Eric Kaufmann: A chilling effect is taking place at British universities. An Academic Freedom Bill can change that.
Eric Kaufmann is Senior Fellow, Policy Exchange and Professor of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London.
Conservatives need to put as much emphasis on the drift of the culture as they traditionally have on questions of economics and foreign policy. If not, it is uncertain whether a culture of open debate, tolerant of conservative speech, can survive.
Universities are where many cultural trends begin. Our recent Policy Exchange report, Academic Freedom in the UK: Protecting Viewpoint Diversity, shows the scale of the challenge that those committed to free exchange face. This is not just about newsworthy events such as the no-platforming of Amber Rudd from Oxford or dismissal of Jordan Peterson from Cambridge. Beneath the surface lies a far more pervasive threat to academic freedom: political discrimination, leading to self-censorship.
Our report draws on the largest randomly-selected survey of British academics to date. It finds that just nine percent identify as right-wing, falling to seven percent among currently active scholars in the social sciences and humanities. This is largely caused by the relationship between advanced education and left-wing views, but hostility to conservatives may be a contributing factor.
Among right-wing scholars, one in three report that they have self-censored their views in research and teaching “for fear of consequences to [their] career”, three times the reported rate for centre-left academics. Two in three academics would be uncomfortable or uncertain about sitting next to a gender-critical scholar at lunch. And just three in 10 academics in the social sciences and humanities – of which 80 per cent are Remainers – say a Leaver would be comfortable expressing their Brexit view to a colleague.
These perceptions are grounded in an accurate appraisal of the costs of speaking freely: a third of academics would discriminate against a Leaver in a job application, and an even larger share would mark down a right-leaning grant proposal. Eight in 10 academics aren’t Leavers, Tory voters or gender-critical feminists, the main groups facing discrimination. This means that political discrimination, and the loss of freedom that goes with it, is invisible to most academics.
However, for the minority who are affected, these threats are all too real. The combination of political discrimination and the ripple effects of dismissal campaigns raise threat perceptions, creating a “chilling effect” that shuts down academic freedom.
Political discrimination and dismissal campaigns are unjust and illiberal, but they also strike at the heart of the academic enterprise: the quest for truth. Difficult questions aren’t asked, orthodoxies remain unchallenged, and key social divides – such as those between Leavers and Remainers – cannot be discussed to reach a higher understanding and accommodation.
There is also a mistaken view that threats to freedom stem from the state, and that Government intervention always reduces freedom. This may be true in Erdogan’s Turkey or Xi’s China, but as John Stuart Mill remarked, peer pressure can result in an equally crushing “despotism of custom”.
In such cases, especially where a prevailing orthodoxy is weaponised by radical pressure groups exerting power over university policy, Government has an important role in stepping in to protect individuals’ freedom. We have seen this before with the Government-ordered de-segregation of Southern American universities in the early 1960s and interventions into British schools where religious fundamentalism has taken root.
Threats also come from the right, whether from organisations that would report and shame leftist academics or from those who seek to chill controversial left-wing perspectives on Middle East politics.
We recommend that the Government table an Academic Freedom Bill, creating the new position of Director of Academic Freedom on the Office for Students, to proactively ensure that universities are respecting existing law. This will ensure due process for the accused and a route to appeal for those who believe their academic freedom has been infringed.
We also call upon the Government to provide guidance on the precise threshold at which free speech and academic freedom may be superseded by harm claims. Finally, we recommend that university administrators should have a duty to remain politically-neutral in their official communications to staff.
This is not just a tempest in the academic teapot. Nearly all graduate-dominated professions and organisations lean left and Remain, and where people’s views are manifest in work and conversation, this may produce a much wider problem of political discrimination and self-censorship. The recent letter in Harper’s magazine signed by 150 leading writers, including figures such as JK Rowling and Noam Chomsky, shows that the problem is not confined to universities.
The report highlights problems, but also has some bright spots. Just 10-20 per cent of academics support campaigns to have controversial scholars fired. Using a concealed method, we found that two-thirds of academics, including six in 10 leftists, wouldn’t discriminate against a Leaver. There is a silent majority of decent academics who support academic freedom.
Even so, while few professors and lecturers wish to cancel dissenters, few would actively oppose such campaigns, permitting an illiberal minority to exercise influence far beyond their numbers. Government action helps to signal that this will not be tolerated, strengthening the hand of university administrators in resisting pressure from radical staff, students and outside activists.
The growing challenge from a “woke” ideology that values emotional safety over academic freedom is gaining institutional traction in academia and beyond. Thus far, resistance has largely taken place among liberals and conservatives in the media and online.
In order to turn the tide, however, Government, backed by the courts, needs to step in to ensure that universities and other institutions are upholding the law in their daily operations. As Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar, notes, Government action can change social norms by signalling what the democratic majority of citizens approve of.
Smoking bans and seatbelt restrictions started with law, but led to norm change. Likewise, putting an end to mob-driven dismissal and political discrimination can help establish new norms in institutions like universities which obviate the need for close enforcement.
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