Sociology PhD candidate named UC Free Speech Fellow

October 02, 2019

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"There's been a contentious climate for Muslim students for almost two decades, and some would say since the Cold War," says Saugher Nojan, who will conduct a UC-wide survey of Muslim students. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta) 

Saugher Nojan wants to improve the campus climate for Muslim students at the University of California, and a prestigious new fellowship will give her the opportunity to make a difference.

Nojan, a PhD candidate in sociology at UC Santa Cruz, has been selected as a 2019-20 fellow of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.

As one of only 11 fellows selected from a highly competitive pool of nominees from across the country, Nojan will spend a year at the forefront of efforts to examine free speech and enhance civic engagement. She joins a class of fellows that includes lawyers, journalists, social scientists, and other experts.

Each fellow will spend 12 months researching questions related to the First Amendment. Nojan will conduct a UC-wide study of Muslim students to assess the level of their civic engagement, their use of free speech practices, and the extent to which campus climate inhibits or encourages their participation in the life of the campus. She plans to conduct in-depth, in-person interviews with Muslim students at each of the 10 UC campuses, and to interview staff and administrators to assess the level of resources that are available on each campus.

"There's been a contentious climate for Muslim students for almost two decades, and some would say since the Cold War," said Nojan, noting that then-UC President Mark Yudof commissioned a study in 2012 to examine the experiences of Arab and Muslim students across the UC system. That study revealed that students felt they were treated with suspicion and mistrust by administrators, and that they were among the least-respected groups on campus.

"This study motivated me," said Nojan. "It found that Muslim students were feeling disrespected, not just by other students but by administrators. It pointed to a structural problem I wanted to look into."

Nojan's project, "Examining Free Speech and Civic Engagement Among UC Muslim Students: What Role Does Campus Safety Play?," will build on previous studies, including the systemwide Campus Climate Survey that is administered periodically on all UC campuses. Those survey results leave Nojan wanting to know more. The survey doesn't look into issues of free speech and is "quite limited in terms of the sense of belonging students feel. Involvement is limited only to student organizations," she said.

Nojan is eager to explore more deeply questions of safety, belonging, and the overall university experience of Muslim students.

Noting studies that suggest "Islamophobia exists in the classroom," she expressed concern about Muslim students' ability to speak freely in class.

"There are definitely cases where students feel unsafe expressing political dissent in the current climate," she said. "The university is inclusive and tolerant of diverse views and free speech, but in this political climate, does that really apply?"

Nojan will investigate how levels of physical, psychological, and emotional safety may shape students engagement on campus. "I'm open to all different kinds of safety," she noted.

Before she reaches out to students on the 10 UC campuses, Nojan will analyze the results of previous UC student-experience surveys to identify trends and patterns, including which groups feel the most unsafe, who experiences the greatest sense of belonging, and who rates campus climate as highly respectful. From there, she will advertise widely, tap established student networks, and utilize informal associations to recruit participants for her study. "I want to get a range of engagement, because it's important to hear from students who aren't engaged or part of a student organization, too," she said.

Nojan, who earned a master's in education from UCSC in 2017, hopes that her systemwide study will shed light on what each campus is doing well, what campuses can learn from each other, and opportunities to share resources. She also hopes to identify concrete actions that campuses can take to support free speech and encourage civic engagement for Muslim students. "Personally and professionally, that's my way of doing research," she said.

Veronica Terriquez, associate professor of sociology and one of Nojan's advisers, was happy to recommend her for the fellowship.

"Saugher is committed to conducting high-quality research," said Terriquez. "Given her close connection to the Muslim community and her experience promoting the well-being and sense of belonging among diverse students, she is well-prepared to lead this project. I expect her findings will be of value to universities and other institutions that want to be more inclusive of young people from a range of backgrounds."

Other 2019-20 fellows include Emerson Sykes, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union; Spoma Jovanovic, professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Campus Speech Project; and Rebecca MacKinnon, director of Ranking Digital Rights at New America.

The Washington, D.C.-based UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement was established to explore "how the fundamental democratic principles of free speech and civic engagement must adapt to the challenges and opportunities of modern society." Its mission is to defend and advance these values through research, advocacy, debate, and discussion.

--Original article published May 28, 2019