Are corporate overreach and political correctness really undermining academic freedom?

Neoliberal administrators’ policing of institutional reputations and academic colleagues’ condemnation of dissenting voices on issues such as race and gender have led to claims that scholars are losing their ability to engage in free enquiry and open debate. But is academic freedom really the operative concept in the controversies that arise? John Ross probes a highly contested debate

October 15, 2020
People in the sea at Manly beach, Australia with "dangerous currents" sign.
Source: Getty

In August 2018, an American endocrinologist called Quentin Van Meter was booked to speak at the University of Western Australia (UWA). Van Meter had previously likened medical treatment of gender dysphoria to “child abuse” – a comment guaranteed to draw outrage in the highly charged gender debate.

Nine thousand opponents petitioned then UWA vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater to block the event. “Do not host Quentin Van Meter on our campus,” beseeched the petition’s author, medical student Thomas Drake-Brockman. “Do not do so if you have any moral backbone, if you care about the LGBTIQA+ staff and students at this university, or if you have ever flown the pride flag with any conviction whatsoever.”

Freshwater was determined to let the event proceed, stressing that she did not agree with the message of Van Meter, who is president of the American College of Pediatricians, but endorsed his right to voice it. Having accepted the booking from an alumnus, UWA’s cancellation of the event would “create an undesirable precedent for the exclusion of objectionable views”, she said. “Censorship of opinion” was the wrong way to solve differences: “universities are not places to endorse freedom of ignorance.”

The academic union sided with the event’s opponents. Branch president Sanna Peden explained that the American College of Pediatricians had been branded a “hate group”. The organisation that made that determination, the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, outed 1,020 “hate groups” that year for espousing views ranging from racist skinhead, neo-Nazi and white supremacy ideologies to neo-Confederate, “general hate”, “Christian identity” and “radical traditional Catholicism”.

In the end, the campaign proved successful. Amid threats of rowdy protest, the university cancelled the event after the organisers failed to produce a risk management plan in line with venue hiring requirements. But the incident figured among a series of campus clashes and backdowns that prompted the Australian government to commission UWA chancellor Robert French, a former High Court chief justice, to review free speech at universities.

French’s review found no evidence of a free speech crisis on Australian university campuses, but warned that clumsily worded policies created the impression of constraints on free speech. French – who last year told a Brisbane conference that the concept of “hate speech” had drifted away from its origins, “borrowing the negative moral connotation from its core meaning and applying it to a much wider range of conduct” – drafted a “model code” to help restrain “the exercise of overbroad powers” that might otherwise impinge on free speech and academic autonomy. In August, the government commissioned former Deakin University vice-chancellor Sally Walker to review institutional uptake of the code.

A group of skaters play pond hockey on Lake Louise, with a "Danger! Thin ice" sign.

For Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, the most revealing thing about French’s report was not its solution – the model code – but the diagnosis that a solution was warranted. French had trawled through many university rulebooks, Craven says. And “he was right – they were not up to scratch. We looked at ours, and we decided that ours was not.”

Craven, a constitutional lawyer, says university statutes have suffered from “a problem of drafting” that becomes evident when pronouncements about academic freedom clash with those about misbehaviour. Policies about bringing the university into disrepute are “very vague” and leave vice-chancellors too much discretion over how to deal with offenders.

“The legal parameters for exercising disciplinary powers over what people say are very, very sloppy. It’s really not that hard for someone to lodge a complaint [and] have the complaint investigated [and sent] to the vice-chancellor. Historically, it has been much easier in Australia to silence academic dissent than it would be to convict someone of walking a dog without a leash.”

Moreover, with universities relying increasingly on third-party funders, the risk of academics’ saying things that rile those benefactors is growing. Craven recalls an episode when he antagonised a funding partner as a young academic. “The dean said to me wearily, but with a smile: ‘Did you have to do that today?’ That was it. These days there is a much more cohesive will to police those things.”

