The University of Wisconsin System’s free speech survey, which was set to go out Thursday to all undergraduates, has since been pushed back to fall 2022.
The survey stirred controversy among the state’s campuses and led to the resignation of Jim Henderson as interim chancellor at UW-Whitewater, who stepped down Monday, the day prior to the survey’s announcement.
The survey on students’ perceptions of free speech and freedom of expression comes amid nationwide debate on the issue and as state Republicans have proposed legislation surrounding free speech on campuses. UW System students and professors voiced frustration toward the survey, saying it defied research protocols and signaled political interference in the System.
The latest plan to delay the survey comes after several changing decisions from UW System interim president Mike Falbo. In a statement, Falbo said he initially decided to forgo the System’s participation in the survey after receiving pushback from chancellors weeks ago, but ultimately went ahead with it at the urging of the survey’s authors.
The Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, a unit of the UW System, is conducting the project through funds from UW-Stout’s Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation.
The center is named after the Menard family, which founded the Menards store chain and donated $2.36 million to the UW organization. The Menards also have a history of donating to conservative campaigns.
The survey asks about self-censorship, opinions toward viewpoint diversity, perceptions of campus climate, knowledge of the First Amendment and consequences of expressing oneself.
In a statement Thursday, Timothy Shiell, director of the Menard Center and a philosophy professor at UW-Stout, said the delay “will enable us to answer fully and accurately the avalanche of questions arising and lay the groundwork for a successful survey.”
“The goal of the project is to provide previously unavailable, highly relevant information that we hope will better inform discussions about potential changes to policy or law,” he said in a separate statement announcing the survey Tuesday.
Tyler Katzenberger, press secretary of Associated Students of Madison, said UW-Madison’s student governance was concerned about the survey because student leaders were not consulted about it.
While he acknowledged viewpoint diversity is valuable to ASM, Katzenberger said the UW System should prioritize addressing more pressing topics to students, such as issues surrounding diversity.
“We get what the survey’s trying to address and we think it's an important cause to discuss, but why is there not a survey addressing diversity issues in the System?” he said. “Why are we prioritizing this over other more pressing diversity issues?”
Katzenberger said ASM additionally questioned the legitimacy of the survey because it received an exemption from UW-Stout’s institutional review board, which protects the rights and welfare of human research subjects.
However, Eric Giordano, executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, said in a statement that representatives from most other campus institutional review boards (IRBs) also “reviewed the project and determined that the research did not qualify as human subjects research.”
“Only one campus, UW-Whitewater, had not yet given IRB approval to date,” Giordano said. “Campus administration at UW-Whitewater had suggested delaying IRB approval pending an administrative decision of whether or not to allow students to participate in the survey.”
ASM and Mark Copelovitch, a UW-Madison professor of political science and public affairs, also took issue with the survey’s advisory board. Copelovitch said including an expert on research or public opinion in the board would ensure more accurate data is collected.
The advisory committee includes 12 individuals, some of whom are UW law professors, political science professors and a thoracic surgeon.
Others on the board are Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty; Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at human rights nonprofit PEN America; Sean Stevens, a senior research fellow for the nonprofit civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; and Jason Yackee, adviser for the conservative Federalist Society.
Ryan Owens, a Republican UW-Madison professor who dropped out early of this year’s attorney general race is also part of the board, as well as Tricia Zunker, a former Democratic candidate for Congress, and Tim Higgins, who owns the nonprofit Free Speech for Campus. From 2011 to 2018, Higgins served on the UW Board of Regents and was appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker.
“If you look at the survey, there is almost nothing asking about policies of universities or actual things faculty or administrators have done to restrict free speech on campus,” said Copelovitch. “It’s almost entirely a survey of people’s feelings.”
He said that’s particularly worrisome because the results could be used to argue that universities are restricting free speech, “when in fact, you really can’t infer any of that from the types of questions that are being asked.”
“It doesn't appear to be a well-designed survey to answer the type of questions that I think politically people want it to help answer,” he said.
Copelovitch also fears that the research will be used to justify new regulations at the state’s public universities, including budget cuts, because legislators may view them as “hotbeds of restrictions to free speech.”
In the survey, it says the results may contribute to more “evidence-based debate and legislative activities” on campus free speech controversies in Wisconsin.
“Without this survey, the System will continue to be forced to address future free speech controversies from a purely post hoc and anecdotal perspective,” the Menard Center's Shiell said in an email to Falbo, the interim UW System president. “We will be unable to take proactive steps to diffuse future controversies, nor will we be able to effectively craft prudent and meaningful policies to address the deficiencies that truly do exist in our language regarding free expression.”
Citing reporting from Wisconsin Public Radio — which said Republican lawmakers, including state Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, encouraged the UW System to carry on with the survey — Nick Fleischer, a linguistics professor at UW-Milwaukee, said there seems to be an “outrageous level of political interference” in the System.
“All signs point to there being fairly intense legislative interest in this in a way that appears to be highly inappropriate,” Fleischer said. “The level of legislative interest and intervention in the affairs of the UW System around this one survey is highly inappropriate, extraordinary and worrisome.”