Science Politics at the University of Wisconsin—Deliberate Ignorance About the State of Cognitive Liberty and Viewpoint Diversity on College Campuses

I don’t think I need to tell readers of Freedom and Reason that woke is suffocating comedy. In this clip from Real Time with Bill Maher, the acerbic comedian does a superb job of documenting the problem of cancel culture in the comedic realm. One particularly troubling aspect of the cancel culture surrounding the professional practice of humor is the situation on college campuses, where Generation Z requires a sanitized form of comedy, one that does not poke fun at the various groups woke politics has deemed off limits—the “oppressed” and “vulnerable” (see the work of Jonathan Haidt for a comprehensive analysis of the social psychology of the Gen Z cohort). It has become so bad that many comedians have opted to avoid the college circuit altogether, a fact that Maher is thankful George Carlin never lived to see.

The woke effect on comedy extends more broadly to free speech generally. This is why it is troubling, as the Wisconsin State Journal reported last week, that the University of Wisconsin System, a sprawling institution spanning thirteen universities and twenty-six campuses, as well as managing a statewide extension network with a footprint in every country, a force educating some 165 thousand students every year, has delayed a free speech survey scheduled for Thursday, pushing out its administration at least until the fall semester.

UW-Madison Bascom Hall. Source: Wisconsin State Journal

Shortly after the announcement, Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) released the final version of the survey, Student Perceptions of Their First Amendment Rights, Viewpoint Diversity, and Self-Censorship. This move, and the manufactured controversy surrounding the survey, may effectively scuttle the project altogether. We can expect opponents will claim, if the survey is administered in the fall, that the controversy renders the survey invalid, that its findings are biased and unsound. Moreover, funding for administering the survey does not carry over to the fall. Without alternative sources of funding, postponing the survey makes its implementation improbable.

Why was the survey effectively scuttled? The Wisconsin State Journal story, by Kelly Meyehofer, reports that the opponents worried that the findings may reflect badly on a particular political-ideological persuasion—obviously progressivism, an ideology that has captured public education in Wisconsin—and help conservatives at the polls. “The delay comes in response to mounting concerns from campuses this week about potential politicization of results ahead of the November election,” Meyehofer reports, as well as “questions about the research protocol process and allegations of political interference.”

Concerns one and three in Meyehofer’s list are essentially the same thing, which is the subject of this blog, as well as the state of free speech on college campuses across the nation that necessitates survey of this sort—precisely the reason progressives seek to cancel or compromise the survey. However, the way in which the human subjects review process is being politicized in this case puts complaint number two in the bucket with the other complaints, so I will say a few things about that before moving to concerns one and three.

Concern two is, on substance, a bogus issue. I was the faculty member at my institution who, as chair of the institutional review board (IRB) in the early 2000s, reconstructed the board, bringing it into compliance with federal law, as well as standing up the institutional animal care and use committee. I understand how these things work inside and out. The survey, if in need of an IRB-sanctioned protocol at all (overkill, in my view), does not rise to the level of full board review. I would have signed off on the protocol without hesitation.

The claim made by individuals on the Whitewater campus, that their institution hadn’t approved sending out the survey, (intentionally, I believe) misunderstands the process of establishing a research protocol. I am routinely asked to participate in surveys organized by scientists from across the country. The institution from where the survey hails approves the protocol and, on that basis, the researchers are good to go and I am free to participate. The research team that developed the survey in this case did in fact receive approval from UW-Stout’s IRB (the Wisconsin State Journal has the documentation). The project received “an exemption from full review,” the same destination I would have awarded the survey had the protocol come before me. The decision is an easy one—that the survey is “low-risk to humans” is an overstatement.

(Does this survey even meets the definition of human subjects research in the federal code? If I develop and administer a survey in my courses to determine student attitudes for use in course administration and development, as long as the findings are not intended to produce generalized knowledge, a key element in determining what constitutes research sui generis, but rather pertain as a practical matter to policy or instruction, there is no need to seek IRB approval. The survey is essentially a climate survey, and element in a self-study. These are administered routinely in schools across the country.)