The physicist Gerd Schröder-Turk, for instance, became the focus of an academic freedom furore last year when, as the staff-elected member of Murdoch’s governing body, he spoke out against the recruitment of inadequately qualified foreign students in what he saw as a drive to bolster the institution’s financial position. In an escalating legal confrontation, the university sued him for millions of dollars over its loss of international student income. The conflict was finally settled in June, nine months later, when Schröder-Turk and Murdoch dropped legal action against each other.

Murdoch insists that its action was about governance and that Schröder-Turk breached his duties as a senate member. For his part, the senior lecturer regrets that he found it necessary to “resort” to an academic freedom defence. But “I really think that everyone – not just academics – should have the ability to raise problems or concerns, publicly if necessary”, he says.

Meanwhile, in Queensland, a long-standing legal dispute involving marine physicist Peter Ridd is destined for the High Court after the Federal Court overturned last year’s finding that James Cook University (JCU) had dismissed him unlawfully for criticising the university’s reef research. JCU says Ridd’s employment was terminated for serious misconduct: “He deliberately disclosed confidential information to the media and persons external to the university about his disciplinary process,” a spokesman explains.

The Federal Court agreed that the dismissal “had nothing to do with the exercise of intellectual freedom”. Ridd’s actions, it said, “demonstrated a willingness to disobey lawful and reasonable directions…and were destructive of the necessary trust and confidence for the continuation of the employment relationship”.

But Ridd says he questioned quality assurance mechanisms in JCU’s research. “That’s what kicked it off. Then they read all my emails. Why did they trawl all my emails? They were searching for dirt.” 

One of the emails characterised universities as an “Orwellian” sector that “pretends to value free debate, but…crushes it whenever the ‘wrong’ ideas are spoken” – an “incredible irony”, Ridd says. “They read my emails to get that and then said, ‘you are not allowed to be saying that the university is Orwellian.’”

Ridd says academics’ freedom is usually curtailed for two reasons – their statements are thought to jeopardise either institutional earnings or internal consensus – and he puts his own experience in the latter category. “I think they shut me down because they didn’t like the message; not because I was going to have any significant effect on the finances.”

warning sign

For all the external pressures exerted on universities, Craven regards internal university culture as a greater threat to academic freedom. “It’s relatively easy to find someone being sacked because they have criticised the government,” he says. “It’s much more of a problem if you’ve got a cohesive academic culture that effectively selects people so that there isn’t dissent: that silences dissent by weight of numbers.”

Craven is wary of the career destruction that can result from being condemned in early or mid-career for being beyond the academic pale: “My church was historically very good at stigmatising people as heretics,” he notes. “It seems to me that it’s better to refute positions than to forbid them.”

However, examination of real-life examples of such supposed peer-censorship opens up a whole host of complicated issues, not the least of which is whether academic freedom is really the operative concept at all.

Take, for example, the widespread censure attracted this summer by New York University political science professor Lawrence Mead – from both within academia and far beyond – for a commentary article speculating on the factors underpinning entrenched poverty in the US. The article, published in the journal Society, argued that cultural difference between racial groups was a “more plausible” explanation than social barriers such as discrimination or a lack of jobs.

Amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the commentary drew swift condemnation. A week after its publication, a letter to Society editor-in-chief, Jonathan Imber, demanded its immediate retraction “in the context of wider questions about institutional racism in academia”.

“The piece is unscholarly, overtly racist and has no place in a publication that purports to be a serious academic journal,” says the letter, which has been signed by more than 1,000 academics, students, doctors and other professionals in the US, UK and dozens of other countries. “We demand that…an external inquiry be held into how the editors and reviewers either failed to spot or wilfully overlooked its numerous flaws.”

