The Rising Threat on Campuses

Younger academics are more willing to seek dismissal of divergent colleagues, a new report shows

Ideological intolerance on campus is bad and likely to get worse, with younger academics especially inclined to favor social-justice goals over free inquiry, according to a new report, which also shows that other faculty, particularly conservatives, are silencing themselves in response to fear of retaliation and pressure to conform.

An “iceberg model” of speech policing—de-platformings and dismissals just the visible tip, with large problems below the surface—is now a fact of academic life across the United States, Canada and Britain, according to the report, written by Eric Kaufmann of the University of London, author of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities.

The report, for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, confirms findings of other recent surveys indicating widespread intolerance in the academy. In Britain, about half of respondents who identified as right-leaning reported facing a hostile climate in their university; in the United States, that figure was 70%. Those in the social sciences and humanities were most likely to report self-censoring.

Retaliation is gaining ground as a way of dealing with nonconformists, the report suggests. A quarter of American and British academics in social sciences and humanities said they would at least sometimes back a campaign to dismiss a colleague over a study with results they found unpalatable. But 38% of American academics under 40 were willing to actively support dismissal in such cases—and for American Ph.D. students 35 and under, that figure rose to 56%.

The data came from online and email surveys of just over 3,300 academics, plus 222 responses from a separate survey Kaufmann conducted for the National Association of Scholars, a conservative-leaning US-based group, added to compensate for the main sample’s strong left-wing skew.

Social justice as a basis for deciding what to teach and how to teach is on the rise, especially in America. Nearly 40% of U.S. academics who responded to the surveys, and about a third of their counterparts in Britain, said they would choose mandatory quotas of women and non-white authors to diversify the curriculum over prioritizing “intellectually foundational” texts in the field. Among humanities and social sciences faculty under 40, the support for quotas rose to 48% in the United States and 43% in Britain.

Among American academics who favored quotas, 28% believed faculty members who did not adopt such quotas in their classes should be forced to undergo extra implicit-bias training on top of what already existed for all faculty, and 10% wanted them either fired or penalized in other ways, such as loss of research funding; 9% thought the courses should be canceled, and faculty members should be assigned to teach new courses with quota-based syllabi.

One in three humanities/social sciences academics in the United States said they were opposed to diversity quotas for readings in the curriculum, but only one in five said they would be willing to come out publicly against such proposals. Among North American Ph.D. students in these fields, just 4% said they would publicly oppose a diversity quota for reading materials, while 1 in 10 said they would be privately opposed.

British academics tend to be less strongly in the social justice corner than their U.S. and Canadian counterparts. Nonetheless, when asked whether they support “political correctness” because it “protects from discrimination” or oppose it because it “stifles freedom of speech,” 64% of British academics (76% in the humanities and social sciences) favored political correctness. That compares to 37% of the general public in Britain, according to data Kaufmann compiled for the study. Once again, age was a major factor: Only 35% of British Ph.D. holders 60 and older were pro-PC, compared to 67% among those under 40.

Female and non-white academics who responded to the academic surveys tended to be more in favor of “social justice” as a goal and less interested in protecting “bad” opinions than their male and white peers, though to varying degrees in different countries. Female academics in Britain, for example, were no more likely than their male counterparts to favor the dismissal of a researcher with a controversial project, while American female academics had a more pronounced preference than male academics for dismissal.

The findings also suggest that conservatives in academia who worry about a hostile climate and censor themselves are not paranoid. Twelve percent of American academics said they would discriminate against a right-leaning applicant in hiring for an academic job, while 20% say they would discriminate against a research grant for a project they perceived as right-wing. Kaufmann estimated that these figures should actually be doubled, based on an experiment he conducted as part of the study to account for the likelihood that not everyone would admit to discriminatory behavior even in an anonymous survey. Bias against left-leaning applicants and research projects also exists, but it is reported less than half as often, the study found.

Evidence of changes in the next generation of academics shows up throughout the surveys. In the United States and Canada, 28% of social sciences/humanities faculty identify as “far-left,” while 38% agree at least to some extent with the statement “I would consider myself an activist.” For Ph.D. students in these fields, 35% were far-left, and 44% called themselves activists. When prioritizing academic freedom or social justice was put in either/or terms, current North American faculty strongly preferred academic freedom, 58% to 26% in the United States and 53% to 34% in Canada. But Ph.D. students opted for social justice over academic freedom by 40% to 34%. (British Ph.D. students gave a slight edge to academic freedom, by 37% to 33%.)

The trend identified by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, that academia is embracing social justice over knowledge as the paramount value, looks likely to accelerate.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor for Reason and an associate editor with Arc Digital.