Proposed UW student survey on campus free speech leads to resignation of UW-Whitewater chancellor

By: - April 6, 2022 4:08 pm

University of Wisconsin Whitewater by beautifulcataya CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A planned survey about campus free speech to undergraduate students in the UW System has caused the interim chancellor of UW-Whitewater to resign and led to dissent from faculty across the system’s 13 campuses. 

The Student Perceptions of Campus Free Speech Survey, set to be conducted by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, is funded by UW-Stout’s Menard Center for Public Policy and Service, which was started by a donation from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation and bears the name of John Menard, a prominent Republican donor. 

The survey is scheduled to be sent to students on Thursday and must be completed by May 6. It aims to gather student views on their ability to express their views on campus and in their classrooms and if they feel like certain views are punished or discouraged. 

Included in the survey are questions about what students believe their free speech rights on campus are and if they feel like they’re able to share opinions in class discussions. One section asks if students believe they receive lower grades because of opinions they express in class. 

In recent years, Republicans in Wisconsin and across the country have frequently attacked university campuses for being hostile to conservative speech. In the most recent legislative session, Wisconsin Republicans pushed a number of bills aimed at protecting conservative students. The survey also comes after a controversial Florida law mandated that campuses take surveys of “viewpoint diversity.” 

Faculty and administrators have said they’re worried the survey may be used by Republicans in the state Legislature for political attacks against the state’s higher education system and that they object to how UW System leadership has managed the survey’s rollout. 

According to reports from the Wisconsin State Journal and the Chronicle for Higher Education, interim UW System President Michael Falbo had initially declined to hold the survey following pushback from chancellors but backtracked later. Rep. David Murphy (R-Greenville) was involved in the process of pushing the survey forward, according to the Chronicle report. 

“The chancellors raised concerns about the survey, at which time I informed the Menard Center we would not be participating,” Falbo said in a statement to the Chronicle, adding that he later changed his mind. 

After Falbo’s decision to move forward with the survey, UW-Whitewater interim Chancellor James Henderson resigned from his position. Henderson is the fourth person to lead the university since 2018. 

“First Amendment rights are vital to the UW-Whitewater community, and they have demonstrated that they are able to assure that a variety of voices are heard on campus in a respectful way, so we didn’t view this as crucial to serving our students,” he told the State Journal. “We should be able to determine the prioritization of surveys administered on our campuses.”

Henderson also said that Falbo’s reasons for moving ahead with the survey were about avoiding the political fallout for not doing the survey, according to the State Journal report. 

In his resignation, Henderson said he believes chancellors aren’t given an opportunity to make decisions for the campuses they’re in charge of. 

“I felt like I could not encourage candidates to apply for the chancellor job because of what I consider to be a lack of support from UW System leadership,” he said. “I thought chancellors had a role and a collaborative process in making decisions with the System, and I feel that was not honored.”

Nicholas Fleisher, a professor at UW-Milwaukee and president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Association of University Professors, says his biggest concern with the survey is the process by which it’s been pushed forward — specifically the appearance of meddling from legislators, which he says is harmful to the system. 

“The major concerns right now are the process by which this is happening,” Fleisher says. “There’s clearly something very wrong. UW System chancellors don’t just resign over issues like this unless there’s something very deeply problematic. In the reporting we’ve seen so far, the timeline of events that’s been sketched out makes it sound like legislators, like Rep. Murphy, [who] was quoted saying directly that he and possibly other legislators intervened in order to make sure this survey happened, apparently over the objections of the chancellors. That’s an extraordinary development and highly inappropriate.”


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.