Additional complaints have emerged in the aftermath of the survey’s effective scuttling. The survey is too long, is poorly constructed, and deploys leading questions are some of the items that have been listed. As to the question of whether the survey is too long, I provided the link to the survey above. You can judge for yourself whether it is too long, but I have an opinion. Professors routinely administer examinations that are more involved. Moreover, the questions are interesting and the survey is likely to find a majority of participants eager to thoughtfully answer them. Indeed, I would expect high levels of conscientiousness and engagement among participants. As we will see, students have concerns about cognitive liberty and viewpoint diversity on college campuses.

As for the instrument’s format and items, I can report as a professional social scientist with more than a quarter century experience in designing and administering surveys (I have now taught college-level research methods across several programs for more than two decades), the people who put this together know what they’re doing. This is a well-constructed essay, its protocol (again, perhaps unnecessarily) approved by the human subjects review board at the university where the research project was developed.

The project’s research team includes UW-Eau Claire psychology professor April Bleske-Recheck, a specialist in research methods who studied under Terrie Moffitt (a globally-recognized leader in research design); Eric Kasper and Geoff Peterson, both at UW-Eau Claire, both political scientists, the first a constitutional law scholar, the second an expert in research methods; Tim Shiell, a philosophy professor at UW-Stout; and Eric Giordano, executive director of Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service and a nationally-recognized expert in citizen dialoguing and rural community development. 

Moreover, the Wisconsin State Journal reports that survey questions were vetted by an advisory board that includes, among others: former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske; UW-Madison law school professors Franciska Coleman, a constitutional law scholar, and Jason Yackee, an adviser for the Federalist Society; Sean Stevens, a senior research fellow for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE); Rick Esenberg, the president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty; and former Supreme Court associate justice Tricia Zunker.

There is neither ethical nor scientific justification for holding up this survey. The objection is political. It is typical of progressives to take the object of their politics and define it as the political object. This is unacceptable.

* * *

Given the intellectual weight behind the survey and those who vetted it, the integrity of the survey itself, and the need to assess the state of free speech on college campuses across the UW System, one might expect from me an expression of surprise at the controversy. I am not in the least surprised (disappointed in my colleagues, but not surprised by their actions). Disregard for the norms of science has become itself normative on college campuses.

Paul Diesing’s excellent How Does Social Science Work? Published by the University of Pittsburg Press

In my research methods class, I assign a chapter on science politics from Paul Diesing’s excellent How Does Social Science Work? Reflections on Practice. The assigned chapter (chapter 8) is aptly named “Science Politics.” Diesing, a political scientist, distinguishes “democratic science,” wherein researchers place emphasis on the needs of communities in realizing their democratic interests in a free society, from “technocratic science,” wherein science is to serve the needs not of the people but those institutional actors in a position to direct the conduct and application of research. In technocratic science, gatekeepers are not merely content with advancing their own elite interests, but exercise power to prevent research that advances popular interest.

The reflex to stop a survey to determine the state of cognitive liberty and viewpoint diversity on college campus is a function of technocratic desire. Corporate power has captured what is now “the neoliberal university.” In Gramscian terms, the traditional intellectual has been replaced by the “organic” one, professional “thought leaders” subservient not to the values of the Enlightenment but to the needs of the corporate class. (The organic character of the professoriate reinforces a point I often make on Freedom and Reason: progressives are not liberals; they are technocrats.) If it is perceived that a free speech survey will find the institution falling down on its traditional liberal guarantees of cognitive liberty and viewpoint diversity, and that reforming the institution will harm the interests of the technocracy, which lie in part in advancing the doctrines of woke progressive ideology, then the survey must be altered or derailed or discredited.

