Fall 2021 Survey of Students at Davidson College Reveals Major Free Expression, Viewpoint Diversity, and Open Discourse Issues on the Campus
The College’s November 29, 2021, draft Davidson’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression principles statement a positive first step for addressing the issues
On November 29, 2021, Davidson College President Carol Quillen communicated to the broad Davidson community “Davidson's Commitment to Freedom of Expression,” a draft statement on the College’s commitment to free expression and open discourse. Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse has been advocating since 2018 that Davidson sign on to the Chicago Principles of Free Expression or a Davidson-specific equivalent. In issuing the principles draft, President Quillen said “Genuine freedom of speech and inquiry demands an ongoing commitment from each of us to build an environment where all can participate and be heard, where listening is cultivated, and where a shared desire to learn overcomes discomfort and fear.”
Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse fully endorses the draft Davidson’s Commitment to Free Expression and urges that it be formally adopted by the College without amendment or qualifications.
The need for a formal Davidson statement of principles on free expression and vigorous application of them in all aspects of the College’s life is demonstrated by the findings of the Survey of Davidson Students conducted in the Fall of 2021. The survey report (https://www.goacta.org/resource/davidson_student_survey/), released today by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA,) reveals serious free speech and viewpoint diversity problems at Davidson:
- Only 33% of surveyed Davidson students say it is extremely or very clear that the College administration protects free speech on campus.
- 39% of surveyed Davidson students say that, if a controversy over offensive speech were to occur at Davidson, it is very unlikely or not at all likely that the administration would defend the speaker’s right to express their views.
- 88% of surveyed Davidson students say the next president should make protecting free speech and civil discourse a priority.
- 71% of surveyed Davidson students have felt that they could not express their opinion on a subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond (37% occasionally, 19% often, and 15% quite often).
- 71% of surveyed Davidson students feel very or somewhat uncomfortable expressing an unpopular opinion on a social media account tied to their name.
- 54% of surveyed Davidson students feel very or somewhat uncomfortable expressing their views on a controversial political topic during an in-class discussion.
- 47% of surveyed Davidson students feel very or somewhat uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic.
- 44% of surveyed Davidson students feel very or somewhat uncomfortable expressing disagreement with one of their professors about a controversial topic in a written assignment.
John Craig, chair of Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse said, “Clearly, there is much work to be done to make the environment for free expression, open discourse, and viewpoint diversity at Davidson what it should be if the College is to maintain its strong record of preparing students to think critically, engage in civil discourse, and be open to exploring ideas beyond their immediate comfort zones.”
Citing the survey finding that 78% of surveyed Davidson students strongly or somewhat agree that Davidson should adopt the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, Craig added that “Davidson students themselves see the problem that the College has been slow to recognize, so the adoption of Davidson’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression is not just timely—it is urgent.” He added that “adoption of a principles statement is, of course, just a first necessary step. The really hard work is now to come—implementing the principles on campus and embedding them in Davidson’s cultural DNA, in the way that the venerable Honor Code is embedded.”
ACTA president Michael Poliakoff said “Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse has powerfully demonstrated how alumni can - and must - be the guardians of their institution’s values. Far more urgent than their donations are their hearts and minds that protect the freedom of expression that is the lifeblood of all education worthy of the name.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) executive director Robert Shibley commented “More than 80 colleges and faculty bodies, including Princeton, Vanderbilt, and UNC-Chapel Hill, have adopted versions of the Chicago Principles to affirm the crucial importance of open inquiry and discussion to the academic enterprise. In today’s climate, where so many fear to speak out—Davidson students’ responses to this survey are hardly an outlier—communicating this commitment is more important than ever.”
Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal noted "These survey responses echo what we hear from students across the country; students of all political stripes want more viewpoint diversity and opportunities to express themselves. The results underscore the need for reform at Davidson."
About the Fall 2021 Survey of Davidson Students
The fall 2021 Davidson student survey was conducted by CollegePulse, which conducts the student surveys for the annual Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) College Free Speech Rankings. CollegePulse developed a panel of 148 Davidson students demographically representative (age, gender, ethnicity, class year) of the student population and surveyed them anonymously online in September-November 2021. To reduce the effects of any non-response bias, post-stratification weights were used to rebalance the sample based on the Davidson student body’s age, race and ethnicity, and gender distribution. The survey findings were analyzed and the report on findings written independently by ACTA. The survey was sponsored by Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse. The demographic profile of surveyed students was as follows: 59% women, 33% men; 60% white, 40% nonwhite; 63% self-identified as extremely liberal/liberal/slightly liberal; 12%, extremely conservative/conservative/slightly conservative; 25%, moderate; 38% self-identified as leaning Democrat; 53%, leaning Independent; 9% leaning Republican.