A controversial survey asking University of Wisconsin System students about free speech rights that prompted the resignation of a chancellor earlier this week and was slated to be launched Thursday has been postponed until the fall semester.
The delay comes in response to mounting concerns from campuses this week about potential politicization of results ahead of the November election, questions about the research protocol process and allegations of political interference.
Tim Shiell, director of the center that is funding the survey, said that “given the current circumstances” he decided on Wednesday to delay the survey. It was set to be sent on Thursday to students, who would have the next month to answer dozens of questions about the First Amendment, whether they see problems with a lack of diverse viewpoints on campus and whether they have ever been sanctioned or punished for exercising their free speech rights.
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“The extra time will enable us to answer fully and accurately the avalanche of questions arising and lay the groundwork for a successful survey,” Shiell said in an email to interim System President Michael Falbo and other System officials. “It is essential that the survey provide the quantity and quality of data that helps inform the public discussion of an issue of state and national significance.”
The survey’s delay comes on the heels of interim UW-Whitewater Chancellor Jim Henderson resigning due to what he said was a lack of support from the System over the survey and other issues. He said he and other chancellors raised concerns about the survey, such as its launch coming amid several other surveys already being sent out to students and his belief that students are already exposed to a variety of voices.
The chancellors’ objections led Falbo to nix the survey, the interim System president said. But then he reversed course after hearing from Shiell and others about the merits of moving forward with the project, according to Falbo.
Henderson, however, said Falbo told chancellors that his reasons were focused more on the political fallout of not carrying out the project.
Republicans have often accused colleges of trying to suppress conservative views, both in the classroom and in who is invited to speak at campus events.
Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, said he contacted Falbo after hearing about the initial cancellation to lend his support for the project and for administering it in the spring, as opposed to the fall when more new students are on campus who have had less time to form an opinion about their experiences.
“I call it a customer service survey,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it: if people feel they’re getting their money’s worth.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement that he was disappointed the System’s “bureaucratic red tape” has delayed the survey because he believes there is a free speech problem on UW campuses.
A Vos spokesperson did not respond to a question asking if the speaker approached Falbo about the survey. System spokesperson Mark Pitsch said Vos had an interest in the issue and discussed it with Falbo.
Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, who chairs the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, said a healthy university environment encourages and protects the free exchange of ideas.
“That’s why I can’t understand why universities would be afraid to ask their students how they feel about free speech on their campus — to the point that one chancellor resigned over initiating the survey,” he said.
Henderson on Thursday declined to comment on the System’s delay of the survey — an action that student body presidents for the Madison, Stevens Point, Eau Claire, Whitewater and La Crosse campuses called for on Wednesday.
Tyler Katzenberger, a spokesperson for UW-Madison’s student government, said “pretty much every student government was blindsided” by the survey and not consulted. He said free speech is important but he would prefer to focus on what he said were more pressing diversity problems, such as students of color feeling unwelcome on campus.
Will Scheder, who leads the student body at UW-Stevens Point, feared politicians would cherry-pick survey results to score political points ahead of the November election. He also predicted a poor response rate from students, who he said are busy this time of year lining up summer internships or jobs, registering for next semester’s classes and wrapping up this semester’s coursework.
‘Right thing, wrong time’
For Eric Sandgren, a UW-Madison veterinary medicine professor who leads the university’s Faculty Senate, the idea to obtain data on free speech is a worthy one. He often hears outside complaints about instructors “indoctrinating” students in the classroom, which he does not believe occurs.
“I think it’s critically important information to know how well we’re doing in providing education,” he said. “If there’s widespread indoctrination, that’s inappropriate. If there isn’t, it’s inappropriate to use that argument against us.”
Sandgren, however, had concerns about the wording of some survey questions that he said are open to interpretation, such as one asking whether students have been exposed to something in class that made them uncomfortable. In his view, it’s the job of universities to challenge students’ preconceptions so answering “yes” to the question is an indication that the institution is doing its job. But he said others may not see it the same way.