We will get to the more conscious-level political objections in a moment, but the subjectivity produced by the social logic of the extended state apparatus, rationalized by the false belief that progressivism represents a left-of-center and forward-leaning philosophy of enlightened values, is the deeper structure that moves many influencers across the system to oppose an action that one might have thought would be highly desirable given matters to which progressives pay lip service. Of course, progressives say other things, as well. They code illiberal ideas in the language of equality and freedom, ideas such as “diversity,” equity” and “inclusion.” In fact, many progressives portray free speech as a Trojan horse used by conservatives to smuggle bigotry and hatred onto university campuses

A Knight-Ipsos report, which I turn to in a moment, suggests that the UW System survey would at least yield similar findings. But it is more than the neo-liberal caused trepidation I describe above that inspired the aggressive effort to prevent the survey from being administered. Here we come to the more conscious-level political objection. After all, the survey was organized by the UW-Stout’s Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovations. That Center was seeded in 2017 with a donation from the Charles Koch Foundation. The Menard family is a major donor to the Republican Party. The Charles Koch Foundation is a right-wing libertarian organization.

Progressive hostility towards conservative and libertarian influence on college campuses is palatable. To be sure, the Menard family and the Koch Brothers are attached to corporate power but, unlike the professional-managerial class, where progressivism lives, a class that was long ago fully integrated into the corporate state system and subservient to the Democratic Party (especially in the colleges and programs of the humanities and social sciences), conservatism and libertarianism still root in the heartland—the farmer, the white proletariat, and the small entrepreneur. In other words, conservatism and libertarianism continue to be the home of small “d” and “r” democratic-republicanism, liberalism, and populism. So when a number of years ago the Charles Koch Foundation approached other campuses (before UW-Stout accepted their money contingent upon establishing the Center) there were a flurry of administrative and faculty meetings across the system to discuss the matter, with most campuses rejecting the offer on political-ideological grounds. I know. I was there.

Trying to save the survey by appealing to good intentions, Shiell acknowledged the political concerns to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “It might help people to understand the center for me to say I’m a liberal professor being funded by a conservative donor to run a nonpartisan center.” I don’t know what Shiell’s politics are for sure, but what Shiell doesn’t seem to understand is that liberalism is dying on college campuses. He is surrounded not by liberals but by progressives (whatever they call themselves). Progressives do not believe in free speech as an overarching value. For them, free thought and expression is a throating-clearing device. You’re familiar with the sentence that starts, “I believe in free speech, but….”

The same is true for many college students, especially those who make it into leadership positions. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that “Tyler Katzenberg, a spokesperson for UW-Madison’s student government, said ‘pretty much every student government was blindsided’ by the survey and not consulted. He said free speech is important but he’d prefer to focus on what he said were more pressing diversity problems, such as students of color feeling unwelcome on campus.” Why does a survey on free speech on campus interfere with these other diversity concerns? It doesn’t. But this sentiment confirms what I was earlier talking about concerning the interpretation of the free speech right (and comedy) as harmful for minorities. Diversity in viewpoint is not the sort of diversity that concerns those who live by the edicts and expectations of identitarianism.

One characteristic of those socialized in technocratic values is that belief that individuals cannot be trusted to make their own judgments. For example, Madison student MGR Govindarajan, legislative affairs chair for Associated Students of Madison, told reporter Will Kenneally of Channel 3000 that the survey questions could be misinterpreted. “The way the questions were laid out, people will see what they want to see and that’s going to lead to faulty results, which lawmakers can use to justify faulty policies,” the student said.

People seeing what they want to see is otherwise known as expressing an opinion, which is the point of opinion survey. Indeed, when you administer a survey you want participants to provide their opinion not the opinion of others (unless they are asked to speculate on the opinion of others—but then the response is still ultimately their opinion). One can see in Govindarajan’s opinion that the concern with frank expression of opinion is that, if the opinion expressed is one not shared by Govindarajan, then this could lead to policy choices with which Govindarajan disagrees. Govindarajan is saying the quite part out loud: Govindarajan opposes the survey because Govindarajan knows it will reveal problems with cognitive liberty and viewpoint diversity in the UW System and that could lead to reforms that would break the hold progressives have on the institution.

