Does Viewpoint Diversity Need Protecting?

18 Aug 2020

Peer pressure comes in many guises. A new report reveals that many UK university academics do not feel free to share certain opinions or to investigate certain issues.

STI Experts

Overt campaigns on university campuses against speakers with “unwelcome” viewpoints, or against professors or administrators whose research or decisions move the masses to reprimand, silence or even oust them make headlines and become fodder for pundits of all stripes. Yet these incidents are not daily events. Perhaps more insidious are the smaller, quieter, everyday ways that the discourse in higher education is limited. A new report documents the situation in the UK.

Remi Adekoya, Eric Kaufmann and Thomas Simpson, professors of political science, philosophy and public policy, wrote the 110-page report, Academic Freedom in the UK: Protecting Viewpoint Diversity, for UK think tank Policy Exchange. 

They polled 820 current or former academics “to explore the concern that strongly-held political attitudes are restricting the freedom of those who disagree to research and teach on contested subjects.” 

While the vast majority of academics claim that they would not participate in outright persecution of those with opposing views (only 1 in 8 would actively try to get colleagues fired), and only a quarter might support  campaigns against colleagues undertaking controversial research, most admit to bias.  

Political discrimination for publications, grants, hiring and promotions not only happens; it is widely approved of.  Academics readily admit that they prefer like-minded peers and their work, and that they would rate these more highly than proposals from the other side of the political spectrum. It is worth noting that both sides are more or less equally biased towards those who share their political leanings. Yet, the findings reveal a disproportionate representation of left-of-center political affiliation amongst university teachers, with fewer than 20% reporting voting for right-leaning parties. Discrimination goes both ways, but because of the much higher percentage of left leaning academics, those actually discriminated against are more often of a conservative bent, the study claims. 62% of self-proclaimed ”very conservative” respondents and 44% of those “fairly right” “perceived a hostile climate towards their beliefs” at their universities, versus 8% of those “fairly left” and 16% “fairly right.” 32% of surveyed academics refrain from openly airing right-leaning opinions or research topics. Just under half as many left-leaning academics have bitten their tongues. The authors referred to this as having a “chilling effect” on research and discourse, especially amongst unestablished academics, who are more vulnerable to the negative consequences of holding unpopular views. They report that “data indicates that a non-trivial proportion of academics feel that their departments are a hostile climate for people with their political viewpoint; they engage in self-censorship; and they report not being comfortable expressing a mainstream political viewpoint.”

Not only should all lawful speech be protected on campuses, they claim; Intellectual dissent, too, should be not only tolerated but also supported. The report urges parliament to create a new position within the Ministry of Education – a director for academic freedom - entrusted with determining instances of violations of freedom of speech on university campuses in the UK, and recommends dedicated infrastructure within university administration as well.

“Universities’ most central purpose is of enabling robust, probing enquiry. Such enquiry is a feature of successful research and education. Without academic freedom, universities fail to support robust, probing enquiry; with it, it becomes possible. A culture in which disagreement is not perceived as dangerous is a necessary condition for a healthy university.”