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Douglas Andrews / Mar. 3, 2021

The Crumbling Foundation of Academic Freedom

American colleges and universities are more hostile today than ever toward those who don’t embrace progressive ideology.

More and more, sending your kids off to college is like paying big bucks to take them to an outrageously overpriced restaurant despite knowing that you’re going to get food poisoning, and despite knowing that the waitstaff are going to try to make your kids hate you.

Why on earth do we keep doing it? Well, because our kids need to show the receipt for that terrible dining experience to prospective employers if they want to land a job. It’s madness.

Things aren’t getting any better at the academy, either. In fact, they’re getting worse. Eric Kaufmann ought to know. He’s a professor of politics at the University of London’s Birkbeck College and a board member at an organization called the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.

As Kaufmann writes in The Wall Street Journal, “Academic freedom is in crisis on American campuses. Last year, the National Association of Scholars recorded 65 instances of professors being disciplined or fired for protected speech, a fivefold increase from the year before.”

And just who are the targets of these attempts at cancelation? You guessed it: conservative academics and graduate students, the most endangered of species on college campuses. He reports that roughly one in three of them has been disciplined or threatened with disciplinary action, as an increasingly strident progressive authoritarianism attacks what was once the crown jewel of the Western university: academic freedom. (For tangible evidence of this malignant illiberalism, one need only consider a pair of incidents from 2017: the mob violence directed toward professors Charles Murray at Middlebury State College and Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State University.)

On Monday, Kaufmann published an exhaustive 195-page report on the topic titled “Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship,” which he says is the first of its kind to investigate these topics while relying on survey responses from both the perpetrators and the targets of discrimination.

Fortunately, he also published a much more manageable executive summary, whose graphs, charts, and main findings show just how hostile an environment the traditional university has become for non-leftists and free-thinkers generally, with routine discrimination in hiring, promotion, grants, and publications. Among the findings:

  • More than 4 in 10 U.S. and Canadian academics wouldn’t hire a Trump supporter, and 1 in 3 British academics wouldn’t hire a Brexit supporter.

  • Gender-critical feminist scholars (those who believe there’s a biological basis for womanhood) have a really hard time. Only 28% of American and Canadian academics would feel comfortable having lunch with someone who opposes the idea of “transgender” women accessing women’s facilities.

  • In the U.S., over a third of conservative academics and Ph.D. students have been threatened with disciplinary action for their views, while 70% of conservative academics report a hostile departmental climate for their beliefs.

  • More than half of North American and British conservative academics admit self-censoring in research and teaching.

  • Younger academics and Ph.D. students (think: Mao’s Red Guards), especially in the U.S., are significantly more willing than older academics to support the dismissal of controversial scholars, indicating that progressive authoritarianism is likely to get worse in the coming years.

“The result of this hostile environment,” writes Kaufmann, “is conformity to a culture that is out of alignment with the nation’s. As in previous studies, I find a low level of political diversity, with only 5% of American scholars in the social sciences and humanities identifying as conservative. In the U.S. and Canada, academics on the left outnumber those on the right by a ratio of 14 to 1.”

Fourteen to one? Clearly, today’s colleges and universities value all manner of “diversity” and “tolerance” except one.

What’s the solution? “At this point,” concludes Kaufmann, “only a proactive approach can work, such as the policies recently announced in Britain, in which public universities are to be audited and potentially fined for academic freedom violations each year by the government. In the U.S., state or federal authorities must regulate public universities to ensure they protect the First Amendment rights of staff and students and don’t discriminate against political minorities.”

Where might the momentum for this proactive approach come from? Economic pressure, perhaps. But unless we consumers stop throwing our money at these leftist indoctrination camps, they’re unlikely to get the message.

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