Disrespect, Intimidation and Prejudice at the University of Colorado

Disrespect, Intimidation and Prejudice at the University of Colorado December 21, 2014

Sometimes social scientists unexpectedly find out about data that was collected for reasons other than peer-review social research. That was the case when I found out about the 2014 Social Climate Survey conducted at the University of Colorado. The survey was commissioned by the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents. It was conducted on all four of the campuses in the University of Colorado system. Several questions assessed whether students felt welcomed, respected, discriminated against and/or intimidated due to their race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, creed, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status, political affiliation, and/or religious affiliation. The religious and political affiliation questions caught my attention as usually diversity surveys do not include such factors. An email or two with some of the individuals connected to the survey and I had crosstabulations of the data to assess and consider (Ideally I would have used the actual data to more fully test my ideas, but they seemed unwilling to release it.)

I have written before about my previous research on academic bias. My research was based on national data. The Colorado data is limited to a single college, but that data goes more in depth than my original data. There has been significant concern about the social atmosphere that people of color, women, and sexual minorities have to deal with on college campuses. However, given my previous work on academic bias, I wonder if those groups are the only groups experiencing hostile atmosphere on college campuses. How would the perceptions of hostility felt by people of color, women and sexual minorities compare to the perceptions of religious and political conservatives?

The first question of interest I found on the survey was “In your opinion, do you agree or disagree that students on your campus are respected regardless of their…?”. The students were asked about several different social categories (i.e. race, gender, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, physical impairment, mental impairment, veteran/military status, political philosophy, political affiliation and religion/spiritual beliefs). When students were asked about race/ethnicity (84.1%), gender (87.7%) and sexual orientation (84.4%), there was overwhelming agreement that students are respected. A majority of the students also believed that respect is accorded to students due to their religion/spiritual beliefs (76.6%) and political affiliation (72.2%), but support for such respect is distinctly lower.

A second question dealing with prejudice or discrimination indicated results supporting the findings in the preceding paragraph. The respondents were asked whether they experienced prejudice or discrimination on campus due to any of their social identities. If they stated that they did experience such prejudice or discrimination, then they were asked, “Was the prejudice or discrimination you experienced in a University of Colorado educational experience relate to…?”. This allowed the survey to assess which social identity was linked to prejudicial or discriminatory behavior. Generally, theories of discrimination are linked to issues of gender, race sexual orientation or gender identity. While gender (33.5%) was the social identity where students were most likely to indicate discrimination or prejudice, religion/spiritual beliefs was a close second (31.7%). Race/ethnicity (28.2%) was third. Political affiliation (24.8%) was a source of discrimination more than sexual orientation (10.2%) and gender identity (6.4%).

Finally, there was a question that asked “Specifically, have you felt intimidated to share your ideas, opinions or beliefs in class because of your…?”. Of the different social identities, it was political philosophy (23.0%) that was most linked to feelings of intimidation, followed by religion or spiritual beliefs (22.1%). In contrast, race/ethnicity (10.9%), gender (12.5%), sexual orientation (5.5%) and gender identity (3.3%) scored appreciably lower.

Up to this point, we know religion and political identity seem at least as important to the social atmosphere of students as gender, race and sexual orientation. This is regardless of the degree of attention given to social identities of race, gender and sexual orientation by academics and activists concerned about cultural acceptance and tolerance relative to concerns of political and religious social identities. This leads to the question of whether individuals in certain religions or with certain political identities are more likely to feel disrespected at the University of Colorado. When asked about religion, Mormon (29.6%), Muslim (24.3%) and Protestant (23.9%) had the highest percentage of those who felt disrespected due to religion. This is in contrast to Hindu (12.9%), Buddhist (15.2%) and atheist (15.8%) who were least likely to perceive disrespect due to their religious beliefs. On issues of religious prejudice and discrimination, it was also clear that higher percentages of Mormons (62.1%), Jews (53.9%) and Protestants (53.9%) perceived episodes of prejudice and/or discrimination. On the low end, agnostics (13.6%), Buddhists (15.5%) and atheists (25.8%) were least likely to perceive episodes of prejudice and discrimination. When it comes to those of different religious feeling intimidated to share their ideas, higher percentages of Mormons (40.7%), Muslims (37.4%), and Protestants (35.4%) experienced this intimidation. At the low end, it was agnostics (10.6%), Buddhists (16.0%) and Hindus (16.1%) least likely to feel intimidated. When I blogged about the inadequacy of the concept of Christian Privilege to adequately explain all areas of our society, I got some pushback. This data illustrates my point as Protestants are disrespected more on college campuses than those from eastern religions and the irreligious. I acknowledge that Christians, at least Protestants, have advantages in some areas of society; however, clearly the college campus is not one of those areas.

