Ian Storey is an Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics & Humanities at Bard College.
Campus speech has become a cause célèbre on the Right, with pundits hammering away on the alleged excesses and intolerance of those they disparage as “social justice warriors” (or SJWs). As a result, many popular liberal commentators have fallen into reflexively contradicting them, dismissing those Mari Uyehara calls “the free speech grifters” and sifting through the data for evidence that all is well on the campus quad.
This instinctive partisanship threatens to obscure the fact that the Left has good reason to be just as concerned, if not more, with the state of freedom of expression, inquiry and conscience in the academy:
While much of recent commentary in the ongoing debates over speech on campus has focused on apparent censorship of conservative speakers, a parallel toxic ecosystem has developed in which liberal professors can be subject to a combination of harassment and even death-threats from the Far Right, powerful administrative pressures against controversial public speech, and political and legal action by outside conservative organizations.
The canary in the coal mine was the firing last year of liberal adjunct professor and media commentator Lisa Durden from Essex County College, after her appearance on Fox News defending Black Lives Matter. In a truly Kafkaesque statement, the college’s president Anthony Munroe managed to simultaneously trumpet that “Essex County College deeply values free speech and academic freedom” and the “open exchange of ideas and perspectives,” yet still terminate Durden’s employment for her statements.
As grounds for Durden’s firing, the College’s administration claimed that they had been inundated with calls and emails from concerned parents and students. That would itself be questionable grounds for firing a professor over their political speech, but when FIRE sued Essex County for the records of this alleged wave of concern, they found that the claim was entirely manufactured. No such pressure campaign existed.
Durden’s firing is far from an isolated case. In their reporting on her firing, NorthJersey.com found that Durden is only the most visible of no less than five recent cases in New Jersey alone. Inside Higher Ed notes a striking national rise in violent threats against professors for their public speech, particularly liberal ones, as well as a notable pattern of problematic responses from university administrations. The anecdotal evidence of the increased political scrutiny and pressure progressive professors face has been building for years, as more professors have been speaking out about their experiences. However, a new dataset provides insight into the scope of this problem.
A Liberal Firings Boom
Over the last several weeks there has been a renewed debate about the reality and extent of the “free speech” crisis on campus. One faction, led by NYU Psychologist Jon Haidt, insists that freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and free inquiry are being threatened and undermined by increased levels of political polarization and intolerance. Another faction, led by Acadia Political Scientist Jeff Sachs argues that the campus speech crisis “is a myth” and “largely imaginary.”
However, Sachs’ argument is refuted by his original empirical contribution to the debate, a dataset on faculty firings:
Over the last two years, the number of dismissals on speech grounds has more than quadrupled (up 433%). There is a stark divide along partisan lines: while the terminations of conservative professors have doubled, the number of firings of liberals has boomed by no less than 950%. Of the 45 cases of faculty firings determined to be unambiguously related to speech, 26 of them occur in 2017 alone (compared to 6 in 2015), “the clear majority (19) being over liberal speech”. Even after adjusting the data by imposing a more strict, legalistic definition of political speech, the pattern remains extraordinary.
Indeed, Sachs’ data represents the extreme tip of a speech iceberg that includes protests, online harassment, intervention by outside political groups, and intense professional pressures.
For example, Professor Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State has the support of her school’s administration, but has been subjected to poster campaigns labeling her a “terrorist supporter”, multiple lawsuits, and having her personal information circulated online to harassers. Faculty dismissals are only one small but important indicator of this more general shift in the political speech climate.
Chris Quintina at The Chronicle for Higher Education has been quicker than others to pick up the implication of these trends: there is an academic freedom crisis, just one particularly acute on the opposite side of the political spectrum than most seem to expect.
Bipartisan Problem, Transpartisan Solutions
Yet it would be an error for progressives to use Sachs’ data as a justification for ignoring excesses of those on the left (because the real problem is on the right), and ignoring or minimizing the concerns of conservative, religious, or other scholars who feel their freedom of expression, conscience or inquiry is being threatened or undermined.
The academic freedom crisis is multifaceted, covering multiple dimensions of the intensely complicated social fabric of the modern campus. Haidt has focused particularly on students; others have persuasively argued that administrations are a more potent variable; still others have emphasized the role professors have played in the changing campus climate — or the pernicious influence of outside groups.
If approached in a partisan way, it’s easy to cherry-pick individual dimensions of the crisis to support a grievance politics that one’s own side is being systematically wronged (or wronged more): the Right will point to patterns of disinvitation and a perceived hostile climate for conservative students and faculty driven by left-leaning activists. The Left will point to patterns of faculty dismissal, as well as the professional and media harassment of professors, especially by the Far Right. The result is a systematic, partisan missing of the forest for the trees.
In the intellectual sphere, as it turns out, ideological intolerance is not the monopoly of any particular party. Rather, what we are seeing is a wider, systemic pattern. Oliver Traldi locates it in belief-intensity or “zealousness” – in which the long-documented polarization of the political climate is bleeding into a polarization of the academic sphere. That polarization is being expressed at different levels of the university, against different groups, in different ways.
For a principled commitment to speech rights and intellectual pluralism, all of those levels need to be treated with care, judicious examination of data, and appropriate concern. And concern is appropriate — regardless of one’s political or ideological commitments.
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