Political Discrimination Threatening Academic Freedom in US, UK, and Canada: Report

March 10, 2021 Updated: March 12, 2021

A first-of-its-kind study has revealed that academia in Canada, the United States, and the UK are suppressing and punishing conservative scholars and students for their ideas and speech, which is increasingly encroaching on their academic freedom.

The report (pdf) was conducted by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI), which said its analysis, supported by large-scale survey data, is able to provide scientific evidences to “campus illiberalism.”

“A significant portion of academics discriminate against conservatives in hiring, promotion, grants, and publications,” wrote Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and author of the CSPI report.

Kaufmann said this study is unique because its analysis reveals the nature and extent of the punishment and political discrimination against conservative academics “from the perspectives of both perpetrators and victims.”

The report noted that while progressive critics have brushed off high profile cases of discrimination and mob violence as exceptions of the largely intact academic freedom, right-leaning academics are experiencing a high level of “institutional authoritarianism” and peer pressure in all three Anglophone countries.

Right-leaning scholars are faced with two types of threats to academic freedom, which is dichotomized in the report as hard and soft authoritarianism, according to the report.

Hard Authoritarianism

“Hard authoritarianism” entails no-platforming, dismissal campaigns, social media mob attacks, formal complaints, and disciplinary action, Kaufmann says. He added that only a small “subgroup of illiberal, far-left activist staff and students” are perpetrators of such actions.

Given five scenarios in which a faculty member is found to support a conservative idea—such as traditional parenthood and restricted immigration—nearly 60 percent of Canadian respondents would favor dismissing the staff member.

The report found that “progressive authoritarianism” is likely to get worse in coming years, as younger academics and PhD students are much more willing to support ousting controversial scholars from their posts.

Soft Authoritarianism

This is a more subtle yet insidious form of punishing the conservatives and dissidents of the liberal ways, Kaufmann says. The victims are discriminated in career opportunities such as hiring, promotion, grant application, publication, and social inclusion.

Four out of 10 U.S. and Canadian academics would not hire a supporter of the former U.S. President Donald Trump.

In the field of social sciences and humanities, over nine in 10 pro-Trump academics say they would feel “uncomfortable” revealing their political view to a colleague. Similarly, eight in 10 pro-Brexit academics are worried about “coming out.”

In the United States, over a third of conservative academics and PhD students have been threatened with disciplinary action for their political views, and 70 percent have experienced a “hostile departmental climate” for their political inclination, the report states. The study says a hostile climate could deter conservative students from pursuing a career in the academia after graduation.

The report found that conservative academics are savvy about the structural barriers towering over them, and more than half of these minorities in the three countries have admitted of self-censoring in research and teaching.

Kaufmann said governments can address the problem by proactively enforcing the law and sanction universities that repeatedly encroach on individuals’ academic freedom. Another option is to open up means for plaintiffs to appeal universities to a regulatory ombudsman.

The CSPI was formed in 2020 to address two major political problems within academic research. The first is the political bias that affects issues ranging from the framing of research questions to employment in the field. It also addresses the growing replication crisis, particularly in psychology researches.