By Oliver Gladfelter
Each year at Denison, there are a handful of issues that grab the attention of just enough students and spark campus-wide debate. Most recently, for example, a DCGA senator proposed the idea of installing cameras in the residence halls with the hope of preventing vandalism and bias-related crimes. A week later, I couldn’t go anywhere on campus without being asked what my position was on ‘the cameras.’
As campus issues by definition tend to be divisive, it is worth studying if these divides may be indicative of larger social dynamics. In a survey taken by nearly a third of the student body, we measured attitudes on five different campus issues currently being debated. The five proposed policies were:
- All multicultural student organizations should be given designated lodge/ meeting space, even if it means taking space away from other student organizations.
- Denison University should consider speech that offends another person as constituting discriminatory harassment and subject to disciplinary action.
- Security cameras should be installed in the hallways and entrances of residential buildings.
- In response to violations of the student code of conduct, Denison University should enforce more strict and punitive measures, as opposed to prioritizing the use of restorative justice and other educational programs.
- When students host parties in their own apartment, the space should officially be considered a public space that any other student may enter and exit at will for the duration of the party, as opposed to remaining a private space in which residents can monitor who enters on an exclusive basis.
In truth, different groups of students would be affected by these policy changes differently, so we would expect someone’s identity factors – such as race, gender, and even involvement in a fraternity or sorority – to influence their attitudes towards these issues.
For each issue, we measured position by asking “How would you respond to the following proposed policy?” Respondents answered on a scale from ‘strongly oppose’ to ‘strongly support,’ which I have collapsed into a simple ‘oppose’ or ‘support’ dichotomy for the purposes of analysis.
Effects of Identities on Issue Position
First, let’s look at how partaking in Greek life may influence a student’s perspectives towards these issues. Greek-affiliated students were significantly less supportive on two of the issues: redistributing campus spaces to multicultural organizations and considering apartment-held parties as public spaces.
Figure 1 – Greek Students Are Most Activated by Issues of Space Ownership and Privacy
It is not surprising that these were the two issues in which we saw differences between greek and non-greek students. First, redistribution of lodge spaces in favor of multicultural organizations could mean fraternities and sororities losing their lodges and houses. Second, as fraternity men typically throw the most apartment parties, any party policy change would disproportionately affect them. In fact, the policy garnered support support from 26.5% of the entire greek community (counting both fraternity and sorority members), yet that number drops to 17.2% when you look at just fraternity members – the ones who throw parties.
While greek-affiliation accurately predicted issue position for just two of the policy proposals, race created division in nearly all of the issues (installing security cameras being the only exception). For each of the following policy proposals, white students were significantly less supportive than non-white students.
Figure 2 – Non-white Students Support Most Policy Proposals, White Students Oppose Most
Finally, we come to gender. This single distinction influenced student’s issue position more than any other variable. In some scenarios, the attitude gaps between males and females are actually double those created by either race or greek-status.
Figure 3 – Males were vastly more opposed than females to every single proposal
Effect Strengths Compared And Combined
While it is clear that greek-status, race, and gender are all linked to students’ policy positions, not all identities are equally influential. We can test effect strengths by regressing support levels by all three identity factors.
In the proposal to give space to multicultural groups, race had a slightly stronger effect on support levels than greek-status did (factor of .12 vs .11), although gender had the strongest influence by over three times as much (.33) – stronger even than greek-status and race combined. With the proposal to make parties public spaces, race again just barely beat out greek-status (.12 vs .1), while gender was yet again the strongest influencer (.16). In fact, there was only one issue where gender wasn’t the strongest predictor – concerning whether the conduct process should become stricter, race mattered slightly more (.18 vs .16).
These relationships do not work in isolation – they interact. For example, we know that 49.3% of white students and 34.2% of males support subjecting offensive speech to disciplinary action. We can combine these two factors and examine support levels from students who are both white and male – 28.2%, the lowest we observe for this issue. This interactive effect of different identities plays out the same way in every issue.
Figure 4 – Identity Effects Work in Interaction
Why is it that differences in gender, race, and even greek-status create such discrepancies in how students feel about various issues? Very likely it’s about the status quo. Each policy proposal represents a change to campus, a threat of disrupting the current system. They could affect claims to campus spaces, students’ control over their own parties, even how they can talk to one another. And obviously, certain groups have reason to be more interested in maintaining the status quo than others.
Oliver Gladfelter is a huge advocate of procrastination and spends most of his time finding new ways to waste time. He also studies political science on the side.
1. It should be noted that this approach excludes answers falling in the ‘neutral’ region of the support scale, which was sometimes a significant portion of responses.
2. Neither sex nor gender fall into clean dichotomies, and at Denison, we have students who indeed fall into other categories than just ‘male’ or ‘female,’ as measured in our survey data. Unfortunately, the sample size for these groups were too small to include in this analysis.