Like student leaders, Sandgren, too, said the System did not consult with campus communities, and he welcomed the survey’s delay.
“Despite the fact that the initial survey rollout was completely botched, my hope is we can use it as an extremely useful tool,” he said. “It was exactly the right thing at the wrong time.”
Mark Copelovitch, a UW-Madison political science and public affairs professor, also said he appreciated the delay. But he was skeptical that asking students their opinions about self-censorship would provide clear evidence of a free speech problem on campuses or whether it’s any worse than, say, other workplaces.
“There’s a political narrative that seems designed to justify evidence that there’s a crisis on campuses,” he said. “So you ask a set of questions and try to infer the problem exists. But compared to what? You need to be really careful about survey design.”
The project’s research team includes Shiell, a philosophy professor at UW-Stout; Eric Giordano, who cites survey research and design among his skill set as executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, the System unit that will administer the survey; UW-Eau Claire political science professor Eric Kasper, who specializes in U.S. constitutional law; UW-Eau Claire political science professor Geoff Peterson, whose teaching interests include U.S. politics and research methodology; and UW-Eau Claire psychology professor April Bleske-Recheck, who teaches research methodology and other psychology courses.
Survey questions were then vetted by an advisory board that includes former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske (who also serves as a community member of the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorial board); UW-Madison law school professors Franciska Coleman, a constitutional law scholar, and Jason Yackee, the adviser for the conservative Federalist Society; Sean Stevens, a senior research fellow for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national civil liberties group; Rick Esenberg, the president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty; Ryan Owens, a UW-Madison professor who scrapped plans to run as a Republican candidate in the state attorney general race this year; former UW Regent Tim Higgins; and Tricia Zunker, a former Ho-Chunk Supreme Court associate justice who has run for Congress as a Democrat.
Other concerns about the survey centered on the entity funding it. The UW-Stout’s Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovations began in 2017 with a donation from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation. It was renamed the Menard Center after the Menard family, which founded the Menards store chain, donated $2.36 million to the center in 2019. The family is a major Republican donor.
Shiell acknowledged those concerns to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“It might help people to understand the center for me to say I’m a liberal professor being funded by a conservative donor to run a nonpartisan center,” he told the publication.
Henderson said chancellors were told the survey had to be conducted this spring because external funding was contingent on that timeline, prompting questions as to why.
Shiell told Falbo in a March 30 email that there was no funding in place for the survey beyond the spring semester. On Thursday, he told the Wisconsin State Journal the center is confident it will have funding in place for a fall launch. Other potential funding options are under discussion.
Others questioned whether the survey violated research protocols required for projects involving human subjects. Several individuals on the Whitewater campus said their institution hadn’t approved sending out the survey.
Giordano, who leads the System unit administering the survey, said in a statement that the research process was “followed to the letter.” Shiell and his research team received approval from UW-Stout’s research ethics committee, according to documentation provided to the State Journal. The team also received what’s known as “an exemption from full review,” a declaration provided to projects considered to be low-risk to humans.
The center’s research team contacted research ethics committees for every other campus about the project, Giordano said. Most of them accepted the ruling from UW-Stout’s committee. A few of them, including UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, reviewed the project, determined it didn’t qualify as human subjects research and said further approval would be determined by the appropriate administrative department on campus. Only one campus, UW-Whitewater, had yet to approve the project, he said.
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, said free speech on campuses has become a hot political issue, which makes it difficult to design a survey that doesn’t appear slanted to one side or the other.
“Simply raising the issue offends some while others see an issue requiring much more attention,” he said. “I doubt any survey could satisfy everyone, or even most.”
“Despite the fact that the initial survey rollout was completely botched, my hope is we can use it as an extremely useful tool.”
Eric Sandgren, UW-Madison veterinary medicine professor
“It might help people to understand the center for me to say I’m a liberal professor being funded by a conservative donor to run a nonpartisan center.”
Tim Shiell, Menard Center director
“I call it a customer service survey. That’s the way I look at it: if people feel they’re getting their money’s worth.”
Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville