How to ensure academic freedom

March 17, 2021 • 1:45 pm

The article below, from Quillette, is by Eric Kaufmann, a professor of Politics at Birkbeck College of the University of London, who works with the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI).  Kaufmann’s paper reports on a study of attitudes towards free expression in the U.K. and U.S. His U.K. work led to  a CSPI report that apparently became the basis of an official UK government policy paper on Academic Freedom and Free Speech that will likely become U.K. law.

You can click on the screenshot to read the piece for free; below I’ll just list Kaurfmann’s major findings and then his conclusions, which involve government intervention to ensure the freedoms he wants preserved. Note that the sample size was not large.

Kaufmann’s findings:

a.)  Few academics have been subject to threats or disciplinary actions over their speech, but it’s been far more frequent in the U.S. than in the UK.

b.) Right-wing academics, especially if they are Ph.D. students, experience threats and disciplinary actions far more often than do left-wing academics.

c.) While most academics would not support campaigns to oust other academics who take unpopular possessions (Kaufmann gives a list of five hypotheticals, of which I put two below), a substantial proportion (around 40%) would remain neutral, not opposing campaigns to fire professors. This is a “silent moiety” that, says Kauffmann, are enablers of those who censor others.

Here are two of his five examples of unpopular positions that were used to query his subjects; these are based on real episodes on campuses:

  1. If a staff member in your institution did research showing that greater ethnic diversity leads to increased societal tension and poorer social outcomes, would you support or oppose efforts by students/the administration to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere? [Support, oppose, neither support nor oppose, don’t know]
  2. If a staff member in your institution did research showing that the British Empire did more good than harm, would you support or oppose efforts by students/the administration to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere? [Support, oppose, neither support nor oppose, don’t know]

d). Roughly half of academics, and a large majority of Ph.D. students, support “diversity quotas” for reading lists.

e). Support for dismissing academics who hold unpopular positions decreases significantly with age (5 classes from 35 to 65 years old). It’s the young folk who are the authoritarians.

f). Self-reporting by academics on whether they find themselves in a hostile climate for their beliefs was much higher for right-wing academics than for far-left, fairly-left, or centrist academics. This is true in both the U.S. and U.K.

Not much of this surprised me—with the exception of high support for diversity quotas on reading lists.

Because Kaufmann’s UK research actually translated into government action, he sees using the government as a way to ensure academic freedom. I’m not completely convinced of using that route, though. Here are what he recommended for the UK, with the first what the government is apparently going to do:

Importantly, most of our recommendations were adopted in the government’s new Academic Freedom white paper, which is likely to become law later this year. Foremost among these is the creation of the new position of Academic Freedom Champion on the Office for Students (OfS), the sector regulator. This individual will be tasked with proactively auditing universities for compliance with their free speech duty to not only defend, but promote, academic freedom. In addition, this office will act as an ombudsman to hear cases from individuals whose rights have been abridged by their universities. The new bill gives the regulator teeth to fine universities, which is vital. Only if the cost is high will administrators be able to face down activists and tell them that they cannot restrict the freedom of dissenting academics, no matter how much they wish to do so.

The second:

. . . our recommendations also include an explicit mention of political discrimination as grounds for bringing a complaint against a university. I recommend that university officers, when speaking in an official administrative capacity, be governed by a duty to remain politically neutral on any issue not directly concerned with the university’s narrow sectoral self-interest.

And the third:

Finally, I’ve argued for a requirement that universities show equivalent action between policies to promote traditional forms of diversity and equality, and moves to promote viewpoint diversity and equality. Institutions would be free to dial down all forms of equity and diversity, but should not be permitted to privilege identity-based diversity over political diversity.

This is all contingent, of course, on the first recommendation: that there be a government body to ensure academic freedom, headed by one individual (a Big Brother?). That seems dangerous, for that individual has enormous power to shape academia via fining universities. There’s a danger that that individual, rather than being neutral, might help bend academic discourse towards what’s acceptable to the current government. As Hitchens used to say, “Who would you entrust to do that job?” I prefer the alternative of private-sector pressuring, as is done by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and similar organizations like the AFA, which has the power to bring lawsuits against universities.

