American Council of Trustees and Alumni With Braun Research, Inc., Survey of Major Donors to Davidson College
Preface Higher education must change its attitude toward alumni and higher education donors. […]
I first noticed cancel culture at Davidson as a new student last year. Of course, there was a high volume of emotional intensity that accompanied the 2020 presidential election, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease around the comments I overheard from my peers. Anyone who raised questions about the “correct” belief to have was immediately silenced by backlash from their peers or fear of social exclusion. Though the circumstances are different now, this dynamic is still overwhelmingly present on campus.. . . it makes me sad to see my peers ostracized just for voicing new ideas, especially when the sense of community at Davidson is a compelling factor that draws new students to campus every year.1
—Samantha Ewing, Class of 2023
Samantha Ewing, current vice president of the Davidson Student Government Association, articulated concerns about freedom of expression and open, civil discourse on the Davidson campus in her November 10, 2021, perspectives column for the student newspaper, The Davidsonian. Her column echoes student complaints at colleges around the country; and they appear to contradict assurances from Davidson College administrators that norms of freedom of expression are strong on campus. Observations such as Ms. Ewing’s, that students fear expressing social and political viewpoints that differ from mainstream campus beliefs, should signal to college leaders that there may be a problem. When they are supported (or contradicted) by empirical data from multiple sources, campus leaders have the information they need to act and, on campuses where large numbers of students report a climate that discourages open debate, a responsibility to do so.
The alumni group Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse (DFTD) was founded in 2018 to monitor the state of free expression, diversity of viewpoints, and ideological balance at Davidson College. Free and open debate is the lifeblood of any university because it is the precondition of the pursuit of truth. As University of Chicago President Robert M. Hutchins put it almost a century ago, “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life . . . [U]niversities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] without it they cease to be universities.”2 Viewpoint diversity is also essential to a truly liberal education because it is only by testing one’s own beliefs against radical alternatives that students refine their own viewpoints, learn the skill of critical analysis, and develop individuality and authentic character.
DFTD was also founded to undertake research to help clarify whether perceived problems in these key areas are real. A Fall 2021 survey of major donors to Davidson College,3 virtually all of whom are alumni, revealed an urgent problem: Only 20% answered that it is “extremely” or “very clear” to them that the college administration protects free speech on campus, and 94% said that Davidson’s next president should make campus freedom of speech and open, civil discourse a priority.
But do Davidson’s major donors have it right? Is there in reality a problem that needs to be addressed?
To help answer this question, DFTD commissioned College Pulse—an online survey and analytics company dedicated to understanding the attitudes, preferences, and behaviors of today’s college students—to conduct an independent, anonymous survey of Davidson students. The 38-question survey was designed to investigate attitudes on a wide range of issues concerning freedom of speech and ideological balance; 148 Davidson College students completed it between September 15 and November 20, 2021. To help ensure diversity in the panel population, panel members were recruited by a number of methods, including web advertising, permission-based email campaigns, and partnerships with higher education organizations.
College Pulse has established expertise specifically in this research area. The firm conducts student surveys that are the basis for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) annual College Free Speech Rankings4 and has recently completed a survey for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) specifically focused on freedom of expression at liberal arts colleges. Davidson students were not included in FIRE’s Spring 2021 surveys of more than 37,000 undergraduates at 159 colleges and universities or in ACTA’s smaller, targeted survey of liberal arts colleges, but this independent Fall 2021 survey of Davidson College students is close enough to the date of the other surveys to make reliable comparisons of findings where the survey questions were identical.
With so much national and campus attention focused on the problem of student self-censorship, Davidson College administrators recently convened a committee to compose a statement expressing the campus’s commitment to academic freedom. The resulting document, “Davidson’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression,” released in draft form on November 29, 2021, is an important first step toward restoring norms of free inquiry. But statements of principle must be accompanied by action in order to bring about the cultural change necessary to build a truly free and open marketplace of ideas. To achieve this, nothing is more important than presidential leadership. As Davidson College undertakes a search for its 17th president, the search committee has an opportunity to choose a leader who has demonstrated a principled commitment to free speech and viewpoint diversity.
The following summary of the Fall 2021 Davidson student survey findings presents the first available empirical data on the extent to which obstacles to freedom of expression are real and pervasive at Davidson. The findings also include insights from students on what they believe the priorities for Davidson’s next president should be. ACTA commends this report to the close attention of Davidson’s Board of Trustees and of the Presidential Search Committee that is now working to identify Davidson’s next president.
Student self-censorship is a problem on Davidson’s campus
Students do not perceive a high level of administrative commitment to protecting free speech on campus
Students strongly support open discourse and viewpoint diversity; they also believe that improving the campus climate for free expression should be a priority of the next president
77% of Davidson College students in the survey “strongly” (38%) or “somewhat” (39%) agreed that the next president should “make achieving ideological and political balance at the college a priority.”
