How do Americans feel about regulation of public universities?

March 15, 2023, 5:08 PM GMT+0

Recently, members of several states' legislatures have introduced bills that would, if passed, alter or eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs and related initiatives at state colleges and universities. The state of Florida, for example, is currently considering a bill that would ban any funding for DEI initiatives as well as majors and minors in gender studies, intersectionality, critical race theory (CRT), and “curriculum based on unproven, theoretical, or exploratory content.” Similar measures banning university DEI programs are being considered in Texas and Iowa.

Recent polling by YouGov shows that Americans are relatively divided on issues of campus speech, DEI initiatives, CRT programs, and state intervention in college curricula. For example, 34% of U.S. adult citizens think college students have too little freedom to speak their minds in the classroom, and 26% say the same about college professors. About 15% think students have too much freedom to speak their minds, and 29% think the same about college professors. While there are no substantial partisan divides in Americans’ views of student speech, Republicans (43%) are much more likely than Independents (25%) and Democrats (18%) to say that professors have too much freedom to speak their minds. YouGov asked similar survey questions in October 2022 and found similar results.

About three-quarters of Americans have heard “a lot” (29%) or “a little” (47%) about diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in colleges and universities. More than half (56%) of U.S. adult citizens say they strongly or somewhat support DEI initiatives in colleges and universities, while 27% oppose them, and another 17% are unsure. While only 14% of Democrats and 26% of Independents oppose college DEI initiatives, 45% of Republicans do.

There also are substantial differences in support based on age. Adults under 45 (71%) are much more likely than older Americans (43%) to strongly or somewhat support DEI in colleges.

However, Americans are less supportive of colleges and universities considering a student’s race when applying for an award or scholarship than they are of DEI generally. Among U.S. adult citizens, 68% said race should not be considered, while 21% said it should. Republicans (82%) are more likely to oppose considering students’ races than Independents (69%) and Democrats (55%).

When asked about critical race theory (CRT), 32% of U.S. adult citizens said they have heard “a lot” about it, and another 42% had heard “a little.” However, only 48% say they have a good idea of what CRT is. Similarly, when asked whether they have a favorable opinion of CRT, 31% of Americans say they don’t know. Another 29% hold favorable views of CRT, while 40% hold unfavorable views. Like with DEI programs, Democrats (44%) are more supportive of CRT than Independents (25%) and Republicans (15%).

Despite the lack of consensus about DEI and CRT programs, about half of Americans (52%) strongly or somewhat oppose the government regulating which topics public university professors can discuss in class, while only 33% strongly or somewhat support these measures. Similar shares of Democrats (52%), Independents (54%), and Republicans (48%) oppose government regulation of professors’ classroom speech.

Older Americans are much less supportive than younger adults of government regulation of professors’ speech. While 48% of adults under 45 support these regulations, 22% of younger Americans do.

Nearly half of Americans (46%) oppose their state government regulating the majors or minors that public colleges and universities can offer; 33% support such measures and 21% are unsure. Adults under 45 (52%) are far more likely than older Americans (18%) to support government regulation of majors.

When asked about the subjects in which Florida’s newly proposed bill would ban majors, minors, and concentrations, 37% of U.S. adult citizens say they oppose colleges and universities offering these in gender studies; 38% oppose the offerings in critical race theory; and 30% oppose them for intersectionality.

YouGov also asked Americans about their support for some of the specific provisions in Florida’s newly proposed bill. For almost all measures, a greater share of Republicans than Democrats or Independents support them. While 59% of Republicans support banning college courses from teaching critical race theory, that is the case for only 34% of Independents and 30% of Democrats. Similarly, Republicans (50%) are more likely than Independents (36%) and Democrats (32%) to support defunding DEI efforts in public universities.

The only policy asked about that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support — and by a narrow margin — is allowing state boards of trustees to make university hiring decisions with the input of faculty members: 32% of Democrats support this policy, compared to 28% of Republicans and 23% of Independents.

Americans are divided about whether these same changes would make them more or less likely to apply to a public college in a state enacting these policies. While just 15% of Democrats say that a public college banning gender studies would make them more likely to apply, 43% of Republicans say the same. Similarly, 40% of Republicans say that a state defunding all DEI efforts would make them more likely to apply to a public college in that state, compared to just 18% of Democrats.

Partisan divisions persist throughout most policies YouGov asked about. However, just 18% of Democrats, 10% of Independents, and 19% of Republicans say that a state allowing state boards of trustees to make university hiring decisions with the input of faculty members would make them less likely to apply to public colleges in that state.

— Linley Sanders and Taylor Orth contributed to this article

See the results from this YouGov poll conducted on March 2 - 6, 2023

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on March 2 - 6, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.

Image: Adobe Stock (AnnaStills)

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