You might detect that the possibility that the survey may help Wisconsin state Republicans is not something that keeps me up at night. As a liberal (a real one), my concern is traditionalist: preservation and rejuvenation of the foundations of a free society. Cognitive liberty and viewpoint diversity lie at the heart of that foundation. Indeed, the question of free speech could not be more central to the diversity concern, as viewpoint diversity is foundational to the university experience. That Katzenberg does not grasp this is the failure of the university he attends to enlighten him as the point of a university education. If Republicans are fighting for the cause of liberalism, and Democrats oppose even determining whether free speech is in jeopardy on college campuses in the state of Wisconsin, then the strategic choice of allies is obvious.

* * *

The crisis of free speech on college campuses in America is so well-established that the need to present a lengthy dissertation on the topic feels unnecessary. But I don’t want to be accused of ducking the issue. In this section, I present findings from a recent national survey (only a few months old) similar in form and substance to that effectively scuttled by progressive Democrats in the UW System. The survey reveals troubling perceptions of free speech on college campuses. The good news is that the poll, released in January of this year by Knight-Ipsos, “College Student Views on Free Expression and Campus Speech 2022,” finds that college students place a high value on First Amendment principles. The bad news is that they “feel uneasy” (Knight-Ipsos’ characterization) about free speech for a variety of reasons.

The Knight Foundation commissioned Ipsos to conduct a nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 students ages 18 to 24 who were enrolled at different types of colleges. The survey finds that 84% of college students say free speech rights are extremely or very important in our democracy. The survey also finds that 83% of students believe the First Amendment protects people like them. This is reassuring. However, digging into the numbers, a troubling picture emerges. For example, only five percent of black students feels the First Amendment protects people like this a great deal. There are many problems like this one.


More than half of student respondents (59%) said college campuses should let them be “exposed to all types of speech,” even if students find the speech offensive. This number may also seem promising. But, really, it should be more robust. That more than four out of every ten students do not believe that students should be exposed to offensive speech threatens the legitimacy of a free and open society. This is because the value of free speech lies is in major part in the function of speech to offend.

For example, a Muslim student may find offensive an honest account of the role of Islam in oppressing women, but this account may help liberate that Muslim’s mind from the power of dogma in rationalizing the mistreatment of women. Yet, today, because teachers worry that they may offend Muslim students by speaking frankly, or that in offending Muslim students they may incur the wrath of administers who depend on a flow of immigrants from Muslim-majority students to fill the gap in tuition created by neoliberal policies, they hold their tongue. Moreover, many teachers I encounter, having internalized postcolonial and postmodernist notions of oppressive eurocentrism, have convinced themselves that Islam promotes women’s rights. The problem is thus not only self-censorship, but also cognitive dissonance. Such cognitive dissonance makes it difficult consciousness raising around this issue, an important feminist concern.

Part of the reason that number is not as robust as it should be is because it is dragged down by white progressives and especially black and brown students who believe the prevailing narrative concerning the oppression of black and brown people at the hands of the white establishment, a narrative promulgated everyday by teachers and student organizations on college campuses—a narrative students bring with them for high school. In fact, Republican students now represent the liberal faction on college campuses, with 71% in favor of maximal free speech as defined above. With the Republican Party the home of America’s conservatives, perhaps it is surprising that the percentage is that high. However, support for maximal free speech among Democrats (55%), blacks (47%), and Hispanics (45%) is alarmingly low.

Diving into the cross-tabs reveals troubling patterns and an awareness among Republican students that the university has become a place hostile to cognitive liberty and viewpoint diversity. The percentage of students who said freedom of speech is secure today is marked by a partisan divide. Reflecting a sober read of the situation, only 27% of Republican students said freedom of speech is secure or very secure. That is down from 52% recorded in a poll from 2019. Among independent students, 46% said freedom of speech is secure or very secure. This figure stood at 59% in 2019. Unsurprisingly, Democrats, who enjoy an environment aligned with their political assumptions (I know, I live it everyday), reported perceiving little change over the intervening period; 61% reported freedom of speech is secure or very secure versus 63% in 2019. This perception is also held by their teachers, who, again, are disproportionately Democrats. These are the same folks holding up the UW System polls.