Mead told Times Higher Education at the time that his piece was not racist because culture “has no necessary connection to race”, and a “minority” of private comments he had received were “full of praise, calling the article non-contentious, important, original and a valuable challenge to academic orthodoxy”. Nevertheless, the public outrage prompted a rapid response. The day after the letter’s publication, an editor’s note attached to the paper explained that “concerns have been raised with this article and are being investigated”. Two days later, the paper was retracted. Imber had concluded that it had been published without proper editorial oversight, a note explained: “The editor-in-chief deeply regrets publishing the article and offers his apologies.”

The speedy reaction contrasts with the months or years scientific journals can take to withdraw fraudulent articles, and some observers insisted that because no fraud was involved in this case, the paper should not have been retracted at all.

“Petitions are instruments of pressure; they’re not instruments of persuasion, argument or evidence,” says Mark Mercer, professor of philosophy at St Mary’s University in Nova Scotia. “If an academic isn’t immediately troubled by the idea of signing a petition calling for retraction, then the academic ethos has broken down…If people think that the reasoning or conclusions are false or the evidence is selective or whatever, then write a paper and argue that.”

Craven, meanwhile, makes the general observation that the authors of unpopular papers are often accused of lacking evidence. “In any given case that might be right. If the evidence is really weak then it shouldn’t be published, or it deserves to come in for tremendous criticism. The question would be: if you have a paper saying the opposite, how good is the evidence there? Is a different standard of evidence being applied? If that’s the case, you’ve got problems.”

Craven suspects that such a scenario has become more commonplace in the years since he regularly published research papers. “In peer-reviewed articles, certain views are simply not acceptable. The reviewers will reject the article – not on the [explicit] basis of those views, but [because] there will be something else that’s wrong.”

Schröder-Turk’s views are relevant here. He felt gratified and “emboldened” by the many academics and students who supported him in his dispute with Murdoch, through the “I stand with Gerd” campaign, coordinated by the National Tertiary Education Union. “This support was not just helpful. It was an essential life-saver,” he says.

But mass movements have a downside when it comes to academic research questions, he agrees. “Just because a thousand voices say the same thing, that doesn’t make it right. You can end up in scenarios where a scientific orthodoxy develops, and publishing material that supports that kind of thinking and its main proponents becomes much easier than going against the stream.”

He has an important caveat, however. Echoing Carl Sagan’s saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, he says that research that challenges academic and social accord must have particularly solid methodology to demonstrate that its findings are dependable. “The more people could get offended by a topic and the more previous work it contradicts, the higher rigour of scientific standard I would expect.”

One of the signatories to the complaint about Mead's paper, Martin Paul Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, echoes this point. He “respect[s] academic freedom to investigate controversial areas of research” but objects to the expression of what he believes to be racially discriminative views “as in the [dictionary] definition [of discrimination]: ‘recognizes a distinction between’ people based on their racial backgrounds. Given this and the potentially harmful nature of the argument based on this categorisation, I believed that the work should be retracted so as not to give credence to this distinction, which I do not trust,” he says.

He also endorses the letter’s claim that Mead “makes sweeping statements about the capacities and virtues of entire racial and ethnic groups…without attempting to evidence them”. For instance, he believes the claims such as “fifty years after civil rights, [blacks’ and Hispanics’] main problem is no longer racial discrimination by other people” are “not credible, and this paragraph of the article contains no citations”.

That lack of citations is related to the fact that the article was what the journal terms a “commentary”, rather than a full research article, and was therefore “not subject to full review. To air such extraordinary and possibly harmful views in this ‘commentary’ form was, I believe, against the journal’s policy on research that may cause harm.” The subsequent retraction notice – with which Mead disagrees – “validates this assessment, noting that ‘the Editor-in-Chief concluded that the article was published without proper editorial oversight’,” Eve says.

Person near edge with "Keep Clear. Steep drop" sign

As well as race, gender is another constant flashpoint in the tug of war between concerns about academic freedom and concerns about prevention of harm.

