Academic freedom is in trouble in America, Britain and Canada, according to a new study I conducted on the subject. While the term "cancel culture" is often thrown around like a political football, my new report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI) found quantitative evidence that the ideals of the university—to establish a tolerant ethos open to questioning received wisdom—is being perverted by political aims.
Using eight surveys of academic and graduate student opinion, we examined the willingness of faculty to cancel controversial academics and to discriminate against political minorities. We also looked at the level of fear among dissenting scholars. And what we found was worrying. While it's normal for those holding minority views to feel a bit uncomfortable, my study found that younger scholars are far more likely to support an intolerant "cancel culture" that is driving self-censorship and limiting viewpoint diversity in universities. And increasingly, this ethos is moving off campus into other professional organizations such as tech firms and newsrooms.
Much of the reporting on progressive intolerance has focused on high-profile incidents such as the attacks on Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State or Charles Murray at Middlebury College. But my study found that this is just the tip of an iceberg of threats to academic freedom. And these threats are leading to widespread self-censorship among political minorities.
Threats to academic freedom stem from two interrelated forces. Threats from management and colleagues for unpopular opinions represent what I call hard authoritarianism, in that the censure is imposed by the institution and the consequences run the gamut from being fired all the way down to being assigned an unpopular course or being shunned by colleagues. But there is also a soft authoritarianism that arises from political discrimination in hiring, promotion, grants and publication.
What we found was that conservative academics take increasing levels of care not to offend those in positions of power like department heads or to let their views become known to people in their field who will be evaluating their applications or paper submissions.
We also found that both hard and soft authoritarianism are pervasive in academia. In the U.S., a staggering one in three conservative graduate students or academics has been disciplined or threatened for discipline for their views. Meanwhile, 75 percent of conservative academics in the social sciences and humanities in the U.S. and Britain say their departments are a hostile environment for their beliefs. In the U.S., fully seven in 10 conservative academics in the social sciences or humanities say they self-censor. Over 90 percent of Trump-supporting academics wouldn't feel comfortable sharing their views with a colleague, and 85 percent of their Democratic colleagues agree that Trump supporters should stay silent.
Chilling effects for political minorities stem from fears of being disciplined as well as worries about the consequences of being marked out as ideologically deviant in a world where those on the left typically outnumber those on the right by a ratio of over 10 to one.
Sadly, these fears are well-founded. Using a concealed survey technique called a list experiment, I found in an August 2020 survey that four in 10 American academics would not hire a known Trump supporter. Meanwhile, one in three British academics would discriminate against a known Brexit supporter for a job, despite the fact 52 percent of the population voted to leave the European Union.
Between a fifth and a half of academics would mark a right-leaning grant application lower.
There are also social consequences to being outed as conservative, or as someone who believes that gender should be defined biologically. Fewer than three in 10 American and Canadian academics in SSH disciplines would feel comfortable sitting down to lunch with a scholar who opposed admitting transwomen to women-only shelters, and barely four in 10 would be comfortable breaking bread with a Trump supporting academic.
The combination of hard authoritarianism and political discrimination makes life very uncomfortable for non-conformists, now a matter of hard data as well as plentiful anecdotes; my findings replicate those of previous studies.
The problem is not that leftist academics discriminate more than right-wing academics, or that academics discriminate more than others. In fact, academics display similar levels of political prejudice to the rest of the highly-educated population. The difference lies in the high ideological skew and transparently political nature of people's work in SSH academic disciplines. When you are outnumbered 10 to one, your prejudice matters a lot less than bias from the majority when it comes to getting a job, or getting ahead. In a British survey, I compared those working in universities to those working in other professional settings and found a much higher level of self-censorship in universities.
There was some good news in the surveys: Most academics don't support cancel culture. In fact just one in 10 academics in the U.S., Canada and Britain endorsed firing controversial academics who, for example, find that organizations with more women and minorities are less effective, or children do better in two-parent than single-parent families. On the other hand, up to half of academics were uncertain whether they opposed or supported cancelling such academics, indicating a large pool of cross-pressured opinion. This creates a permissive climate for intolerant activists to operate in.
In addition, younger academics are twice as likely to back firing campaigns as academics over 50. And PhD students are three times as likely. While social sciences and humanities scholars 30 and under ranked social justice and academic freedom equally, academics over 50 backed academic freedom over social justice by more than three to one.
While tolerance may be a function of age, these results dovetail with studies showing that between 2000 and 2016, college students grew less tolerant of dissenting views on hot-button issues touching on race, gender and sexuality. If there is a less tolerant generation entering academia which prizes emotional safety over academic freedom, this bodes ill for the future of free expression in the scholarly community.
One consequence of this censorship is that smart conservative students who do not conform ideologically are being dissuaded from pursuing graduate work and an academic career. In a survey of mainly American and British master's and PhD students, those on the right are far more likely to agree that their political views wouldn't fit an academia career. This, and not the desire of conservative graduate students for higher-paying jobs outside academia, is what most distinguishes left and right grad students when it comes to considering an academic career.
Since the late 1980s, book after book has assailed the lack of viewpoint diversity and power of political correctness on campus. But in the ensuing decades, these problems have only worsened. Universities are now in a feedback loop in which a political monoculture creates a hostile climate for conservatives, driving self-censorship and empowering cancel culture, which keeps conservatives out.
Universities cannot reform themselves. Reform will require regulatory oversight from government, along the lines of new policies recently announced by Boris Johnson's conservative government in Britain, until things change. These new measures empower the sector regulator to fine universities which breach their academic freedom duties.
To truly open up academic freedom in America, regulators must proactively monitor universities for compliance with their duties. Only this can prevent them from giving in to the well-organized minority of intolerant activists who are increasingly setting the tone on campus.
This piece originally appeared at Newsweek
Eric Kaufmann is professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London and a fellow of the Manhattan Institute. His most recent book is Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities.
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