heterodox: the blog
Few Academics Support Cancel Culture
Most academics in the United States, Britain and Canada do not support dismissing politically-incorrect academics. In a major new report for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI), I draw on the largest set of surveys of academic and graduate student opinion to date to show that only 1 in 10 academics in the social sciences and humanities back campaigns to dismiss professors who report controversial findings around race and gender. In general, graduate students are at least 10 points more likely to favor dismissing controversial staff than academics the same age.
At Cambridge University, over 80 percent of more than 1,500 staff voted for Dr. Arif Ahmed’s motion to replace a suggested university policy mandating ‘respect’ for others’ beliefs with a more classical liberal duty to ‘tolerate’ others’ beliefs. The picture that emerges of academics in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) in the US, Canada and Britain likewise suggests that most have a stronger free speech orientation than many conservatives or moderate observers assume.
The National Association of Scholars’ cancellation database records 65 campaigns against academics in 2020, a sharp rise from the 12-13 reported during 2018 and 2019. How much support is there for such actions among academics? To find out, I asked academics and PhD students about four hypothetical scenarios. These included an academic whose work found that ‘greater ethnic diversity leads to increased societal tension and poorer social outcomes’, a second where the researcher claimed ‘the British empire did more good than harm’, a third in which ‘children do better when brought up two biological parents than by single or adoptive parents,’ and a fourth where ‘a higher share of women and ethnic minorities in organizations correlates with reduced organizational performance.’ Finally, subjects were asked whether a staff member who favored lower immigration should be encouraged to find another job.
Results for 706 American SSH academics are displayed in figure 1. These show that in most cases, just 7-8 percent of academics backed cancellation. Only in the case of the organizational performance question was there a higher share, but even here it only reached 18 percent. British and Canadian findings were nearly identical.
Source: Eric Kaufmann, Academic Freedom in Crisis (CSPI 2021), p. 22.
More broadly, when asked whether they prioritize social justice or academic freedom, 56 percent of American SSH academics answered academic freedom and just 28 percent said social justice, with the rest unsure. Canadian results were similar. However, among PhD students surveyed in a mainly American sample, 40 percent backed social justice against 34 percent for academic freedom.
While most academics do not support cancel culture, many also don’t oppose it. In figure 1, all scenarios apart from the least controversial case of an academic who favors reduced immigration show a substantial group of undecided academics of at least 40 percent. For the organizational performance question, the share of undecided respondents reaches 51 percent. This pattern of 40-50 percent of respondents replying that they were unsure also appeared among British and Canadian academics. This reveals that while few academics support cancellation campaigns, a plurality or bare majority also does not oppose them. This reflects a cross-pressuring between the left and liberal value commitments of many academics.
Interestingly, there was only moderate evidence for the ‘silent majority’ thesis that those who oppose cancelling an academic would falsify their views out of fear of social and reputational consequences. While this was more true of PhD students who opposed dismissal campaigns – most of whom said they would keep such views private, among academics, most who opposed dismissal campaigns said they would be willing to state their views publicly.
When asked which was more important, ‘that course content should be inclusive, representing the racial and gender makeup of the students,’ or ‘that course content should feature the most intellectually foundational books and articles in the field,’ British academics chose foundational texts over inclusivity by 25 points while American and Canadian academics favored foundational texts by nearly 10 points. Against this, American and Canadian PhD students leaned 15 points in favor of representation over foundational texts, with British PhDs evenly split.
Even so, results showed that many academics were torn between their commitments to academic freedom and progressive views on race and gender. Mandatory racial and gender quotas on reading lists, for example, were supported by 44 percent of American and British, and 48 percent of Canadian, SSH academics. 61 percent of British PhD students and 70 percent of North American PhD students also backed the quota requirement.
Academics also take a more positive view of political correctness than the wider society. When asked “Thinking about political correctness, are you generally in favor of it (it protects against discrimination), or against it (it stifles freedom of speech),” 76 percent of British SSH academics favored PC. This compares with 48 percent of the university-educated public in Britain. These results again reveal considerable cross-pressuring between progressive and classical liberal attachments among the left-leaning academic majority.
Despite a positive view of political correctness, and moderate support for reading list quotas, academics were generally reluctant to see those who did not comply with proposed quota requirements punished harshly. Just 3 percent of pro-quota academics in the US and Canada called for non-compliant academics to be fired, and only 9 percent said their courses should be cancelled. On the other hand, 63 percent favoured softer forms of sanction such as social pressure or making dissenters take implicit bias training courses. In general, PhD students were less tolerant than academics while younger academics were less tolerant than older staff. Faculty under 35, for instance, were twice as likely to back campaigns to dismiss controversial academics as academics over 55.
The surveys sought to replicate previous studies which found significant political discrimination and chilling effects, especially among conservatives. I estimate that between a fifth and a half of academics would discriminate against a conservative paper, grant application or promotion application, whereas their left-leaning equivalents experience little, if any, bias. I also used a concealed list technique to circumvent the problem of social desirability bias in people’s answers. While 40 percent of American academics and 45 percent of Canadian academics revealed themselves to be unwilling to hire a known Trump supporter for a job, a narrow majority of left-wing academics in SSH fields would not – even when their answer was concealed in a list – discriminate against a Trump supporter. In Britain, 1 in 3 academics were shown to be unwilling to hire a Brexit supporter.