For instance, a social media outcry was triggered in 2017 by the feminist journal Hypatia’s publication of a paper, “In Defense of Transracialism”, arguing that it is inconsistent to accept self-identification as a determination of gender but not of race. An open letter accused the paper’s author, Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher at Rhodes College in Memphis, of harming marginalised people and demanded a retraction. While the journal apologised on Facebook, its editors stood by the article.

Colin Wright, a young Penn State evolutionary biologist, abandoned his academic career after his essays disputing claims that biological sex is a social construct – culminating in a February 2020 article in the Wall Street Journal – triggered a campaign to stop universities hiring him. “I no longer believed that any amount of hard work or talent on my part would lead to a tenure-track academic job in the current climate,” he told the online “platform for free thought”, Quillette.

And University of Melbourne political philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith attracted threats last year over a scheduled talk at Australia’s largest philosophy conference, in which she planned to argue that women-only spaces should be reserved for people who were biologically women. Students and academics penned open letters attempting to prevent her appearance at the conference and to close down an event the following month at Melbourne, where Lawford-Smith was to oppose a proposal to allow people who had not undergone sex-change surgery to alter the genders listed on their birth certificates. Both talks went ahead, but Lawford-Smith has been banned from Twitter.

Concerns about free speech and academic meritocracy, however, are a distraction from the key issue in such debates, according to Toby Walmsley, author of the letter condemning Lawford-Smith’s appearance. In the case of transgenderism, for instance, the most important consideration is the welfare of transgender people, who suffer shocking discrimination.

“Holly Lawford-Smith has a university professorship,” says Walmsley, a researcher in Australian science agency CSIRO’s diversity and inclusion department. “She is relatively secure. And her speech has social consequences for the people who have to [face the discrimination]. They’re not invited to conferences where they get to talk on these issues. So the way they [push back] is by causing a bit of a ruckus.”

Walmsley says that free speech is often couched as a “very abstract” thing. “But, in real life, these principles aren’t abstract. We don’t live in an individual vacuum, where we have our rights and we can do our individual things. We have an obligation to society to make it a good place to live. The framework of rights can be unhelpful in getting to the bottom of what’s going on.”

He says Lawford-Smith’s expressed views “damage society as a whole by making it less safe for transgender individuals. Do I believe that she should be a paid academic who puts these views forward and is then supported by the university? No. I am not saying that someone doesn’t have a right to hold those positions. But when people are putting political points forward, I don’t think they should be supported in these positions if they’re wrong.”

Bicycle parked and locked underneath a Bicycles left here will be removed sign.

The issue of who gets to decide what positions are “wrong” is, of course, moot. And the trouble with taking a view on that, according to Canadian philosopher Mercer, is that it risks undermining public trust in university research.

“Why, typically, is research that comes out of the university more trusted by the general public than research coming from, say, a pharmaceutical company? The idea is that the university professors don’t have a line that they have to toe,” he says.

He cites a controversy last year at the University of Alberta, in which assistant lecturer Dougal MacDonald enraged the prominent local Ukrainian community by declaring that the “Holodomor” – the 1930s famine perpetrated by Stalin’s Soviet Union – was a myth. “The university immediately said these views were false: ‘We respect the feelings of the Ukrainian community’, and the like. That’s absolutely the wrong approach, because now there’s an official line with regard to the famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s,” he says. “You don’t know whether the researcher came to conclusions honestly through wide-ranging investigation, or had to come to [them] in order to preserve his or her position at the university.”

While “it might be that in some violent society, [academics] who want to investigate things [such as race and gender] have to do so in secret”, in “liberal individualistic democracies”, universities serve their public function “by being good universities” – “indifferent” to any “baleful effects” of their academics’ views in the community, “rather than attempting to promote certain social, political or cultural causes”.

The extent to which the idea that gender is self-defined has become academic orthodoxy is illustrated by the Australian Academy of Science’s definition of a woman as “anyone who identifies as a woman” in its “Women in STEM decadal plan”, published last year. The academy says it has not compromised its members’ academic autonomy by explicitly rejecting a biological perspective. “The definition…is consistent with the Sex Discrimination Act,” a spokesman says. “[It] was accepted throughout the consultation process and the decadal plan has been widely endorsed and adopted across the STEM sector.”