There were differences in campus atmosphere depending on the political ideology a student adopted. When asked if they were respected regardless of their political affiliation, Republicans were almost twice as likely as Democrats to feel disrespected (31.7% versus 17.0%). As it concerns political ideology, very conservative students were more than twice as likely as very liberal students to experience that disrespect (37.3% versus 16.4%). Republicans were more than three times more likely to feel prejudice or discrimination than Democrats (51.7% versus 14.3%) and very conservative students were more than four times more likely than very liberal students to feel prejudice or discrimination (61.8% versus 13.7%). Republicans were three times more likely to feel intimidated to share their ideas in class due to political affiliation relative to Democrats (36.9% versus 11.3%). Very conservative students were almost four times more likely to feel such intimidation relative to very liberal students (47.7% versus 12.3%).

A couple of points need to be recognized before discussing the implications of this study. First, due to my lack of access to the actual data, there are some tests I would like to run to gain a more nuanced understanding. For example, it is quite possible that the lower numbers of certain groups distort some of the earlier findings. Remember that students are more likely to feel discrimination or prejudice due to religious/spiritual beliefs and political affiliation than sexual orientation? It may be that these results are due to the larger numbers of Protestants and/or very conservative students relative to homosexual and bisexual students. For example, the percentage of homosexuals (70.9%) who experience discrimination or prejudice due to sexual orientation is appreciably higher than any of the religious or political groups in discrimination due to their respective social categories. However, bisexuals (32.8%) did not have as high of a percentage as the conservative religious or political groups. This propensity may also apply to other small minority groups such as the transgendered (64.7%) who scored fairly high when asked about prejudice or discrimination due to gender identity. (On a related subject, females at 44.8% have a slightly higher score than bisexuals when asked about prejudice or discrimination as it concerns gender. I did not have any data concerning race.). With a full data set, I could look at the categories of respect and intimidation to see the degree to which effects are due to differential size of social groups.

The other methodological point of concern is the way religion was measured. Categories of Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic and other are inadequate for assessing the religious atmosphere of the campuses. In my research on academic bias, I found that evangelicals and fundamentalists are rejected more than any other social group. Yet students from these groups would theoretically be lumped together with mainline Protestants, who faced relatively little bias, in the Protestant category. I have little doubt that the findings concerning Protestants’ experience of disrespect, intimidation and prejudice/discrimination would be much stronger if the religious identity question was careful to separate the mainline Protestants from conservative Protestants. Given my previous findings that conservative Protestants is the group most rejected by academics, more than Mormons or Muslims in my sample, it would not be surprising that conservative Protestants experience a more negative social atmosphere than Mormons or Muslims despite the relative scores of Protestants in the University of Colorado survey. However, due to the way the religion question was constructed, I can only speculate about the experiences of conservative Protestants.

The quantitative nature of this survey likely obscures some of the reality of culture at the University of Colorado. We can compare the percentages of those with different social identities in how they perceive acceptance at the University of Colorado. But I doubt that the experiences of each group are similar in kind and only differ in quantity of nonacceptance. The type of prejudice faced by women or homosexuals on college campuses is not likely to be the type of prejudice faced by religious and political conservatives. My guess is that the prejudice or discrimination faced by those former groups is more likely to come from students or staff, while the prejudice or discrimination faced by the latter groups is more likely to come from faculty. Of course, I may be wrong and it would be great to have qualitative interviews or open-ended questions to capture some of the different experiences between members of differing social identities. If the researchers at the University of Colorado redo this study, I hope they add a qualitative component.

So what are the implications of the University of Colorado survey? To my conservative friends, I warn them to not break out alarms and cries of persecution. Yes, there is information that they face a hostile social climate; however, for methodological reasons stated above, we cannot be completely confident that they face more hostility than other social groups. However, clearly the degree of hostility experienced by religious and political conservatives is not inconsequential. While I hesitate to argue that religious and political conservative students face more hostility at the University of Colorado than students of color, female students and sexual minority students, neither can we have confidence that those latter groups of students experience the highest level of hostility. It is not intellectually feasible to pretend that conservatives are merely “crying wolf” when they complain about the social atmosphere on campus unless we also dismiss the complaints of other students.

There has been much talk about creating an atmosphere on our college campuses whereby students are not inhibited by their social identity and cultural background. I applaud such efforts as making those from different social and cultural groups comfortable can produce more ideological diversity and help educate individuals from a variety of different groups. Given the results of this survey and other research conducted by myself and others, it is clear that our efforts to create an accepting social environment are incomplete unless they take into consideration political and religious conservative students. It is important to devise a holistic approach towards creating a tolerant, supporting educational atmosphere that takes into account the concerns of religious and political conservatives as well as students of color, women and sexual minorities. Those attempting to create a more welcoming educational atmosphere but are not concerned with the disrespect, intimidation or prejudice/discrimination felt by conservative students ultimately do not have the intention of creating a tolerant atmosphere. Rather they are only concerned with creating a tolerant atmosphere for certain social groups.

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