As for the second, I’m heartily in favor of it, for it is the embodiment of the University of Chicago’s Kalven Principle that the University take no official ideological, moral, or political positions—with a few rare exceptions.

As for the third, I’m not sure. While viewpoint diversity is desirable as well as ethnic diversity, there’s a rationale for promoting ethnic diversity that doesn’t hold for other forms. And that rationale is to increase ethnic diversity as a form of reparations for bigotry in the past. That is affirmative action, and I’m in favor of a limited form of it.

24 thoughts on “How to ensure academic freedom

  1. Sadly, I suspect you could substitute “did research on” for “did research showing” and the woke would still oppose it. I.e. one doesn’t even have to find evidence opposing liberal social claims, one merely has to be questioning them to get the academic stink eye.

    1. True. Indeed, a classic example is Charles Murray. As far as I can make out, and contrary to near-ubiquitous claims, his book never did assert that blacks have a lower IQ owing to genetic factors. His crime was to treat that question as an empirical one, and so ask the question, rather than treating it as a theological issue requiring ritual recitation of the catechism.

      1. His “normalization” procedure, comparing for example rates of getting into med school for whites and blacks with the same IQ, accepted as inevitable that the percentage of whites getting that IQ score would be much higher than the percentage of blacks getting that IQ score. The assumption of racial genetic differences in intelligence was “baked into” his procedure.

          1. You are of course correct, but the Bell Curve argued against environmental differences in “cognitive ability”. It assumed the different bell curves for different races were inevitable, and public policy should be based on inherent differences among individuals in “cognitive ability” rather than based on eliminating environmental causes of differences. They argued that if some groups had a higher percentage of individuals with high “cognitive ability” than other groups, well that is an unpleasant fact but we need to accept it like other unpleasant truths. But, as you say, why should we presume that group differences are genetic rather than environmental?

  2. If a staff member in your institution did research showing that greater ethnic diversity leads to increased societal tension and poorer social outcomes, would you support or oppose efforts by students/the administration to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere? [Support, oppose, neither support nor oppose, don’t know]
    If a staff member in your institution did research showing that the British Empire did more good than harm, would you support or oppose efforts by students/the administration to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere? [Support, oppose, neither support nor oppose, don’t know]

    Maybe I’m missing something, but shouldn’t the answer to both of these be based on the quality of the research and data? If the findings are adequately supported, I mean, they are what they are.

    1. I think we can set aside consideration of quality. I don’t know of any other kind of research finding that would cause a goodly swath of colleagues to want you to be dismissed.

      1. Many years ago, AAAS hosted a session on the impact of consensual relationships between adults and underage teens on the teens. Loads of reporters showed up, no doubt waiting for the researchers to say something horrible yet quoteworthy. Another good example of a subject where even treating the question as an empirical one is likely to get one in trouble.

        Though full confession, I think I attended the session ‘to see the car crash’, too.

  3. Point c: “ While most academics would not support campaigns to oust other academics who take unpopular possessions”. I think you mean “unpopular positions” but I welcome people taking unpopular possessions because who wants those things anyway? Those guys I guess and go ahead and take them! 🥴😆

  4. While viewpoint diversity is desirable as well as ethnic diversity, there’s a rationale for promoting ethnic diversity that doesn’t hold for other forms. And that rationale is to increase ethnic diversity as a form of reparations for bigotry in the past.

    On this point it’s worth noting the different histories of the US and UK. Whereas the US has a population descended from peoples forcibly taken there as slaves, in the UK ethnic minorities are nearly all children of post-WW2 economic migrants. Any case for “reparations” is much weaker.

  5. My experience with the UK, among other countries I’ve lived in outside North America, is that people in European and Asian societies are quite a bit more comfortable investing authority over political and social behavior in central agencies of national governments than we are. In the US, we much prefer letting countervailing institutions and constituencies battle it out till some kind of steady-state has been achieved, even if (as always seems to be the case) no one is completely happy with the result. So Kaufmann’s recommendations—and Jerry’s misgivings—are totally consistent with this difference in political attitude.

