Letter to Editor
The Chronicle of Higher Education
4 October 2020
Katherine Mangan’s article, “More Than Half of College Students Self-Censor When Race and Other Tough Topics Come Up, Survey Finds” (29 Sept) omits important context critical to understanding discussions of race, as well as acknowledgment of the conservative political agenda of the promoter and funder of the mentioned survey.
To say some students “self-censor” when race comes up in discussion is simply to reflect the state of race talk in the U.S. generally, not an indictment of the climate of free speech on campuses, as the report contends. Americans generally do not want to talk about race and are generally not skilled in racial dialogue, unless they have the learning opportunities afforded them by college courses and diversity training. (See Race Talk: The Conspiracy of Silence by Derald Wing Sue; Can We Talk About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum; So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and many more scholarly experts.) Mangan’s Sept. 29 article does not reference any of the literature or quote any scholars on the context of such student self-censorship, possibly leaving readers with the misleading impression that colleges are indeed violating free speech protections. Ironically, the courses, training, and discussions that students need to overcome the social taboos against talking about race are being chilled and/or cancelled by President Trump’s executive order that bars grant funding for such diversity work (Mangan, K. “Trump Bars Federal Grants for ‘Divisive and Harmful’ Racial-Sensitivity Training,” 24 Sept.).
Mangan’s article on student self-censorship also fails to provide background or context important to readers’ awareness of the political motivations and biases of the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE), the author of the survey that used their data on students self-censoring on campus as evidence of the campuses’ anti-free speech bias. FIRE is funded by the conservative Charles Koch Institute; Koch is a major financial and ideological supporter of the Tea Party Movement, information which challenges the objectivity and reliability of the survey. Mangan again does not raise this point, presenting the survey as if it were peer-reviewed and approved by a federally mandated institutional review board that generally checks against such research bias or abuse.
Mangan’s Sept. 29 article leaves out too much information and falls too far short of the standards education sets for fair journalism, media literacy, racial awareness, or critical thinking.
Irene A. Lietz, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita, Carlow University, Pittsburgh, PA
Author of Teaching and Race: How to Survive, Manage, and Even Encourage Race Talk (Peter Lang, 2020)