A rise in targeting of scholars for political and ideological reasons

September 10, 2021 • 9:15 am

There’s a longish report at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that summarizes how scholars have been reported to authorities (“targeted”) for saying or writing “offensive” stuff over the last 6 years. You can read the report by clicking on the screenshot below:

It’s a bit tedious to read in its entirety, but the results are interesting. I’ll skip the definition of scholars and most of the methodology, except to say that the report relied on eight sources (below). These don’t include FIRE’s famous “disinvitation database“, as that reports deplatforming or disruptions of talks of speakers at colleges, not targeting and attempted punishment of individuals at universities. The sources of data:

  • Lee Jussim’s list of “Threat(s) to Academic Freedom … From Academics”
  • Jeffrey Sachs’ list of “The US Faculty Termination for Political Speech Dataset (2000-2020)”
  • The “Free Speech Tracker” from The Free Speech Project at Georgetown University
  • Duke Law School’s “Campus Speech Database”
  • The National Association of Scholars (NAS) list of “Tracking ‘Cancel Culture’ in Higher Education”
  • National Review’s list “Tracking ‘Cancel Culture’ in Higher Education”
  • The “Retraction Watch Database”

Trawling of this dataset using the analysts’ methods turned up 456 “targeting incidents” between January 1, 2015 and July 31, 2021, so it’s up to date. A “targeting incident” is one in which a person or people call for sanctions on a scholar for what he or she said or did.

The main results are these (I’ve omitted some of the report’s key findings.

a. Most of the incidents did result in some kind of sanction. 74% of the 456 reports resulted in either an investigation (considered a sanction) or a punishment like suspension or firing. That is very high, especially given that nearly all the incidents involved speech that, if uttered in a public university, would be protected by the First Amendment. (The article gives some examples.)

b. Targeting incidents have risen substantially in the last 6 years. Here’s a plot by year with the incidents in yellow and sanctions in red. There were 24 incidents in 2015, 113 in 2020, and 61 incidents already in the first half of 2021.


c. When the researchers could determine whether the targeting originated from positions to the Left or Right of the Speaker, it was most often from the Left. (This is what you’d predict from the Disinvitation Database). A graph:

Of course most students are on the Left, but so are most professors. But remember: this is a plot of reports of whether the accusations came not from the Left or Right by themselves, but really “from the Left or Right of the accused.” And, in fact, many of the accused were already on the Left. The reports from the Right did an uptick in 2017, and that may be the result of Donald Trump’s election when the Right felt empowered.

d. The percentage of sanctions is, as I said, high (64%); most of these are investigations, but terminations and suspensions of scholars are quite common.  Here’s a bar chart of the various outcomes when someone is “targeted”:

e. When it comes to being targeted, race is by far the issue involved most often, with partisanship, gender, and international policy behind. This again is not surprising, since race has been dominating the national discourse, but particularly on campuses. Here’s a graph:

f. When scholars are terminated (i.e., fired), race and institutional policy issues are the most common causes.  (Institutional policy is expected because it’s a clash between scholars and the policy of their academic homes:

g. Finally, the sources of the targeting are different depending on whether the attack came from the Left or the Right of the person targeted. The graph below shows the three most frequent sources of attack with “from the left” being the three bars on the left and “from the right” being the three bars on the right. (This is a confusing graph.) The most obvious difference is that attacks from the Left come from students (undergrads especially frequent) and other scholars, while attacks from the Right come from the public, the administration, and politicians.  This is not that surprising given that most scholars are on the Left, while attacks on the right are more likely to come from non-academics.

There are several other results that I won’t delve into, but merely mention. The disciplines in which targeting incidents occur most often are those “at the core of a liberal arts curriculum: law, political science, English, history, and philosophy.” That’s again not surprising, as those are the areas in which scholars are most likely to say something offensive. It’s a lot harder to say something offensive when you’re teaching science or math.

Finally, here’s an argument for universities adopting the Chicago Principles of Free Expression:

Campuses where the most targeting incidents have occurred tend to also have severely speech-restrictive policies, and are unlikely to have adopted the Chicago Principles guaranteeing the preeminence of free speech.

An article like this would be dry without a few examples, and it gives three instances of controversial scholars who were targeted: Mike Adams (who ultimately killed himself after being attacked for impure tweets), Gordon Klein (a particularly unfair case), and Columbia University adjunct law professor Elizabeth Lederer, targeted for prosecuting in court the Central Park Five, who were ultimately exonerated for raping and badly injuring a woman. Lederer ultimately had to resign from Columbia.

The lessons from this, given that most of the targeting was by mob vigilantes who wanted someone’s head (i.e., job), and that most of those attacked were exercising free speech, are obvious, but I’ll let FIRE summarize them for you:

. . . If scholars are unable to ask certain questions because they fear social or professional sanctions, particularly from their students and colleagues, then the advancement of human knowledge will be hindered. We may unknowingly continue to pursue important societal goals using ineffective means and policies because scholars fear the consequences of investigating whether such means and policies help us achieve what they are intended to.

