Academic Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship

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* Report: Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship. by Eric Kaufmann. CSPI Report No. 2, March 1, 2021

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"This report seeks to cut away from the headlines to explore large-scale survey data for the US, Canada, and the UK. Its unique contribution is providing robust quantitative analysis that reveals the nature and extent of punishment for speech and political discrimination from the perspectives of both perpetrators and victims."


"The main report is divided into three sections. Part I considers hard authoritarianism from both the victim and perpetrator perspectives, encompassing experiences of the university disciplinary system and people’s willingness to endorse the dismissal of controversial scholars. Part II examines soft authoritarianism, also from the victim and perpetrator perspectives. It can be subdivided into three subsections, the first on the ideological composition of the professoriate, the second on chilling effects and self-censorship, and the third on political discrimination. Finally, Part III compares academia to other professional workplaces, and briefly discusses the pros and cons of different policy recommendations that might be used to address the issues highlighted in the report. I co-authored a previous report that recommended a proactive approach to guarding academic freedom in the UK, and its recommendations have been largely adopted by the Johnson administration. The American legal situation may not be directly analogous, and the author takes no position in this report on US or Canadian policy, only noting that a hands-off approach is unlikely to change university practices given the distribution of opinion within the academy. Though the evidence in this report is mainly quantitative, based on surveys, there are also extensive qualitative sections based on comment boxes that respondents filled out. Those who are mainly interested in quantitative findings may bypass these sections."


"This study is the first of its kind to investigate authoritarianism and political discrimination in academia, relying on survey responses from both the perpetrators and targets of discrimination.

Across three Anglophone countries, a significant portion of academics discriminate against conservatives in hiring, promotion, grants and publications. Over 4 in 10 US and Canadian academics would not hire a Trump supporter, and 1 in 3 British academics would not hire a Brexit supporter.

Gender-critical feminist scholars appear to experience even more discrimination than conservatives. Only 28% of American and Canadian academics would feel comfortable having lunch with someone who opposes the idea of transwomen accessing women’s shelters.

Most professors do not back cancel culture in its most authoritarian forms. Only 1 in 10 academics supports firing controversial professors. Nonetheless, while most do not back cancellation, many are not opposed to it, remaining non-committal.

Right-leaning academics experience a high level of institutional authoritarianism and peer pressure. In the US, over a third of conservative academics and PhD students have been threatened with disciplinary action for their views while 70% of conservative academics report a hostile departmental climate for their beliefs.

In the social sciences and humanities, over 9 in 10 Trump-supporting academics and 8 in 10 Brexit-supporting academics say they would not feel comfortable expressing their views to a colleague. More than half of North American and British conservative academics admit self-censoring in research and teaching.

Younger academics and PhD students, especially in the United States, are significantly more willing than older academics to support dismissing controversial scholars from their posts, indicating that the problem of progressive authoritarianism is likely to get worse in the coming years.

A hostile climate plays a part in deterring conservative graduate students from pursuing careers in academia. Conservative and liberal graduate students differ far more in their perceptions of whether their politics fit academia than they do on questions related to how well academia pays, the isolating nature of the work, and other aspects of the profession.

One policy option is for government to proactively apply the law to universities, instituting sanctions for institutions that repeatedly breach individuals’ academic freedom while opening up a means for plaintiffs to appeal around their universities to a regulatory ombudsman. While this report makes no policy recommendations, this approach has been largely adopted by the British government.

High profile incidents of campus illiberalism are often brushed off as spirited exceptions to the rule that academic freedom is safe. Recent examples include the mob violence directed against Charles Murray at Middlebury State College and Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State University. Progressive critics view the free speech debate–on campus and more generally–as overblown, a moral panic concocted by the right.[1] In universities, many don’t experience a threat to their ability to teach and research, so they wonder what the problem is.

This report seeks to cut away from the headlines to explore large-scale survey data for the US, Canada, and the UK. Its unique contribution is providing robust quantitative analysis that reveals the nature and extent of punishment for speech and political discrimination from the perspectives of both perpetrators and victims. Few academics favor dismissal campaigns, but a significant minority admit to discriminating against conservatives, and a near-majority seem to do so when a “list method,” designed to get around social desirability bias, is used to elicit responses. From the perspective of the small minority of right-leaning academics, we see the consequences of this behavior, with most saying they experience a hostile climate in their departments and that they self-censor in their teaching and research. According to our surveys, over a third of conservative academics and PhD students in the United States say they have been threatened with disciplinary action for their beliefs.

While even one episode of intolerance of free speech should raise concern, it is important in science to be able to generalize findings to a wider population. This report begins with high-profile de-platformings and dismissals. But it soon moves beneath the surface to expose what are far more pervasive threats to academic freedom stemming from fears of a) cancellation­–threats to one’s job or reputation, and b) political discrimination. These I dichotomize as hard and soft authoritarianism."

A Radical Minority, Disproportionately Young, Supports Cancellation

"Worryingly, younger academics are significantly more authoritarian than those who are older. Among American and Canadian academics from the Millennial generation, the share who would back at least one dismissal campaign is between a third and a half. With other factors held constant, a 30-year-old far-left academic has a 50% chance of endorsing at least 1 of 4 hypothetical dismissal campaigns involving politically incorrect research findings, whereas a 70-year-old far leftist has a 35% chance of doing so. PhD students, who represent the future of academia, are 10-20 points more in favor of cancellation than academic staff. Unless these trends are capturing a life cycle effect that people mature out of, this portends rising support for illiberalism in the future. On the other hand, a 60% majority of academics in their 20s and 30s continues to reject cancellation, and young academics are 10 to 20 points more supportive of academic freedom than PhD students the same age.