Adrienne Stone, a constitutional lawyer at the University of Melbourne who specialises in freedom of expression, says a social definition of gender may be perfectly appropriate in the context of an initiative to address inequality in employment.

But events overseas suggest that problems can arise when such definitions are applied in broader academic contexts, such as data-gathering. For instance, UCL sociology professor Alice Sullivan, principal investigator of a 50-year-old longitudinal study of 17,000 Britons, has raised concerns over proposals to allow respondents to next year’s UK census to answer questions about their sex according to their subjective gender identity.

“We need accurate data disaggregated by sex in order to understand differences in the lives of women and men,” she wrote. “Sex is a powerful predictor of almost every dimension of social life: education, the labour market, political attitudes and behaviour, religion, crime, physical health, mental health, cultural tastes and consumption – the list goes on.”

Sullivan co-wrote a letter from 80 quantitative scientists asking the census authorities to review their approach. Soon afterwards, she says, her scheduled appearance at a research methods seminar was cancelled. “I was told that including me was ‘too risky’,” she says.

It is not hard to discover that other academics share these concerns. Times Higher Education has communicated with British academics in numerous disciplines who say they oppose discrimination against transgender people, but have concerns about the application of gender identity ideology in four areas – women’s rights, gay rights, medicalisation of children and skewing of data – as well as their freedom of expression.

“I have never known a topic to be so unspeakable or debatable,” one says. “I’m terrified to even be suspected of being GC [gender critical].” And an Australian sociology academic, who also asked not to be named, said GC colleagues were “constantly under attack” for views seen as transphobic: “Academics are walking on eggshells on this issue, or they’re choosing to not engage at all – which is about self-preservation more than anything else. The last thing a lot of academics want is to be [the victim of] the next Twitter pile-on.”

But those on the other side of the debate also feel that they are under attack. In addition to Walmsley, Times Higher Education sought comment from many other university staff, some of whom had co-authored open letters criticising their colleagues, about academics’ freedom to speak on race and gender identity issues. Some did not respond and others would not talk on the record, citing fears of backlash. But one transgender academic in an Antipodean university did agree to speak, on condition of anonymity. The academic says that ideas promoted by gender-critical groups are “anti-trans” activism masquerading as advocacy for women, and are designed to secure a campus platform for speakers who should be excluded under university policies asserting “zero tolerance” for discrimination: “They don’t speak up for women. They’re not doing anything broader for women’s rights other than spouting anti-trans views. How can you allow someone on campus who goes against your own equity policy?”

The academic also raises safety and privacy objections to requirements for people to disclose both their self-identified and genetic sex in census questions and elsewhere because this would force transgender people to “out” themselves in databases maintained for perpetuity. That could be particularly dangerous in places like Poland, where authorities have been cracking down on marginalised people.

The academic also says that while academics are entitled to their opinions, “that doesn’t mean people have to listen. You’re not guaranteed an audience just because it’s freedom of expression. And if you have an idea, you need to back it up with evidence. It needs to have a rigorous academic practice behind it.” Many claims about transgender people, by contrast, are based on “one or two case studies”.

For senior administrators, of course, navigating all these competing currents throws up a difficult management challenge. UNSW Sydney’s deputy vice-chancellor, Merlin Crossley, says that, as microcosms of broader society, university communities inevitably contain polarised views on a wide range of issues and experience pressures to silence dissent.

UNSW’s official policy on free speech, he says, is that “if it’s legal to say it on High Street, it’s legal to say it on campus. You’d think that’s going to be good: everyone’s going to be creative and innovative and original. But, actually, when you remove some of the fences, all hell breaks loose.”