Such a state of affairs should worry anyone with a vested interest in American higher education because it undermines academic freedom and open inquiry, threatening academia’s ability to ensure the furtherance of knowledge. One need not agree with a scholar’s research or teaching to nevertheless respect that scholar’s right to research and teach how they see fit. Distinguishing support for one’s speech from one’s right to speech is often lost in today’s culture wars and the “Scholars Under Fire” project reveals that when censorship spreads rampantly, it does not restrict itself to views and people one opposes; it also comes, sometimes with even more fervor, for those who hold similar views.

16 thoughts on “A rise in targeting of scholars for political and ideological reasons

  1. I just posted this below the line of today’s Hili, but this is perhaps a more appropriate place. Hindu nationalists are threatening academics (and their families) and institutions linked with an upcoming conference: “Death threats sent to participants of US conference on Hindu nationalism” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/09/death-threats-sent-to-participants-of-us-conference-on-hindu-nationalism

    Says one of the charming individuals, “If this event will take place then I will become Osama bin Laden and will kill all the speakers, don’t blame me”.

    1. Hindu extremism illustrates that within the human population there is always a segment of it (not necessarily anywhere near a majority) that has the capacity to tear societies asunder. This is why many societies collapse from internal discord as opposed to external invasion. Although it is clear and obvious that in the technological and economic sense the world (ignoring the pesky disruptions of world wars and pandemics) has gotten better over the centuries, this doesn’t mean that for a consequential segment of humanity that the world has gotten better. For them, there are greater concerns – religion, nationalism, and ethnicity – that motivates their lives. As viruses, they can lurk in hiding, ready to emerge at any time to create societal misery and possibe disintegration. This has always been so and will remain always so.

  2. Social justice expectations on professors reminds me of the old saw about thermodynamics: “You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game.”

  3. The Retraction Watch website is rather valuable — it simply reports on retractions and the reasons for those, which often involve serious misconduct by researchers. They don’t appear to have any political axes to grind. Reputable scholars sometimes have to retract papers for a wide variety of reasons. There is no shame in that — it is how science works. They’ve also done some good work to uncover some real bad apples.

    1. [Warning: Pedantry]

      “It doth maketh …” would in today’s English be “It does makes ….”
      Either “It maketh…” or “It doth make…” would be fine.

    2. PZ is always happy to watch someone far more successful and capable than himself suffer for even just a moment. He seems to get all his joy out of life from sheer pettiness and vindictiveness toward all the people who he thought he was equal to or better than. When it turned out that he wasn’t equal to or better than an enormous number of people in the fields of atheist commentary, biology, and general intellectual capacity, he turned into a sad wretch of a man who dedicates himself in vain to tearing down his better. I can’t imagine how miserable of an existence that must be.

      I just looked up his Wikipedia page, just because writing the above paragraph gave me the thought that he’s exactly the kind of guy who would constantly monitor that kind of thing. Of course, it is meticulously kept as a glowing review of the man, leaving out even a whiff of something that hints at him being anything less than a Super-Duper Intellectual Titan and Remarkably Compassionate Humanist and Overall Wonderful Human Being!

    3. In other words: I learned long ago to stop being angry about PZ’s long and ever-growing list of nasty behavior and attempts to destroy others. Knowing that he turned to those things only once he realized that he’d never be one of the “big dogs,” and that he behaves as he does because he is clearly a deeply unhappy and disappointed person, has made me pity the man far more than I resent him and his pathetic attempts at being important or influential.

  4. I’m not sure exactly what “institutional policy” means, and how easily it can be separated from the other reasons. If a fired professor’s speech violated the university’s policy on race, for example, would that go down under “institutional policy” or “race?”

    1. Their methodology is inclusive in most categories rather than exclusive. So if you mouth off about a race-based institutional policy, they’d tag it as both “race” and “institutional policy.” That also means that you can’t add up the #s on the chart to get the total # of incidents.

      I looked into it because I was curious about how they pulled out legitimate targeted actions. Say an employee engages in harassment with a racial component. That could be targeted by an institutional policy for reprimand, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

      So, I went to the link and read a bit more. FIRE says in their methodology section that their “targeting incidents” set only includes 1st amendment protected speech and expression. So at least going by their methods section, they aren’t including stuff like that.

  5. Has anyone else noticed that the rise of putatively Progressive philosophies on campus largely parallels developments in the Civil Rights movement, to wit, Continental Philosophies (largely neo-Marxist or post-Marxist) and more during the heyday of the modern Civil Rights movement in the 1960s; then Continental Philosophy was becoming pervasive on elite and the better state universities by the 1990s as the Diversity Movement took hold; then Leftist ideology began to infiltrate even mainstream media (and essentially took over NPR and The New Yorker magazine, just as examples) right around the time that Black Lives Matter became prominent?

    I thought of all this when Prof. Coyne cited strong evidence that the assault on free speech and dissent on campus really took around 2015 (fairly early in the Black Lives Matter movement).

    It’s increasingly evident to me that Progressives (rebranded New Left activists from the 1960s and their scions) simply are hiding behind intersectionality, which at its core hides behind Black Studies programs and anti-racism to justify themselves, essentially daring anyone to challenge them because then they would be seen as attacking a coalition partner as well, at least by extension, namely Blacks and Black Studies programs. And the charge of racism is the one that sinks people – it’s like a Salem witch trial, or a Stalinist show trial except you don’t even get a trial. If you’re accused you’re guilty. I used to think that at least you might have a chance to prove your innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, but I twas naive. You’re just guilty.

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