Nearly three-quarters of all college students, regardless of their political affiliation, believe professors who make comments the students find offensive should be reported to the university, according to a new report.
A similar rate of students would also report their peers for making insulting or hurtful remarks.
The report by the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth at North Dakota State University is based on a survey of 2,250 students from 131 public and private four-year institutions across the country and was released Wednesday.
Over all, the percentage of students who said they would report a professor was higher among self-identified liberal students (81 percent) than among self-identified conservative students (53 percent). Sixty-six percent of liberal students and 37 percent of conservative students said they would also report peers who made offensive comments.
John Bitzan, author of the report, said the survey findings are troubling and reflect continuing challenges on college campuses to encourage students to think critically and engage in healthy debates—with each other and with faculty members—over issues on which they disagree.
“Of any place, a university should be a place that is open to a variety of points of view, and traditionally the universities have been,” said Bitzan, who is also director of the institute and a professor of management. “To me, it’s alarming that students are saying, ‘You can’t have an opinion on something that differs from the correct or appropriate opinion without being reported to the university.’”
In an attempt to identify exactly what kind of statements by professors students would report—be they opinions with which students disagree, or strictly racial slurs, sexual harassment or personal attacks—the survey provided 10 examples of comments the students would report as offensive. The options included “It is clear that affirmative action is doing more harm than good and should be eliminated” and “A civilized society doesn’t need guns.” Sean Stevens, director of polling and analytics at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a campus civil liberties watchdog group, said in his view most of the statements prompted would be “very reasonable statements to make.”
He said several of the example statements, while potentially controversial, are supported by data, have been published in peer-reviewed literature or have been debated and ruled upon in court. Others may reflect more of a professor’s personal opinion but are opinions held by “plenty of people.”
“I don’t think any of those are necessarily that unreasonable, albeit they may be offensive to some people,” Stevens said.
The likelihood of reporting instructors was higher among conservative students when the statements provided were liberal-leaning and higher among liberal students when the statements were conservative-leaning.
The findings on students’ likelihood to report offensive comments were part of a larger annual survey assessing student perceptions about campus culture and viewpoint diversity. About 60 percent of the students surveyed identified as liberal and 20 percent conservative, according to the report. These demographics are similar to those represented in a national analysis of free speech on college campuses by FIRE.
Stevens, director of polling at FIRE, said the survey findings on students’ level of comfort speaking on campus about controversial subjects are similar to results FIRE has seen in its student polls since 2020. He noted that FIRE has seen even lower rates of comfort, likely because its polls specifically asked students about their comfort discussing “controversial political topics.”
Although the survey questions were written and analyzed by Bitzan and the Challey Institute—a conservative-leaning interdisciplinary institute housed in North Dakota State’s College of Business—the poll was conducted by an independent survey group, College Pulse, in May and June. Its margin of error was plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. (College Pulse also conducts polling for Inside Higher Ed, but Inside Higher Ed was not involved in the Challey Institute polls.)
“I’m very confident that the results are accurate,” Bitzan said. “I do think that there are definitely differences between the way liberal students and conservative students view the campus climate in terms of openness to different points of view.”
Some of the poll answers suggest that a majority of students perceive their campuses as being generally open to the sharing of controversial or unpopular ideas. About 70 percent say they feel at least somewhat comfortable sharing their opinions on a sensitive topic.
But of the students who felt at least somewhat comfortable with the campus climate, about half said it was because they believe their views align with most other students’ and professors’.
“They say the campus climate is open to a variety of points of view,” Bitzan said of students surveyed. “But it could be a signal of, ‘I think that the campus climate agrees with my point of view. If there’s something that I view as unacceptable, or not aligning with my point of view, then I’m not tolerant of that.’”
“Students are saying you can’t have an opinion on something that differs from the correct or appropriate opinion without being reported to the university.”
Stevens, director of polling at FIRE, said the survey findings on students’ level of comfort speaking on campus about controversial subjects are similar to results FIRE has found in its student polls since 2020. He noted that the reported rates of comfort were likely even lower because students were specifically asked about discussing “controversial political topics.”
Jonathan Friedman, director of the free expression and education programs at PEN America, a free speech advocacy group, said the survey results align with what he’s heard is happening on many campuses across the country. The frequency with which students are reporting professors “is scaling up in a way that universities haven’t really dealt with before.”
Institutions lack “good, clear processes or apparatuses” to receive, process and investigate the reports, Friedman said, and as a result many faculty often feel like they’re “teaching on eggshells.”
“You do have to do some work to explain to students what might meet the bar for being reported, teaching some of the distinctions between speech that offends versus speech that harms, or the difference between disagreement and discrimination,” he added.