Reconciling Self-Censorship: A Qualitative Study of the Experiences of University Staff and Administrators
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Higher Education Administration
J. Patrick Biddix
Dorian L. McCoy, Karen D. Boyd, Robert C. Blitt
In addition to a global pandemic, the past three years have been marked by racial, social, and political unrest. These circumstances add meaningful context to examine and better understand factors that undermine free expression and contribute to self-censorship among university staff and administrators. To date, few studies have holistically explored the unique experiences of university staff and administrators with self-censorship and how this phenomenon affects their experience on college and university campuses. Understanding why staff and administrators choose to self-censor may allow for a deeper discussion about speech climate and the degree to which colleges and universities implement and uphold speech policies. Therefore, this study aimed to understand how university staff and administrators who chose to self-censor described and made meaning of their experience and explored how policies and campus responses to speech influenced the decision to self-censor. A qualitative research design was utilized to explore self-censorship among 15 university staff and administrators at a large research university. Participants represented various backgrounds, years of higher education experience, and religious and political perspectives. Data were collected from two participant interviews and analyzed using Bar-Tal’s (2017) conceptual framework for self-censorship. In addition to a priori themes from Bar-Tal’s framework that highlighted significant reasons for self-censorship (i.e., individual characteristics, context, and circumstantial factors), four additional themes emerged as relevant factors that influenced self-censorship in a higher education setting: 1) power dynamics, 2) workplace relationships, 3) avoidance of negative outcomes and labels, and 4) professionalism. Additional findings in this study revealed that self-censorship is a nuanced decision influenced by many factors to minimize or avoid risk. Overall, self-censorship was shown to be a free speech-related and a workplace-related issue. Though participants spoke of self-censorship as both positive and negative, all agreed that negative self-censorship impedes their ability to influence others in the workplace. As such, they recommended positive strategies that, if incorporated, could help decrease self-censorship among university staff and administrators. A new model of self-censorship decision-making incorporating both a priori and emergent themes was developed as an explanatory tool to help colleges and universities better understand the viewpoint expression of their employees.
Morales, Leigh C., "Reconciling Self-Censorship: A Qualitative Study of the Experiences of University Staff and Administrators. " PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2022.
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