A University of Virginia student’s opinion essay in The New York Times has sparked a larger conversation across higher education institution leaders and students about free speech.
The author, UVA senior Emma Camp, argues that she and her peers find themselves censoring their thoughts and opinions in the classroom and throughout campus out of fear of retaliation. Why does this matter for marketers? It begs the questions – how much do we really understand about our audience, what messages are we sanctioning by intent or omission, and how are those resonating?
Online behavior is a massive aspect of the modern student’s life and students are finding many, many ways to express themselves online.
“I think it’s important to separate self-censorship in a physical classroom of 40-200 students and self-censorship across the whole of their lives while a student,” says AccessU Faculty Dean Browell who specializes in contextual voice-of-the-consumer research online.
“Students can align with various interests, demographics, ideologies, geographies, and more. They can also utilize anonymity to express themselves in an unfettered way. Does this online identity satisfy someone who may feel less enabled to express themselves in the classroom? Especially in the face of dissenting opinions? Or does it exacerbate the contrast that in these spaces of inquiry they are less protected than anonymously online?”
This is something seen with a very wide variance in research, and self-censoring behavior is not limited to one region or type of institution, or just to students.
AccessU Faculty Ricky Parker is a professor at Virginia Union University. His reflection from reading the essay focuses on the idea that students are looking for more inclusive environments, and the expectation of where those environments exist may be changing.
Community colleges, for example, are increasingly being recognized as a place where students are comfortable enough to debate and learn from those discussions. The value placed on these opportunities is so significant that it’s changing the narrative for higher education institutions overall. Does community college hold more value for fostering open, inclusive dialogue than larger universities where that opportunity may be declining?
Self-censorship is something we’re seeing throughout modern society, especially as it’s passed down from one generation to the next.
Often, people are reluctant to be the odd person out with an unpopular opinion. Difficult subjects that hit close to someone’s worldview, society, and morality can be very personal, making them even harder to talk about openly. In an age of cancel culture, there is even more reluctance, especially in certain formats to express personal opinions for fear of retaliation.
“One of the things I say to all my students is that their perspectives matter. The encouragement of allowing someone to know how you view life is important, matters,” says Parker. “College is a developmental stage. You’re meeting these new people and these experiences will be shaping who you’ll become.”
Parker recalls a moment while teaching a marketing course where students were getting into conversations about whether people and brands should embrace people who are nonbinary and transgender in their strategies. One student took offense to how another person in class was explaining his point of view. As a professor, Parker says college, like society and other institutions, will still be a place where some people are poorly educated on certain topics. But not letting people share their thoughts does not help educate them. It just makes it harder to gauge where they are at in their stages of learning.
Certain subjects are harder than others to facilitate. But colleges still have the responsibility to empower the next generation of thought leaders, and, as marketers, we have the responsibility to ensure we’re staying relevant on the tough issues and not stopping short of tapping into the questions that truly matter today to students.
Everyone is following what loud voices are saying they need to follow, and marketers are sometimes seen as part of the problem – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Cultivation is key to creating spaces for dialogue among students and ensuring their voices are being heard and reflected in the messages put forth by institutional marketing.
Everyone should be open to learning (including marketers) even if that means putting ourselves out there for criticism. Leaders in higher ed can continue to help facilitate those conversations and encourage openness among their students to help them achieve higher understanding and stay relevant to what really matters to them.