Is Academic Freedom in Crisis? A New Report Suggests the Answer is Yes.

Image from Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship, Eric Kaufmann, 2021.


A new report—the first of its kind—confirms that in the US, the UK and Canada, there is growing authoritarianism and political discrimination within academia. The report, Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship, is based on research conducted by Eric Kaufmann, one of Counterweight’s affiliates, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London and a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.

The report shows that even among those who do not actively favor the outright cancellation and discrimination of more conservative or heterodox scholars, not so many oppose it, even silently, as we might expect (and hope). This contradicts the “silent majority” thesis which hypothesizes that the majority of people oppose and dislike cancel culture even if they are unwilling to share these views publically. Whilst a significant proportion of those surveyed did oppose the dismissal of politically dissenting scholars, ranging from 31-76% across four hypothetical scenarios, the proportion of those unsure tended to be around 40-50%.

The report also shows that younger academics across the ideological spectrum are more likely to support authoritarian approaches and oppose the free expression of ideas compared to their elders. Whether this is a tendency that will stay with those academics as they mature is something that cannot be determined by the current research. However, given the steep generational divide on Critical Social Justice ideology, this finding suggests that the long term challenge of reinfusing the academy with the spirit of liberalism and free expression will be a difficult one, indeed. With a generation of ideological gatekeepers in place, diversifying the academy with young scholars who do not share the “party line” will be extremely difficult.

The report shows that a high percentage of academics favor discriminating against conservatives in hiring, promotion, grants, and publications. More than 4 in 10 would not hire a Trump supporter, and 1 in 3 British academics would not hire a Brexit supporter. Gender-critical feminist scholars, who accept the biological definition of sex, 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 trans women accessing a women’s shelter.

The research undergirding the study was unique in that it surveyed both “mainstream” campus views and those of conservative academics. 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 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.

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 they fit into the current academic monoculture than they do on other issues of academic life.

The question going forward is: what can we do about this deep-seated academic bias? What cannot be disputed is the long-term toll that this ideological imbalance has taken on our social fabric, corporate culture, and intellectual life. The university is an engine of knowledge production in society. If it cannot be freed from the grip of an ideological monopoly, we will likely see a continued decline in commitment to the free expression of ideas, a corruption of both social and hard sciences, and an even more stifling intellectual culture. Will having such data give free speech advocates the backing they need to tilt the scales? Let us hope so.

David Bernstein is a freelance writer and nonprofit executive. Follow him on Twitter @Blogunwoke.


Update: Dr Kaufman’s response to queries about sample size:

1) Sample size is the total sample (in this case, 484) and *not* the minority in the sample who vary from the majority. For instance, in a sample of 100 US voters, with 15 black voters, if the 15 are 95% Democrat and the sample is only 45% Democrat, the coefficient for black will be statistically significant if their difference from other voters is large enough – even with a small sample.

Surveys can credibly use a sample to stand in for the whole. Most election polls are around 1,000 to represent 60m or 350m. And small samples have low margins of error in relation to the total population in question (our survey we estimate a 3% margin of error with a sample of 500 out of a total maximum population of 50k SSH academics: Note: most psychology papers work with sample sizes in the hundreds to test effects.

We run statistical models throughout the report to test statistical significance – so even if you want to query the 82% you cannot query that the effect is statistically significant. The predicted probability of under .2 (ie 20% chance of saying ‘comfortable’ if you are a Brexit voting SSH academic) appears below, even with controls.

2) When you have multiple surveys from different sources saying the same thing, and this being confirmed in statistical models, critiques of single surveys lose force.

Notice that self-censorship was high also in previous studies summarized in tables 4 and 5 below. At this point those who deny the results are just science denialists, pure and simple:

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