Pomona students: Campus climate chills speech

On Friday morning, Pomona College President Gabrielle Starr sent an email to the student body announcing the results of a Gallup survey on student and faculty perceptions of speech and campus climate conducted by a Task Force on Public Dialogue established by the college’s board of trustees. The survey found that nearly 90 percent of students surveyed believe that the campus climate prevents them from saying something others might find offensive.

The task force—which consists of trustees, faculty, the dean of students, and the junior and senior class presidents—was established to “look for ways for Pomona to be a leader in developing an educational model that speaks to the twenty-first century, and that does not just allow for free expression, but combines support of free speech and democratic ideals with a commitment to ensuring an equitable and inclusive environment for all students.”

The Gallup survey the task force commissioned—to which approximately 35 percent of Pomona students and 66 percent of Pomona faculty responded—asked respondents questions on political allegiance, demographics, attitudes toward speech on campus, and perceptions of campus climate.

Most students identified as liberal, with only 16 percent identifying as moderate and three percent identifying as conservative. Faculty figures were similar, with 14 percent of faculty identifying as moderate and four percent as conservative.

[RELATED: SURVEY: Today's freshmen most liberal since the Vietnam War]

Half of Pomona students thought that colleges should restrict certain types of speech, and another half thought that students should be exposed to all types of speech. Nationally, students were 27 percent more likely to support all types of speech. Faculty were also more open to free speech, with 63 percent supporting colleges prioritizing exposing students to all types of speech.

Twenty five percent of students thought that the college should be able to restrict political views that are “offensive,” while only 15 percent of faculty supported this restriction. Less than half of faculty supported restricting costumes that “stereotype certain racial or ethnic groups,” while 65 percent of students supported such restrictions.

On attitudes toward current speech policies, 28 percent of Pomona students thought the policies were not restrictive enough, while only 13 percent of faculty thought the college should restrict more speech.

While most liberal students were comfortable expressing their political views with professors at Pomona College, only 35 percent of conservative students were comfortable doing so.

Roughly half of students agreed that they were comfortable expressing political views to professors at the other Claremont Colleges—a consortium consisting of Pomona College, Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College, Scripps College, and Pitzer College—while 54 percent of students agreed that Pomona is “committed to promoting freedom of expression in conversations on campus.”

Half of students who identified as liberal supported restricting certain speech, and 75 percent of students who identified as very liberal supported such restriction. Only a minority of conservative students supported restricting certain speech.

[RELATED: SURVEY: Liberal hegemony stifles free speech on campus]

Some students echoed the sentiments of these results. One rising sophomore told the Independent on condition of anonymity that “[m]ore than being afraid of saying things that others could find offensive, I think a lot of people on campus, including myself, feel like if they say anything that goes against the surface level campus culture dogma, they could be socially shunned.”

“The fact that I’d rather be anonymous for fear of people ‘blacklisting’ me for giving a quote to The Claremont Independent is a testament to how prevalent this sentiment is,” he added. "Unfortunately, because college is supposed to be some of the most fulfilling years of my life socially, I don’t want to risk being ostracized, and that results in less honest campus discourse."

Only 27 percent of students agreed that they were comfortable sharing ideas only held by a minority of people, compared with over 50 percent of students nationally.

Students were also divided on how well the college accommodated different racial and ethnic groups. While 65 percent of white and Asian students thought the college had a good or excellent racial climate, only 50 percent of Hispanic students and 43 percent of black students held the same opinion.

Starr mentioned these statistics in her email: “A significant trust gap was identified by students and faculty around addressing discrimination on campus. Only 38 percent of students and 47 percent of faculty strongly agree or agree that Pomona would do what is right, compared to 61 percent in the national Gallup data.”

Students who identified as black also were the most likely to feel it is “more important for colleges to prohibit certain speech or expression of viewpoints” at 63 percent, compared with 36 percent of whites, 55 percent of Hispanics, and 59 percent of Asians.

[RELATED: POLL: 3-in-5 students say campus climate 'deters speech']

In light of these results, the task force recommended an option for a “half-credit course for the first year [students] that would emphasize the tools of intergroup dialogue (IGD) or sustained dialogue.”

The task force also recommends supporting victims of “viral” social media posts with a “doxxing-response team.” Doxxing is the process of publishing the private personal information of a private person or revealing the identity, usually of an online poster, without the individual’s consent.

In her email, Starr called on the Pomona College community to “better understand what is behind this choice [students’ responses to survey questions] and how it might best be addressed.”

“I call on all of us at Pomona to rise to this opportunity. We have done a very good job making Pomona one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse, liberal arts college in the country. We must confront the link between climate and free and open dialogue. It is clear that dialogue cannot be addressed without attention to improving the inclusivity of our community. If the climate on campus is tenuous, speech easily becomes charged. When trust is broken, the call to action is urgent. As your president, I will do everything in my power to help our community come together to rebuild trust. I will count on each and every one of us to bring good faith to this work,” Starr added.

This article was originally published in The Claremont Independent, a conservative student newspaper affiliated with the Leadership Institute's Campus Leadership Program. Its articles are republished here with permission.

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