Political bias is driving the free speech crisis on campus. A new report from Matthew Goodwin of the Legatum Institute confirms as much; namely, that academics in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) lean strongly Left, many are biased against conservatives, and the latter are massively self-censoring. This restricts academic freedom and the truth-seeking mission of the university, permitting confirmation bias to flourish.
While most academics support free speech, they simultaneously back politically discriminatory measures that restrict the freedom of political minorities such as conservatives and gender-critical feminists. In other words, the free speech crisis springs from the political discrimination that runs rampant on campus.
What we face is not Timur Kuran’s problem of the silent liberal majority too scared to speak, but rather that of a Left-wing academic majority taking an increasingly illiberal turn. The Legatum survey asked SSH academics from the top 12 universities in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia about their political beliefs, support for free speech, and attitudes to various political and policy questions. The answers confirmed many of the findings of my previous work on academic freedom in the UK, and other studies. Namely:
- Most academics lean Left. This study found a Left:Right ratio of 7.5 to 1. I found ratios of 9:1 in Britain and 14:1 in the US and Canada. Studies using voter registration data for the US, which are more comprehensive, show a ratio of around 12:1.
- Most Right-wing academics self-censor, and do so far more than the Left. Though mine was an open-text question and Legatum’s was multiple-choice, we both found that Right-wing academics self-censor far more than Left-wing ones. In all cases, across many different survey types, a majority of Right-wing academics say they self-censor their views in teaching, research and discussion. Figure 1 summarises the two studies.
- Most academics support free speech. I found that just 1 in 10 academics support hypothetical campaigns to fire a controversial scholar. The Legatum study found 1 in 10 academics support preventing speakers whose views might offend from speaking on campus and 17% thought those with extreme views should not feel free to express them openly. The authoritarian Left is in the minority among academics.
- But there is a high level of anti-conservative bias among Left academics. Several studies find that between 18 and 55% of academics would discriminate against a Right-wing applicant for a job or grant. I found that 40-45% of North American academics would not hire a Trump supporter and 1 in 3 in Britain would not hire a Leave supporter. The Legatum report reveals that 70% of Left-wing academics dislike Right voters but just 36% of Right-wing academics dislike Left voters.
- Academics’ cultural Leftism leads a majority to support illiberal policies. I found that more SSH academics supported than opposed the use of mandatory reading list quotas of 30% women and 20% nonwhites in the UK (44 in favour, 30 against), US (44-34) and Canada (48-29). Among Left-wing academics, a majority supported these ‘decolonizing the curriculum’ quotas. Similarly, 57% of all academics, including 65% of those on the Left, support mandatory equity and diversity statements.
Another troubling feature of the growing illiberalism in academia is how many fall victim to the Myside Bias, where people process information in a manner biased toward their own prior beliefs, opinions. For example, 65% of Left-wing academics believe that applicants for faculty positions should submit statements demonstrating their commitment to equity and diversity before they can be considered for a job. 65% of Right-wing academics, on the other hand, see such statements to be an ideological litmus test.
These statements, which increasingly form part of application forms for academic jobs and grants, force those who dispute the idea that disparities are caused by systemic discrimination — or who believe in merit-based hiring, like University of Chicago’s Dorian Abbot — to endorse ideas they don’t believe in. This is a clear violation of freedom of conscience and a form of political discrimination that arguably contravenes EU, UK, and some US jurisdictions’ laws against discrimination on the basis of philosophical belief.
The upshot of all this is a feedback loop in which political discrimination and bias lead political minorities like conservatives to self-censor, avoid, or exit the profession, purifying its ranks still further. The Left-wing skew in SSH academia has gone from around 3:1 in the US in the mid-1960s to 12:1 today. A similar trend has taken place in Britain.
Discrimination worsens as a direct function of a growing Left-Right skew. If each side discriminated similarly against each other, a 50:50 ratio would result in both sides benefiting from discrimination as much as suffering from it. At 90:10, however, a minority group like conservatives is many times more likely to suffer discrimination. Even if each individual is equally prejudiced against the other side, the effect of discrimination falls heavily on the minority.
As conservatives are squeezed out or avoid academia, a monoculture is created. The incentives, as John Ellis and Cass Sunstein note, switch from finding a middle ground between opposing views to outflanking at the extremes. Like fundamentalism in a pious society, the new climate comes to favour radicals who exemplify the beliefs that hold the community together. Those who answer back are shamed as infidels. This in turn magnifies discrimination against conservative dissenters, ramps up self-censorship, further abets left-wing radicalism, and on the spiral goes.
While the UK’s Higher Education Freedom Bill is a vital first step in checking institutional authoritarianism, it cannot begin to tackle political discrimination unless it bolsters policy in three areas. First, beefed-up provisions compelling universities to clarify that political discrimination is not permitted in any aspect of hiring, promotion or refereeing. Second, following the 1967 Kalven Report, a requirement for all those acting in the name of an institution to be politically neutral except where narrowly construed as in the interests of the university. Third, indexing any actions on race and gender equity and diversity to equivalent action on political equity and diversity.
Until institutions confront today’s rampant political discrimination, the crisis of academic freedom will continue to get worse.