    The problem in American academe is that the culture of Woke authoritarianism has been building, seemingly unopposed, for a couple of decades; only now are those countervailing forces beginning to mobilize on the free thought/free expression side. With luck, that movement will start making up for lost time. It had better. American higher education—and judging by what we were just talking about in connection with private and increasingly public K-12 ed, *lower* education—is going to be in the fight of its life over the next generation, and the rationalist Enlightenment tradition that previously led to its phenomenal success is currently on life support.

  6. There’s an event by Free Speech Champions discussing the problems of having government interfering in all this, which will have Kaufman himself as one of the guests. It’s online and free, 7pm UK time tomorrow: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/uk-govs-free-speech-champion-hero-or-oxymoron-tickets-144435653929?utm_source=eventbrite&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=reminder_attendees_48hour_email&utm_term=eventname&ref=eemaileventremind. Should be interesting- I’m not sure about govt involvement at all, so we’ll see if this is persuading.

  7. I am a bit flummoxed by the question of acceptable research conclusions. Thorough and objective research on those or any other subjects should come to the correct conclusions, regardless of the personal views of the researchers of anyone else.
    The whole point of research, as I understand it, is to find which of the investigated possibilities is correct.
    If I misread the survey, and the question is whether it is acceptable to research those subjects, then I have to wonder what the heck is wrong with these people.
    Truths that make me uncomfortable are still truths, and better than comforting falsehoods.

  8. This is all contingent, of course, on the first recommendation: that there be a government body to ensure academic freedom, headed by one individual (a Big Brother?). That seems dangerous, for that individual has enormous power to shape academia via fining universities. There’s a danger that that individual, rather than being neutral, might help bend academic discourse towards what’s acceptable to the current government.

    It doesn’t work like that in the UK. The appointment will not be a political one and the successful candidate will almost certainly not have any overt connections to any political party. The cvil service culture is very different in the UK as compared to the USA.

    I prefer the alternative of private-sector pressuring, as is done by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and similar organizations like the AFA, which has the power to bring lawsuits against universities.

    Or the ACLU?

    I don’t share your confidence in private sector organisations. You’re reliant on people being motivated enough to set them up and then them having the capacity to raise enough money to bring lawsuits. It seems to me like it would be a very expensive way to protect free speech in Universities.

  9. “If a staff member in your institution did research showing that the British Empire did more good than harm, would you support or oppose efforts by students/the administration to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere?”

    This is a bizarre example to use in a survey. This question of whether the British empire caused “more good than harm” can never be answered in a satisfactory way because it depends on the different subjective weightings people assign to “developing a national railway network” Vs “letting millions of people perish in famine due to negligence”. Based on (1) how you assign weightage / points to these issues and (2) whom you ask them, the answers will be grossly different. But even if we take it as a given that we can put this all in an unbiased calculator which spits out the “real” answer of whether the British Empire caused “more good than harm” and the answer actually comes out to be “more good”, we can still dismiss this because in a topic like this what matters is intentionality. Did the British Empire *intend* to cause more good than harm? Just a basic familiarity with history and the writings of the main participants in the Empire is enough to show that whatever “good” the Empire caused was unintentional, accidental and often self-serving (some exceptions exist but on the margins). And whatever “harm” they caused was intentional or out of gross unmitigated negligence (often due to racist attitudes towards the poor, unwashed masses). If some staff member in my institution wanted to do this research, I would point out the wrong-headedness of this endeavour to him/her. Often though these things never happen in isolation. In my experience, it is rare that someone wakes up and in a vacuum chooses to do “research” on these kind of topics. If I were a betting man, I would bet that this individual is what the young people call “an Edgelord” and would have a rather unsavoury trail of past “work” behind them. If that is the case and it all checks out, then yes it would make sense to let go of this person so that they can enjoy a long and fruitful career at one of the right-wing think-tanks whining about how they are constantly “cancelled”. It is a well-trodden and a very lucrative career path.

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