On the question of self-censorship, up from 54% in 2016, almost two-thirds of students agreed or somewhat agreed that the climate on their campuses prevented people from saying what they believe because others might find their views offensive. That’s up from 54% in 2016. Less than half of students expressed comfort voicing disagreement with their instructors in class. Just over half expressed comfort disagreeing with peers. Part of the discomfort at speaking frankly at an institution where frank speech is necessary to advance knowledge is awareness of the perception of racial, ethnic, religious, and other minorities who let the public know they feel unsafe on campus because of things people say, not necessarily to them, but generally. The number of students who express feeling unsafe is approaching one in five. As Frank Zappa emphasized on his notorious Crossfire appearance: “Words. We’re talking about words.”

* * *

Those of us who believe in the liberal values of cognitive liberty and viewpoint diversity must redouble our efforts to make college campuses safe from both external and internal forms of censorship. By internal censorship, I mean self-censorship. Researching the matter over many years, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has found that far too many student self-censor. As Cherise Trump writes Newsweek, “Student self-censorship on college campuses shows how we are preparing the next generation for a fear-based society.” Teachers self-censor, as well. In today’s climate, uttering basic scientific truths can lead to reputational damage, social marginalization, and loss of professional opportunity, if not disciplinary action. It is also quite possible that teachers who would secretly like to see the survey go forward openly oppose its administration to conform with the sentiment of those around them. (Another problem is compelled speech, an issue I have address on Freedom and Reason.)

Derrick Jensen contemplates the problem of self-censorship

The time to deal with these problems is now, not when majority opinion turns against cognitive liberty and free expression. Today, we stand on the knife’s edge. We need more surveys to determine the extent of the problem. As I noted at the outset, by releasing the survey and distorting its character and purpose, it will be hard to administer the survey later because perception of bias and intent will be used to dismiss the results. Clearly, a lot of people don’t want the public to know about the state of cognitive liberty and viewpoint diversity at Wisconsin colleges and schools and wish to corrupt the survey if they cannot stop it. They are openly telling the public that they believe the findings will make their side look bad and help the other side. They’re probably right.

As I have written about extensively on this blog, there is an agenda that has taken root in established American institutions to generate a subjectivity and manufacture consent around the goals of corporate power, multiculturalism, and transnationalism. Dominated by progressives, the academia, especially in humanities and the social sciences, but also in the administration and elsewhere, rises in opposition to conservative, nationalist, and populist politics where liberalism remains a force.

Sending young adults into the world with the assumptions that benefit the corporate state agenda requires the systematic suppression of contrary ideas. Liberalism threatens neo-liberalism in the same way that Marxism is a threat to neo-Marxism. One sees this in the hegemony of such cracked albeit entrenched theories, describing themselves as “neo-Marxist,” as critical race theory and those underpinning gender and sexuality studies, doctrines targeting young people and portrayed as radical and revelatory—doctrines forming the basis of faculty and staff training programs, as if these are the only ways to look at the world and not the worst ways to look at the world.

In the face of rhetoric about academic freedom and freedom of thought and expression, faculty and students routinely portray free speech as right-wing cover for hateful ideas—a stealthy device enabling those who truck in racism and heterosexism. The values of liberalism, of the Enlightenment—humanism, individualism, rationalism, secularism—are not only routinely represented as expressions of white supremacy and the patriarchy, the ideology of Western colonizers—but programs and policies are constructed and instituted to render the impression that this rendering is the established truth. This objective nonsense is already delegitimizing higher education.

I’m sure I didn’t have to tell regular readers to this blog that suspicions that college campuses in Wisconsin have been doing a poor job of promoting or protecting viewpoint diversity are not without merit and that a survey confirming those suspicions would hurt progressives and the technocracy that makes possible lifetime employment and compensation locating professors at the top of the nation’s income earners—and advantage Wisconsin Republicans politically. That so many progressives worked (and continue to work) so hard to derail and discredit the UW System survey tells you that they fear, whether they are fully in touch with the source of those fears, that the findings will call into question the practices of the UW System, thereby potentially harming its ability to serve the interests of the corporate state, which depends on woke progressivism for competitive advantage and the disorganization of its workforce.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.