Dr. William Sturkey: Speech? Debate? Self-Censor?

The Coalition reached out to UNC Chapel Hill history professor Dr. William Sturkey to get his perspective about speech on campus.  We discussed recently passed resolutions,  the meaning of academic freedom, “viewpoint” diversity and more.

Below are a few video excerpts from our conversation about a recent student survey and calls for more “conservative” speech on campus. 

What are your thoughts about a recent survey that some trustees say is proof that “conservative’ students “self-censor”?

Dr. William Sturkey shares thoughts on recent UNC-CH student survey

The one thing that was very striking about the survey … was how few students actually took it. So, a very, very small minority of students actually responded to the survey. If this was a major crisis on our campuses, I imagine that more than 11 [or] 12% of students across the system would have actually responded to the survey. The other thing was that the survey really corrected a lot of misconceptions. Students overwhelmingly said that professors don’t take hard political stance in classes…We often accused of on cable news and the Internet people constantly talking about indoctrination on our college campuses. I think that what people have really latched on to, now that this indoctrination issue has been disproven, is that students self-censor.

And, what I really struggle with, with that, is that of course, they self-censor. We all self-censor in virtually every single interaction with other human beings…we all self-censor to some regard. And that’s not just out of respect for other people’s views, but that’s out of worrying about what the consequences of saying whatever pops into your head [is] going to have on your social standing. And so, I just think it’s really bizarre that we take a very common social practice and we say that this is a crisis in higher education when it’s something that we do in every walk of life, in every institution, every organization in our society. You should not say every single thing that pops up into your mind.

And if you have a very unpopular opinion, then maybe you don’t want to share that because you want to get invited to the party on Friday night or whatever. But the other thing is, I don’t know why we’re always putting the onus on the university itself. Why don’t the students come prepared to defend their views? I’ve been that student who had an unpopular opinion in class and argued with conviction, even though I had 13, 14, 15 people telling me I was wrong. And yeah, you’re not the most popular person that day, but at the same time, I didn’t necessarily blame them because I couldn’t go share my views. You know, I think that it’s a bizarre thing that we don’t allow students to openly debate in middle school, in high school, or in their churches or in their family room, you know, their family dining room tables. And then all of a sudden, we expect colleges to open this realm of open debate. It makes no sense at all. I would love for some of these ideas to be applied to private high schools and churches, and even family settings, and then ask people, how often do you self-censor in those settings? Because I bet it’s just as much, if not a lot more than institutions of higher education, like the University of North Carolina.

What do you think needs to happen as a result of this survey? Do faculty need more training? What about students? 

With this recent survey, one of the things I would love to see happen is not necessarily faculty training [because] the students say that faculty explores all sides of different debates.  That’s what the survey results bore out.  But, I think one of the things that we could do is train students to be more engaged.

… I will also observe that our classes are getting bigger. There are other policies that we think might be separate from this whole issue of expression, and free speech, and all of this, that are actually directly connected. Because when you’re in a class of 125 students, you don’t get to talk at all. Forget about self-censoring….It might be a couple of people get to …. speak per class. But even when you’re in a class of 35 students, you’re less likely to speak than when you are in a class of 15 students. If we want to encourage students to develop debate skills or the ability to express themselves verbally, we need smaller classes. We also need to then take the onus off of the institution….and actually train students to think critically and independently…. We need more humanities courses. We need more courses that teach students to think critically even when that critical thinking runs up against some of the ideas that they’ve been indoctrinated with since before they got to campus. I think those are some of the things that we need to do.   And we need to also listen to the people in our own community.

[I say this with respect to]…some of the policies that … [have recently passed]…. I’ve been reading the news coverage, and there was an example where a member of the board of trustees referenced some sort of cocktail party or something that he heard about third or fourth hand. I mean, we are full of talented faculty who interact with students every single day. Why are we hearing about what’s happening on our campus from somebody’s parent who heard it from their kid about a cocktail party or …something….? … [L]etting feelings, anecdotes and rumors dictate policy instead of actually using the talent and the passionate faculty and leaders that we have on the campus.

What are your thoughts about accusations that “conservative voices” are not represented among the faculty or are being silenced?

We’ve heard for a long time now …how there should be more “conservatives” on campus…. [W]hy is it always framed in that way? Why isn’t it that the conservative party doesn’t try to attract more academics and researchers and scientists? …it wasn’t always that way. Perhaps something has changed in conservative movements or conservative circles in recent years. But, to respond more directly to that point, the fact of the matter is, we don’t check voter registration status when we’re hiring people, when we’re interviewing people. We just simply don’t. That stuff doesn’t even come up.

The stuff that we study on campus, we study the whole world, right? We study ideas about even other worlds, literature, physics. Right? You don’t stop and ask somebody whether they registered as a Republican or Democrat. So, if we were ever to try and boost the number of “conservative” faculty on campus, One, I would say that the “conservative” party, the Republican Party, needs to expand its tent so that it can actually appeal to researchers and scientists and nonwhite people that have PhDs. That would be the very first thing you could do that would enhance the number of Republican folks teaching on the campus. The second thing, is really that you would have to then target people based on their political views, which we currently do not do. You would have to actually actively look up people’s voter registration…

So, … I guess my answer really is to try and toss that question back to the “conservatives” and ask them; why…so few people with advanced degrees follow the Republican Party?

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