The Demographic Composition of Survey Respondents
In building the survey panel of Davidson students, College Pulse sought to mirror the demographic profile of enrolled students with respect to gender, class year, and race/ethnicity. Responses were weighted to reflect the actual campus demographics in the final analysis. The survey firm also obtained from students their self-reported ideological and political party leanings.
Davidson Student Views on the Administration’s Support of Free Speech on Campus
The State of Free Speech and Open Discourse According to Surveyed Davidson Students
Student Views on Acceptable Behavior at Campus Events Featuring External Speakers
Student Views on Ideological Balance on Davidson’s Campus
Student Views on How to Improve the Climate for Free Expression, Open Discourse, and Viewpoint Diversity at Davidson
Student Views on the Ongoing Presidential Search:
This survey of Davidson students confirms that assessments like Samantha Ewing’s (class of 2023) are based in fact: Davidson College has a serious problem with respect to freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and ideological balance. As comparable FIRE surveys covering 159 colleges and universities reveal, Davidson is far from unique in this regard—but the Davidson survey suggests that, in a number of ways, the problems are more severe at Davidson than on other U.S. campuses.
In a letter to Davidson President Carol Quillen in October 2018, Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse proposed that the college take specific steps to improve free expression, ensure academic freedom, and promote viewpoint diversity and ideological balance. The problems that DFTD cited have now been documented by an independent survey firm in clear, empirical, findings, and ACTA echoes the DFTD recommendations:
Remedying the serious deficiencies documented by the Fall 2021 survey of Davidson College students should be an urgent priority. It is encouraging that a task force appointed by Davidson’s president produced “Davidson’s Commitment to Free Expression,” which was circulated to the campus in draft form on November 29, 2021. Adopting the statement is only the first step, however. As FIRE’s national survey reveals, major free speech problems have persisted at some of the universities that have adopted such statements. The challenge now is for the college to work vigorously to incorporate into campus life the principles articulated by the statement, with the aim of correcting the many deficiencies documented by the student survey.
Building a culture of free expression and fostering a lively exchange of diverse viewpoints takes leadership on the part of senior campus administrators and faculty. The ongoing presidential search is an opportunity to do just that. Along with ACTA’s report on the Fall 2021 Survey of Davidson Major Donors, this report can help guide the search committee’s review of candidates and structure discussions about the new administration’s priorities for the coming years. Students, like major donors, expect the next president to work toward strengthening norms of free expression and open discourse on campus; achieving political and ideological diversity within the faculty, administration, and governing board; and reducing costs while ensuring graduates are well-prepared for professional success.
Davidson College is clearly at an inflection point. With clear evidence of the problem on campus, to knowingly permit the existing campus monoculture to persist would be a deliberate choice to abandon the spirit of free inquiry and critical thinking that have so long been hallmarks of Davidson’s superb education. Davidson now has the opportunity to chart a course that will set it apart from so many other elite American higher education institutions, where freedom of expression and open inquiry are currently under constant duress. Only by choosing the latter course will Davidson maintain, for the long term, its proud reputation for excellence in liberal education
1Samantha Ewing, “Civil Discourse and Cancel Culture at Davidson,” The Davidsonian 120, no. 7 (2021), 4, www.davidsonian.com/civil-discourse-and-cancel-culture-at-davidson/.
2President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum to Faculty, Staff, and Students, “Freedom of Expression and Protest,” uchicagonews, October 20, 2009, news.uchicago.edu/freedom-expression-and-protest.
3American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), “ACTA/Braun Research, Inc., Survey of Major Donors to Davidson College,” October 2021, 2–3, https://www.goacta.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/ACTAReport.Davidson.College-Major.Donor_.Survey10.31.21FINAL.pdf.
4Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), College Pulse, and RealClearEducation, “2021 College Free Speech Rankings,” September 21, 2021, www.thefire.org/research/publications/student-surveys/2021-college-free-speech-rankings/.
5The Chicago Principles state inter alia that“the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.” The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago, “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” 2015, https://provost.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/FOECommitteeReport.pdf.
6Demographic breakdowns are available for all survey questions in the accompanying crosstabs. They are presented here to convey the extent to which large majorities across demographic groups and political affiliations support Davidson College’s adoption of the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression.
7University of Chicago faculty committee, under the chairmanship of Harry Kalven, Jr., “Kalven Committee: Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action,” The University of Chicago Record 1, no. 1 (1967), https://provost.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/KalvenRprt_0.pdf.
8The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago, “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression.”
Preface Higher education must change its attitude toward alumni and higher education donors. […]
ACTA’s president Michael Poliakoff has a bracing conversation with Ed Yingling, a co-founder of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA)—a new consortium of alumni groups dedicated to preserving free speech on their college campuses. Yingling and ACTA Board member Stuart Taylor, also co-founders of Princetonians for Free Speech, launched the project with an explosive op ed in the Wall Street Journal on October 18, 2021.
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