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Reader's comments (6)

Without free debate the Church would have us believe the Earth is the centre of the Universe and was created in seven 24-hour days. Without such debate, how can one refute flat-Earthers? Their viewpoint becomes just as valid as round-Earthers, neither can be argued against each other. Likewise with political stances, if some idiot wants to try and justify discrimmination or inequality of intelligence amongst races, then, let them speak, and be thoroughly debunked, in public. Only such obvious well-publicised refutations can lay these aberrant views to rest forever.
I remember in the early 1980s a speaker from the IRA was invited to the university I was undertaking graduate work at. Rather than protest that he was there, those of us opposed to terrorism turned up to heckle. The 'party poppers' I'd snuck in and rigged around the podium before he arrived were very effective :)
TES readers should not forget the attack on Academic Freedom by the U.K. government through its "PREVENT" strategy. As a former Director of Public Prosecutions, it might be considered that the Warden of Wadham College Oxford has a workable understanding of the Law. He considers that "..... ministers have in fact created a policy response to radicalisation that very much intensifies the strength of surveillance and government reach into people’s everyday lawful lives- and indeed into whole areas of their everyday lawful discourse,..............this might include an enforceable duty to prevent the expression of views that are otherwise entirely compatible with the criminal law." "PREVENT: Counter-Terrorism and Freedom" Wadham College, Oxford. Seminar series 28 Jan. 2016 A video recording of this paper can be found:
Good point. Like most people working in a university, I was supposed to watch a poorly-constructed set of online resources, which resulted in a lot of screaming at the screen and feeling a bit sick. No statements made as fact were backed up by evidence or supporting argument, and there was a core assumption that anyone who gets radicalised is weak and easily-led, forgetting that some people - however much you may disagree with them - genuinely hold such beliefs as an active choice.
One of the pro-censorship academics quoted in this article complained of publications against his own point of view that lacked citations to back up their claims. Is this what scholarship has come down to? Am I not permitted to write an original article unless it bristles with footnotes? Imagine that you set out to write an article on the discrimination against Latino people by other ethnic groups in America today. You could easily find many *instances* of discrimination, and include references. But you would not find a single article 'proving' once and for all that discrimination was applied systematically to group A by group B, like fluoride in the water. I don't see why a claim of internal discrimination should have to pass a higher test. If you are genuinely the first person to advance a view, there will be no footnotes to rely on.
In many places, you have to be clearly *out of* the academic world to enjoy the freedom to debate. The mobbing of J K Rowling is a good example. The article could touch on the question of power, not just censorship as an ideological or persuasive tool. The idea of 'cancelling' or 'silencing' is soft terror-- no matter who wields the red pencil. It shifts the balance of power-- as is admitted by some of the more candid advocates for identity-politics. Today, a gender-activist author can blackmail a publisher into withdrawing her rival's anti-activist book from the publisher's List. This is a rather horrifying novelty. Also, include literature and performance on the list of terrorized, re-worded, & sanitized disciplines, not just history or sociology. But it's all about power, and power leads to the inside track for publishing, and faculty hiring, and that leads to ideological consensus... or silence. As the fight for right-to-document continues, we have to be careful about it -- careful not to let it be co-opted by ideological warriors of the other side, those displaced camps we can legitimately call Out-of-Power reactionary or even violent. So we debate the merits or defects of any given religion-- we don't call for banning it, or, worse, going to war against it. As the traditional base of our right (to enquire, document, debate) continues to crumble, it has to be re-coded, and governed by strictly defined, non-partisan parameters. Also, disband the Ethics Review Board, now a virtual Cancel Panel. Also, there's a legal precedent for what constitutes, in communication, "safety" and what constitutes "danger." Use it. It does depend on what country you're in. In the US, really threatening speech is dangerously allowed to circulate, ginned up by an emerging, gun-toting dystopia that is unread, has nothing to do with liberty. Every cultural revolution is faced with 2 choices: progress, or collapse into its opposite.