While few support firing campaigns, these results do not confirm the notion that there is an overwhelming “silent majority” of academics who oppose cancellation but are too fearful to speak out. For most of the hypothetical cancel campaigns, I find around half of academics oppose dismissal. In the US, as Figure 5 shows, 76% oppose firing an academic who espouses lower immigration levels. Yet in the most controversial case, that of an academic whose research finds that diverse organizations perform worse than less diverse ones, the share of US SSH faculty opposed to cancellation falls to just 31%. Across the four hypothetical controversial professors in Figure 5, setting aside the immigration question, between 40% and 51% of academics neither support nor oppose dismissal (i.e., say they are unsure). That is, they find themselves cross-pressured between progressive and liberal value commitments."


Eric Kaufmann:

Hard Authoritarianism

"Hard authoritarianism entails no-platforming, dismissal campaigns, social media mob attacks, open letters, and formal complaints and disciplinary action, and stems mainly from a subgroup of illiberal far-left activist staff and students. I find that only a small minority of academic staff are protagonists. Figure 1 shows support for cancellation across five surveys and five hypothetical scenarios involving controversial academics. Across most questions, support for dismissal among academics is under 10%, though it is somewhat higher among PhD students.

Though few academics endorse cancellation, a significantly larger group are cross-pressured between their left and liberal commitments and thus unwilling to speak out against those who seek to silence free expression. In terms of those targeted, a significant minority of right-leaning academics and doctoral students have experienced hard authoritarianism.

Soft Authoritarianism

Self-Censorship and Discrimination

Soft authoritarianism involves a quieter but still insidious form of illiberalism that punishes those with conservative or otherwise non-conforming views in more mundane ways, damaging their careers and quality of workplace life. Those with dissenting views suffer from discrimination in terms of hiring, promotion, grant applications, publishing, the allocation of teaching and research tasks, workplace civility and social inclusion. This report includes surveys from both the potential perpetrators and victims of soft authoritarianism. These surveys establish the share of academics who prioritize progressive values over academic freedom (a figure that varies depending on the nature of the question), and how conservative scholars perceive their experiences and the academic climate in their departments.

I find that left and right, academics and non-academics, discriminate against each other at similar rates. The big difference on campus is the heavy leftward skew among staff at virtually all universities, and among students–especially at elite institutions. Political discrimination against conservatives and other intellectual minorities, such as gender-critical feminists (who accept a biological definition of sex), implicates between a third and a half of academics. Perpetrators of discrimination include not only a near-majority on the far left but also some center-left and even centrist staff. Using a concealed list technique reveals that 1 in 3 British academics would discriminate against a known Brexit supporter while 40% of American academics and 45% of Canadian academics would discriminate against a known Trump supporter.

The share who openly admit to political discrimination is only about a third to half the revealed (actual) total, but even limiting ourselves to unabashed discrimination, as Figure 2 does, indicates that over 20% of academics and around 30% of doctoral students openly admit that they would discriminate against a right-leaning grant bid. If we account for concealment, this means that between a third and half of assessors are politically biased, resulting in an open conservative facing an at least 80% chance of being discriminated against on a four-person panel chosen at random. By contrast, discrimination against left-leaning bids, papers or promotions is largely counterbalanced by political discrimination in favor of them."


Cancellations as the Tip of the Iceberg

'Injustice and discrimination are typically not experienced by the leftist political majority, making it possible to imagine there is no problem. “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?” remarked Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In the pre-Civil Rights American South, discrimination passed white Americans by. Likewise, today, discrimination is concentrated within a minority of perhaps 5-10% of scholars, who happen to be conservative or gender-critical feminist researchers.[4] Furthermore, it is those working in the social sciences and humanities that are disproportionately victimized, again reducing the number affected. From the point of view of this small minority, illiberalism and discrimination are massive problems, but these can be invisible to the left-wing majority in the academy.

We can think of the threats to academic freedom using the metaphor of an iceberg, with items that make the news– such as de-platformings and dismissals–as the visible symptoms of a much deeper problem. Figure 8 displays a breakdown of key findings from this report from the perspective of the victims. No-platforming and dismissal are, as critics point out, very rare. While we don’t have figures on all such cases, I estimate not much more than 0.03% of all staff have experienced no-platforming or dismissal.[5] However, the share expands rapidly when we move below the dashed “waterline” to consider other forms of illiberalism. From the chart, we can see that between a quarter and half of right-wing American academics have experienced hard authoritarianism, in the form of disciplinary action for speech (23%), bullying (36%) or psychological pressure (50%) for their beliefs.

Softer forms of authoritarianism are related to political discrimination, including perceiving a hostile climate for one’s political beliefs in a person’s department (70%), self-censoring one’s views in teaching or research (70%) or being unwilling to share one’s political beliefs with colleagues (82% of British Leave voters teaching in the social sciences and humanities and an astounding 91% of all Trump-supporting American academics).[6] It’s time to broaden the conversation on academic freedom from high-profile incidents to the superstructure of attitudes and behaviors that sustains these violations of academic liberty."