Even so, 6 in 10 left-wing academics in Britain would not discriminate against a Brexit supporter for a job and just over half of American leftists would not discriminate against a Trump supporter. Since a list experiment was used, I can rule out the possibility that people are hiding the fact they would discriminate against a Trump- or Brexit-supporter. There is a fair-minded majority.
Even so, there are some less encouraging signs. While a negligible 7 percent of American and Canadian academics were found to discriminate against a right-leaning term paper, 35 percent of North American PhD students revealed that they would do so in the list experiment – with 12 percent openly admitting as much. Furthermore, unless unforeseen shifts appear, the balance of opinion among academics seems likely to evolve away from academic freedom toward prioritizing progressivism. This is due to cohort replacement. Figure 2 shows that, when holding demographic factors constant, American doctoral students in my surveys under age 35 have a 56% likelihood of supporting at least 1 of 4 hypothetical dismissal campaigns. This falls to .38 for American academics under 35, and .10 for their colleagues over 65. While social sciences and humanities scholars 30 and under ranked social justice and academic freedom equally, those over 50 backed academic freedom over social justice 3 to 1. If this is a cohort rather than a life-cycle effect, as some studies suggest, it indicates that academic freedom may encounter stiffer headwinds in the future.
Source: Eric Kaufmann, Academic Freedom in Crisis (CSPI 2021), p. 31. Controls for age, gender, STEM/SSH and race.
Academia is not unique: as others show, political discrimination is acceptable in society in a way that race or gender prejudice is not. My surveys find that left-wing and right-wing academics discriminate against each other at similar rates, while academics and professionals working outside academia exhibit comparable levels of both discrimination and support for cancelling controversial staff.
However, my survey finds that two characteristics differ between academia and other professions. First, there is a strong left-to-right tilt of between 9:1 and 14:1 among SSH academics, which is higher than it is among STEM academics and in most other occupations in the US and Britain. Second, the political beliefs of SSH academics are more transparent in their work than is true in other occupations. As a result, Britons with degrees working in universities were 20-30 points more likely than college-educated employees in sectors like government or private firms to say a Brexit supporter would not feel comfortable expressing their views to a colleague.
In combination, this means that even though individuals on the left and right, whether inside or outside academia, discriminate at similar rates, the structural impact of the high left-to-right ratio on most faculties results in a discriminatory effect against conservative or gender-critical scholars. In fact, just 27 percent of American academics said they would feel comfortable sitting with a gender-critical scholar at lunch, considerably lower than their comfort at the idea of sitting with a Trump-supporting academic. Non-academic workplaces, though containing the same level of political prejudice, are more ideologically balanced while the nature of non-academic work renders political beliefs less transparent. This results in considerably less bias against conservatives than in academia.
Conscious of the prevailing climate of opinion in their fields, conservative and gender-critical academics report high levels of hostility and self-censorship. 3 in 4 conservative SSH academics in the US and Britain say their departments are a hostile rather than supportive environment for their beliefs. In a separate analysis, conservative master’s students in SSH fields were significantly more likely to say their political beliefs wouldn’t fit an academic job, and this predicted lower interest in pursuing an academic career. Conservative PhD students, though also reporting a poor fit for their beliefs, were no less likely than leftists to seek a career in academia.
Self-censorship was pervasive among political minorities on the faculty. 70 percent of conservative SSH academics in the US and half in Britain said they self-censor in teaching, discussion and research. Centrist academics in Britain reported low hostility and self-censorship, but 36 percent of centrist academics in the US indicated that their departments were hostile environments for their beliefs, with 42 percent saying they self-censored – nearly three times the rate of British centrists. Some leftist subgroups also reported chilling effects, notably those critical of Israel or sympathetic to the causes of Muslim groups. In the UK, some feared they may fall afoul of British universities’ counter-radicalization monitoring obligations under the government’s Prevent duty.
Academics in the social sciences and humanities in America, Canada and Britain do not support cancelling controversial scholars, and most wouldn’t discriminate against a job candidate who is a known Trump or Brexit supporter. The professoriate leans left, but when it comes to cancel culture, most social science and humanities academics defy the popular stereotype of the tenured radical.
Love this essay? Take it!
All HxA blog content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, No-Derivatives 4.0 International License. See our syndication guidelines here.
About heterodox: the blog
As an organization that prizes pluralism and disagreement — with 4100+ members holding diverse views on most issues — Heterodox Academy almost never takes positions as an organization on current events and controversies. Opinions expressed here are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We encourage readers to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn — and to join in the conversation on those forums — to weigh in on this or other posts.
Heterodox: the blog is a platform for academics, researchers, professors, and students to share the challenges they face within their academic communities through both analysis and actionable solutions. We aspire to have every reader walk away with a richer understanding of the challenges of the university environment, as well as practical tools and techniques for addressing them. Interested in contributing? Please see our submission guidelines.