4 August 2020

The worrying slide towards self-censorship in our universities

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In 1995 Robert Putnam published an essay titled ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’. For Leave-supporting academics today’s equivalent might be ‘dining alone’ – at least, according to a new report from the thinktank Policy Exchange.

Academic Freedom in the UK reveals that only 54% of academics would feel comfortable sitting next to a known Leave supporter at lunch. The report argues that right-wing, leave-supporting or gender-critical academics face cultural pressures to self-censor in a way their centrist or left-wing, Remain-supporting or non-gender-critical counterparts do not.

Now, I have a declaration of interest here. I’m a right-wing, leave-voting Conservative who was hired as a lecturer (at the University of Liverpool no less) and – to my knowledge at least – I have never faced discrimination in my career.

But there have been what could be termed ‘microaggressions’. For example, the assumption that everyone in a meeting shares a view on Brexit or Boris and would appreciate a few ‘humorous’ one-liners, with the side-effect of dragging the meeting out just that little bit longer. Or emails starting with ‘Comrades’, as if we’re in a sixth-form Marxist society. Or cartoons on public noticeboards which depict Conservative or Leave voters as stupid, deluded or xenophobic (or all three).

However, there have been more serious issues. For example, my ‘colleague’ Prof Michael Dougan going full A C Grayling at 1:39AM, calling Brexiteers “ranting raving halfwitted bigots and self-destructive idiots” and “proto-fascists”. As far as I’m aware, nothing came of his late-night tweet despite the insults being quite serious and, given that roughly one-in-ten students polled in January 2019 support leaving the EU, quite direct for over 2,000 of our students. I can only imagine how Leave-supporting students in his own classes might feel.

So, although I don’t think I’ve been personally affected in any significant way by viewpoint discrimination, those minor issues that cause you to roll your eyes and sigh persist. For that reason, I’m in no way surprised the report finds that in the social sciences and humanities 50% of right-leaning academics and 40% of leave-voting academics engage in self-censorship, compared to 16% of ‘fairly left’ and 26% of ‘very left’ academics (often due to holding gender-critical perspectives).

It’s just not worth the time to voice your views. Instead, you nod in the meeting (although you don’t laugh, because the jokes are never funny). You ignore the salutation despite its links to a murderous regime which directly killed millions, and you walk past the cartoons wondering if they really are the best use of the staff printing budget. Then you just mute the colleagues who compare you to a Nazi.

But let’s not get carried away. Even the report itself claims that viewpoint discrimination is not a problem unique to universities. The authors say “it is likely that academics do not discriminate more than other professions, nor does left discriminate more than right”. The issue arises due to the disproportionate number of left-wing academics compared to right-wing academics, which mean there is more opportunity in our universities for left-wing discrimination towards right-wing views than vice-versa.

This is a self-perpetuating process, and the rational response by right-wing or leave-voting academics is to self-censor, either if they want a quiet life or if they want to progress in their careers. This is bad for research, bad for students, and bad for academics.

When it comes to research, the picture is gloomy. YouGov polling shows that in a given set of hypothetical cases where an academic’s research reaches a range of controversial conclusions, support for efforts to “let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere” is in single figures. However, those who would “neither support or oppose” those efforts hover at around one-third of academics. Let that sink in – in the quest for a quiet life, one-third of academics would do nothing to assist their colleagues being ‘cancelled’ for what their research finds. So much for the pursuit of knowledge.

It’s bad for students too. Much has been made of the argument of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ when it comes to gender and ethnic diversity amongst academics, partly because it signals to students that it is possible for someone who looks like you to get into academia, and also because of the perspectives different ‘lived experiences’ may bring to the study of a given subject.

The same is true for right-leaning students; 11% of students were expected to vote Conservative in 2019 and 14% thought the UK was right to leave the EU. We know that students self-censor, and more so Leave-supporting students: 39% of them think fellow Leavers would feel comfortable expressing their view in class, compared to 44% who would not. On the other hand, just 3% of Remain-voting students think Remainers would not feel comfortable expressing their views.

The report shows almost identical figures for academics: 37% of Leave voters would feel comfortable expressing their views to their colleagues, whilst 44% would not (compared to 86% and 6% respectively for Remain academics).

These figures will only get worse as the perverse effects of self-censorship continue. For students on the right, knowing they have openly right-wing lecturers will encourage them to share their views and fully engage with the learning process. Right-wing and left-wing students alike would benefit from one of the best ways to sharpen your ideas: debating with those who disagree and having to defend your own position.

If the Government did introduce an Academic Freedom Bill, as Policy Exchange’s report recommends, it might encourage more right-wing (and left-wing) academics to share their views more openly. That would only be a good thing for the UK’s higher education landscape and the quality of the graduates we produce.

Unsurprisingly, this discrimination is bad for right-wing academics too. Only 4% of academics would rate a paper which took a left-wing perspective lower than if it didn’t take that perspective, whilst the figure for the right-wing equivalent was 10%. For grant applications, right-wing perspectives would be ranked down by 23% of academics, compared to just 9% for left-wing perspectives. 

Since many projects cannot proceed without funding, and since attaining funding and publishing is a prerequisite for promotion, this could be a serious issue for right-wing academics or even those who work with academic frameworks situated on the right of the ideological spectrum. Then when it comes to applying for a promotion, right-wing perspectives would be discriminated against by 15% of academics, compared to just 5% for left-wing perspectives.

Given broader shifts in voting behaviour across the country, it is not really surprising that academics lean to the left and voted to remain – but the UK higher education environment is not a bastion of left-wing wokeism just yet.

What is worrying, and what an Academic Freedom Bill should aim to reverse, is the slow and insidious slide towards self-censorship where colleagues feel like it is easier to stay quiet than to share their views. This is an issue which needs to be addressed, and then maybe then I’ll have more people to eat lunch with.

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Dr David Jeffery is a Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.