New Survey Reveals that Students Increasingly Hesitant to Voice Views on Campus

According to a recent survey, students are increasingly reluctant to discuss controversial topics on campus. Hot off the presses, Heterodox Academy’s Annual Campus Expression Survey Report* breaks down the details of its survey this past fall. Here are the major takeaways:

Overall, college students are more reluctant to discuss controversial topics in their classroom.

  • Average reluctance to speak about all controversial topics increased from 24 percent in 2019 to 30 percent in 2020.
  • 34.5 percent of students were reluctant to discuss the 2020 presidential election.
  • 24.5 percent of students were reluctant to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement.

Who was more reluctant to express their opinions?

  • As in 2019, Republican students are more reluctant to speak about controversial issues than Democrat or Independent students. Almost half (44–48 percent) of Republican students were reluctant to discuss the 2020 presidential election, Black Lives Matter, or politics in general within the classroom.

Which topics are students reluctant to discuss?

  • Reluctance was highest to discuss controversial topics when the students in question were from the majority demographic for the topic under discussion (e.g. white students were most reluctant to talk about race).

What consequences do students fear if they speak their opinions, and from whom do they fear these consequences will come (fellow students or professors)?

  • 60.2 percent of students were reluctant to speak up in class because they were concerned other students would criticize their views as being offensive.

These findings are extremely concerning, given that students learn best through a robust exchange of views and ideas. So what is to be done?

Heterodox Academy suggests that college administrators and professors can work to foster free expression on campus. Ideas offered include:

  • Encouraging respectful debate by bringing disagreeing speaker pairs to campus.
  • Explicitly noting in faculty job ads that scholars of varying viewpoints are welcome.
  • Learning which conversations are not taking place on campus through the Campus Expression Survey, and then creating opportunities for open discussion to take place on those topics.
  • Professors clearly stating in their syllabi that students are welcome to share their views.

These best practices can improve the campus culture concerning free expression by increasing willingness among students and faculty to express their views, even if they are not popular. 


NOTE: Jonathan Haidt, the founder of Heterodox Academy, will join the Roundtable for an upcoming webinar on March 31, 2021 at 2 p.m. EST, entitled, “Reducing Polarization: What Is Philanthropy’s Role?” Hosted by Roundtable Senior Executive Fellow Howard Husock, the webinar will also feature Braver Angels Founder David Blankenhorn and StoryCorps Founder David Isay. Click here to register.

Let’s Keep in Touch

Our Values-Based Giving Newsletter helps philanthropists and charitable organizations apply their values to their giving and follow the best practices for success.


This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.