UW System relaunches controversial free speech student survey

By: - November 15, 2022 6:00 am

Bascom Hall, completed 1849, on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison | Richard Hurd CC BY 2.0

The University of Wisconsin System sent a survey to students on Monday looking for their feelings about the state of free speech on the system’s campuses across the state. 

The survey had previously been planned for May, but objections from chancellors, including by UW-Whitewater Chancellor James Henderson, who criticized the survey when he resigned from his post, caused it to be delayed. 

The 29-page survey was sent to a random sample of students at each of the System’s 13 universities with the hope of getting at least 500 responses from each campus. The survey asks students about their views on abortion, police misconduct and academic freedom, among other topics. The multiple choice questions also ask students how they feel about administrative responses to speech on campus and if they feel like an instructor has ever expressed ideological views in class. 

UW-Madison student MGR Govindarajan, the Legislative Affairs Chair for student government group Associated Students of Madison, told Wisconsin Public Radio he’s worried about the responses being weaponized by Republicans.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of the results, like the president said,” Govindarajan said. “However, there is a very real possibility that the results will be manipulated. That is something that students in student government are preparing for and something that we know will have a negative impact on students directly.”

UW System President Jay Rothman said the survey is just an attempt to get a sense of campus climates. 

“The First Amendment is a bedrock principle of American democracy, and this survey will help us understand what students know and think about free speech rights and responsibilities,” Rothman said in a statement. “At the same time, we have an obligation to promote respectful dialogue – inside the classroom, around residence halls, and on the campus square. What better place than a university to foster the vigorous, considerate exchange of ideas and opinions?” 

The survey is set to be conducted by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service at UW-Stevens Point and 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. 

When the survey was initially announced this spring by the UW System’s interim President Michael Falbo, a political controversy sprung up as faculty and staff on campus worried that Republican lawmakers — who are frequently hostile to the UW System — would use the responses to attack their work. 

After chancellors initially expressed concerns about the survey, Falbo said the System would not be participating but some Republican legislators intervened in an attempt to get it pushed through. Republicans have long accused university faculty and administrators of stifling conservative speech on campuses. 

Falbo relented, which is what caused Henderson’s resignation. 

“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 Wisconsin State Journal in May. “We should be able to determine the prioritization of surveys administered on our campuses.”


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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.