” an opposing viewpoint.

I’d like to focus on the survey’s focus of the term “viewpoint”. Viewpoint is opinion- it’s not fact. If it’s my belief- my viewpoint- my opinion- that Catholicism is the “best” religion, I would naturally tend to NOT “consider” my classmate’s belief, viewpoint, and opinion that being an atheist is the “best” religion.

The survey doesn’t seem to address directly what “conservative” and “liberal” mean to those involved. It did indicate that the only campus with more “conservative” students than “liberal” was the UW-Platteview campus. Overall, there are more “liberal” thinkers than “conservative” ones in our state college system. Whatever that truly means.

I’m using a lot of quotation marks because I think this entire survey has issues relating to word choice. What exactly do they mean by “consider”? To debate? To possibly think about agreeing with?

Sen. Kapenga asserts that “conservative” political voices are afraid to speak out on UW campuses. The report states on page 20 that “Some groups of students feel relatively more or less comfortable expressing their views.” and breaks down the comfort levels of a variety of groups for each topic covered.

Some. Relatively more or less comfortable.

The topics covered in the survey have both overall life and political layers of meaning- we cannot examine them without that understanding. We also cannot ignore the fact that the survey is asking about BELIEF. It’s my understanding that collegiate education is a time to stretch one’s understanding of the world and what we believe it to be all about. As a first-year med student, I may believe that the human species is at the apex of all of life and beholden to none due to an inherent superiority of some sort. After studying microbiology, parasitology, organic chemistry, and biochemistry, I may realize that while we are amazingly complex, we both need a host of other organisms for our survival and there are some organisms or things that can take us down with little effort. At a personal level, I may have to struggle with any inner religious connotations of that understanding I might have, but that is outside the purview of the collegiate structure.

I question at what level many of the topics of concern would even come up in many majors of study. Certainly, if one would take humanities or social science classes, subjects such as immigration, gun control, sexual assault, transgender issues, abortion religion, police misconduct, and racial inequality might arise. The health and natural sciences would cover climate change and Covid 19 vaccines. Engineering might cover bridges and roads, but from angles of their mechanics and expense, not on how to pay for them- business and some social sciences would cover that.

I’m left wondering if the fear of speaking one’s truth comes from one of two fears I believe could cause a person to think they may suffer some sort of physical or social harm. First, is the fear of appearing to have invalid beliefs: I don’t want to look foolish because I can’t substantiate my beliefs in a way the group can accept. The second fear is that, if I change my belief I will lose the support of people who have supported me up to this point because of those beliefs I’ve held until now. As one example, this survey showed a majority of people who describe themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative” feel uncomfortable talking about their beliefs on transgender topics. I assume they are saying that this discussion would occur in a class. I also must assume the opinions or beliefs of that self-described “conservative” person must somehow go contrary to individuals who are transgender and/or contrary to what the person thinks are the beliefs of others within the classroom. Those are the logical reasons for feeling discomfort given those parameters. Is that discomfort a bad thing or an opportunity to grow in understanding, which is what college life is all about?

I will repeat here that the survey conductors said “only 1 out of 10 students reported that they would be extremely likely to consider viewpoints they disagreed with”. It’s hard for ANYONE to change their mind. I will add that, on page 57 of the survey results, when asked for their “perceptions of how often, in classes where viewpoint diversity is relevant, their instructors create a classroom climate in which students with unpopular views would feel comfortable, or uncomfortable, expressing them”, NO political leaning had a majority where the students felt very uncomfortable- even those self-identifying as “very conservative”. The UW System seems capable at some level, when relevant, of providing a means to share viewpoints.

I’m going to share an example from my own time in college (not in Wisconsin) back in the early 1990s that I was reminded of upon reading Sen. Kapenga’s thoughts, the results of the UW study, and my response to both. While I was going from the library to a class, there was a man standing on the walkway with a sign and he was protesting “the evils going on here”. A crowd was gathering and I had to slow down because of that, and I started to hear more of what he was saying, which included his belief that the women shouldn’t be there, but should actually be “at home”. To him, having women seeking higher education was wrong.

My gut twisted and my anger rose. I ended up calling out if he thought we should be having babies and he nodded. I have no idea if the university knew this guy was even there, let alone whether they sanctioned it. His views disgusted me, but he meant little to me because I had heard similar ideas before and didn’t accept them. I had to get to my class so I shook my head and got out of there while others stayed behind.

The survey given by the UW system included questions about situations such as what I just described: I would be one of the students who would be upset over a university supporting speakers that had offensive (personally and socially) beliefs they were sharing publicly. Should a public university pay someone or give space for someone to say things like that man did? Should I as a student have reported him and complained? I believe I probably should have because his beliefs would deny me access to education if they were followed by society. A majority of self-identifying liberal students in the report said they would report a speaker doing this sort of thing. Back in my day, he was alone. Today he might be fronted by others with weapons to ensure he could keep talking as he wished. Students today have a lot more to consider than I did 30-some years ago.

In closing, I wanted to highlight a huge irony of one result of this survey- a survey that was supposed to unveil students views on Freedom of Speech. The survey asked each student if they had learned about the First Amendment or not and then tested their knowledge a bit. The results? Students who reported they had learned about the First Amendment in their classes scored only slightly better on the First Amendment knowledge items presented in the survey compared to those who reported they had not learned anything about the First Amendment.

One thing the survey does make clear is this: we need a lot more focus and practice on the real work of discovering and discussing what is real, what is an opinion, and how we move forward together peacefully.

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