MADISON, Wis. –University of Wisconsin System President Jay Rothman announced today that a team of faculty researchers will distribute a survey to students starting Monday with a goal of soliciting student attitudes toward free speech, viewpoint diversity, and self-censorship on campus.

Rothman also announced that the UW System would expand its efforts to promote citizenship and civil dialogue at UW universities and beyond.

“The First Amendment is a bedrock principle of American democracy, and this survey will help us understand what students know and think about free speech rights and responsibilities,” Rothman said. “At the same time, we have an obligation to promote respectful dialogue – inside the classroom, around residence halls, and on the campus square. What better place than a university to foster the vigorous, considerate exchange of ideas and opinions?” 

The survey will be sent to a random sample of UW System students from each campus and remain open until Dec. 14. The research team seeks approximately 500 responses from each university and will sample anywhere between 2,500 and 7,500 students per campus depending on the overall student population and response rate. Results are expected to be reported in early 2023.

The research team includes Tim Shiell, professor of philosophy and director of the Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation at UW-Stout; Eric T. Kasper, professor of political science and director of the Menard Center for Constitutional Studies at UW-Eau Claire; Geoffrey Peterson, professor of political science, UW-Eau Claire; and April Bleske-Rechek, professor of psychology at UW-Eau Claire. The survey is overseen by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) at UW-Stevens Point at Wausau, led by Eric Giordano, executive director.

The survey is funded by UW-Stout’s Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation and includes an advisory board that provided feedback on the survey content and design. The research team solicited input from students and other state and national experts as it refined the survey over the previous months.

“The research team has decades of collective experience in survey administration, public policy analysis, and research on the Constitution, political science, education, and psychology,” Giordano said.

The survey comes amid an ongoing conversation about speech on campuses and in the wake of a 2021 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, “ Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap,” which recommends collecting this type of data as a part of continuous quality improvement for universities. While national surveys have been conducted, the UW System study is expected to be the first with specific data from UW System students. The survey project has been reviewed by appropriate Institutional Review Board authority on each campus.

The citizenship and civil dialogue initiatives Rothman announced include:

  • Creating the Wisconsin Institute for Citizenship and Civil Dialogue (WICCD) based at WIPPS. WICCD will coordinate the various research and policy centers across the UW System focused on the Constitution and public affairs to share best practices, consider joint programming, and discuss ways to elevate civil dialogue and the First Amendment on UW campuses.
  • Organizing peer-to-peer conversations on challenging topics. Inspired by “It’s Just Coffee,” a student-conceived project at UW-Madison, the UW System will convene conversations between students of different backgrounds and beliefs in an effort to develop understanding and build civil dialogue. The conversations will be voluntary, open to the public, and include the participation of President Rothman.
  • Sponsorship and promotion of the Wisconsin Civics Games and its accompanying editorial writing and cartooning contest. The $20,000 annual commitment would fund scholarships, cash awards and targeted promotions in an effort to encourage citizenship among middle and high school students.
  • A new civil dialogue website for UW System universities.

The free speech survey and initiatives build on the UW System’s existing commitment to free speech and freedom of expression, as evidenced by Regent Policy Document 4-21, which includes a requirement that the “UW System shall report annually to the Board of Regents regarding the efforts of its institutions to uphold the principles expressed in this policy and to fulfill the Board’s Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression.”

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