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Survey: Under half of Iowa public university employees think they can ‘say things I believe’
Free speech survey indicates shortcomings across Iowa universities
A quarter of the students at Iowa’s public universities who responded to a free-speech survey in the fall disagreed with the notion their campuses provide an “environment for free and open expression of ideas, opinions, and beliefs.”
By disagreeing that their university “does not restrict speech on campus,” one-third of responding students suggested they think their institution hinders free speech in some capacity.
Employees who responded to the campuses’ first-ever free-speech survey also had negative opinions of the universities’ “environment for free expression.”
Just 49 percent of responding employees agreed their universities allow them to “say things I believe,” while 56 percent said the campuses allow “other people to say things they believe.”
But 64 percent of the employees said their university doesn’t restrict free speech, and 69 percent said their campus provides an environment for free and open expression.
“When we look at policies from a board level, an institution level, we can see we have policies that are appropriately aligned with First Amendment protections,” Board of Regents Chief Academic Officer Rachel Boon said Wednesday in presenting the survey findings. “Yet only two-thirds of respondents here noted that.”
The results exemplify the importance of new free speech training that the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa initiated this spring for all students, faculty, and staff, Boon said.
“We need to continue to educate on what are our university policies, what are our board-level policies, and what are all these things that factor into how we perceive this?” Boon said.
The board’s free speech survey and training this year came after concerns spread during the last academic year over specific speech-suppressing incidents on each of the three campuses — incidents especially concerning to conservative lawmakers.
Legislators in the last session called university presidents to Des Moines to answer for their campuses, and then they passed legislation enshrining into code free speech requirements for Iowa’s public institutions of higher education.
Regent President Michael Richards also slammed the universities for reports of hindered speech and thought, prompting the board to convene a free speech committee that developed a series of recommendations — like conducting new training and a free-speech survey every two years.
University researchers and administrators worked with the board over the summer to develop the survey, administered from Nov. 9 to Dec. 1.
Although emails and two reminders about the survey were sent to all 69,459 students enrolled across the three campuses and all 28,856 employees at the universities and UI Hospitals and Clinics, just 7,062 students and 10,648 employees responded.
That amounts to a student response rate of 10 percent and an employee response rate of 37 percent. Iowa State and the UI had the highest number and percent of student respondents.
“We feel OK about this,” Boon said. “When you look at a 10 percent response rate for students, it might seem a little bit low. But with this age group, with a survey distributed by email … this is actually within a range that I would have expected.”
About 71 percent of student respondents were undergraduates; the other 29 percent were graduate students.
In terms of employees, both ISU and UNI reported a 48 percent response rate, compared with 33 percent at the UI — a larger population that included UIHC workers.
Students were asked how they feel about expressing their views in class, on campus but outside class, off campus, and on social media.
The largest portion — 78 percent — said they’re comfortable expressing opinions in class while the smallest portion — 60 percent — said they’re comfortable sharing views on social media.
The employee version of that question indicated less comfort sharing views across the board — with 64 percent expressing comfort sharing views at work and off campus and only 44 percent comfortable sharing opinions on social media.
Survey results indicate most respondents think they’re better at seeking and listening to different perspectives than others are — with 90 percent of students saying they do so, and 41 percent saying other students are good at seeking and listening to different views.
About 66 percent of students said faculty are good at seeking and listening to other views, a percent that went down slightly to 61 percent for staff and administrators.
Meanwhile, 91 percent of employees said they’re good at seeking and listening to differing opinions, while 61 percent thought students were good at doing so.
At least half of student and employee respondents said they interact with people different from themselves several times a week or more — with interactions becoming more sparse with people of different disability status and more common with people with different economic or religious backgrounds.
General, high-level survey data like this, Boon said, “can be a little dissatisfying.”
“We can seldom answer the question of why people answer the way they do,” she said. “So we see how they answered, but we don't always know exactly what was going on that made them say that.”
Getting those details requires more investigation and work.
“We have to dig more and in different ways to get to some of that,” Boon said, adding one more concession. “We did this before the training, so people's knowledge of free speech was at that sort of baseline level.”
Given the campuses’ intentions to survey their communities every two years, the next iteration could shed light in the impact of the universities’ new training.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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