Conformism, Free Speech, recent, Recommended, Social Science

What’s the State of Free Speech on Campus? That’s the Question We Asked Canadian Academics

We are students, academics and medical science researchers at the University of Alberta. We’ve had our eye on the state of academic freedom in Canada for years, in large part due to our experiences serving on various academic-governance bodies. In mid-2017, we began to wonder if there was any way we could quantify free speech on campus. Was there a threat? Was it widespread—or just a localized phenomenon that characterized elite American liberal-arts schools (which is where most of the most widely shared anecdotes are rooted)? Having just observed Bret Weinstein’s ordeal at Evergreen State College and Jordan Peterson’s fight for free speech at the University of Toronto, we wanted to see if concerns in this area were shared by academics at other institutions.

So we decided to start asking questions. And in the process, we collected some interesting statistics. For example, 39% of Canadian academic respondents to our survey said that if they had more academic freedom, their students would receive a better education. We also found out how difficult it could be to ask even simple questions that touch on such a highly charged topic.

In August, 2017, we formulated our survey questions and got feedback from others, which helped us fine-tune their wording. Consistent with our training, we wrote up the study design and asked our university’s research ethics office to review it. This was technically research on “human subjects.” And even though we were not collecting or publishing personally identifiable details, we wanted to cross the T’s and dot the I’s. Our research ethics office asked us to explain the questions we wanted to ask. And then things went sideways.

The research ethics office told us that they couldn’t even look at our study because it was out of its jurisdiction. We disagreed: As a matter of policy, they really should want to help make research more ethical; moreover, we were students at the university, and the resources they offered should be available as much to us as to anyone else. So we appealed—more or less begging them to have a look. We thought we may at some point want to publish our results academically, and the research ethics office serves as a gatekeeper to academic publication.

The process took seven weeks, lasting until late October, 2017. In the end, ethics-office officials declined any involvement, and even sought to distance themselves from our activities, telling us: “You are conducting this research out of an independent special interest…You should refrain from citing an affiliation to this Institution in regards to this research.”

In December, 2017, we reluctantly proceeded without an official university ethics review. We added a clear notation in the survey to the effect that the research was not supported by our institution, and carried on with our own review. We made sure that this information would be used in the way we said it would be used; we did not collect personal info; we explained the process to all subjects; and we asked respondents to consent to the collection, use and publication of their anonymous answers.

From December, 2017 to February, 2018, we administered the survey through a Google form, using a compiled list of 8,000 professors at Canada’s 15 major academic research institutions. A little over 10% of the recipients took the time to respond to the survey in some way—a fairly typical response rate for this sort of thing. (Most of us just hit the delete button when someone we don’t know assigns us an information-gathering task, no matter what the stated goal.) We also received many emails containing substantive feedback about the project itself. We were thanked, scolded and praised. Some respondents implored us to stop asking questions in this area. One professor told us we were “violating human dignity.” Many academics wrote to us about problems they had with academic freedom that manifested themselves in ways we hadn’t even thought about.

The most common idea that was communicated to us was that the peer-review process is great at reinforcing popular ideas, but suppresses new or challenging ideas. One professor (whose identity I will, of course, not disclose), put the point thusly: “In my experience, there are key scientists with vested interests in particular ideas that actively subvert the thinking of critics by negatively reviewing papers, grant submissions and conference abstracts. This, in my experience, is quite common and represents a far more tangible threat to academic freedom than pressure from my host university or my funding agencies.”

To understand this point, one must appreciate the power of peer reviewers, who are assigned by journal editors to review editorial submissions. In general, the thrust of an article must be sufficiently compelling (which, in many cases, equates to “popular”) to get the blessing of peer reviewers. If this publication route is closed off, the prospective author can instead choose to blog about it, or write about it in the lay media. But that will cause him or her to lose points at their next merit review. Academics are suspicious of the lay media, not just because of the lack of peer review (a valid concern), but because such lay-media avenues strip gatekeepers of their ability to control discourse of new ideas (an invalid concern).

We also got questioned fairly often about our motives: Who are you? Why are you looking into this? Do your superiors know about what you’re doing? We wondered why our identities matter. That’s not what research is about. These lines of questioning seemed to connote, “Are you on my team?”

As we might have anticipated, we were asked many times if we had ethics approval. This is a nominally legitimate question. But respondents who asked us this presumably knew that we were not collecting any information whose dissemination could serve to identify respondents (since we had said so explicitly). There could be no risk of harm. An alternative explanation is that these respondents saw ethics review as a sort of ideological imprimatur, showing that we were on “their team,” so to speak.

We were using the Google suite of products to administer the survey, and we strictly followed the company’s rules regarding high-volume email. Sending messages with similar wording to many people can raise red flags, so we learned Google’s terms of use and adhered to them. We never contacted anyone whose email address wasn’t publicly available on their faculty contact web page (which constitutes an implied invitation to communicate on academic matters).

Nevertheless, some potential respondents must have reported our questions as spam or “abusive.” At the end of February, 2018, Google shut down the survey, summarily erasing a portion of our data and emails. We followed the company’s appeals process, explaining that we broke none of their rules, but received no reply. We can only hope this was an administrative mistake. But we fear it may have been due to false abuse reports from the small handful of people who emailed us to say that empirical scientists should not ask such questions—or that these questions must not be asked at all. (We wonder how many other academics have encountered similar issues with Google products or similar web tools. Such information would be useful in designing new productivity tools and platforms that are more explicitly protective of free inquiry as a prioritized value.) Fortunately, we already had downloaded enough data to produce the intended analysis, which is set out in complete form on our web site. Much more work remains to be done. But even as a pilot project performed with no funding or institutional support, our initiative did yield interesting and substantive results, which are summarized as follows.

Of the 358 respondent academics whose replies were sufficiently complete so as to yield usable data, roughly 80% stated that academic tenure should protect an academic regardless of what ideas he or she pursues. About one fifth of respondents (22%) agreed that their research would benefit if their academic freedom were protected by stronger policies. And, as noted above, 39% of respondents agreed that their students would receive a better education if their academic freedom were subject to stronger protections. But only 11% said that the quality of their own scholarship had suffered, at least “sometimes,” due to pressure to avoid controversy. (The other 89% reported that this had happened “rarely” or never.)

Contrary to the presumed fears of many Quillette readers, a full 84% of respondent academics disagreed that there are some topics that are so sensitive that they should not be discussed on campus. But a much higher share of respondents, 37%, reported their belief that, at least “sometimes,” certain popular values in the university cannot be challenged without harm to their career. Disturbingly, about an eighth of respondents (13%) reported that they have, at least sometimes, considered methods to protect their personal safety from threats related to their scholarship.

In Quillette’s inaugural podcast, Jordan Peterson described why these issues matter. Discussing the “inevitability of the movement of ideas from the university out into the broader community,” he noted, “Everybody [in our society] who runs things is trained in the university, so whatever happens there is going to happen five years later everywhere.” Moreover, some cases here in Canada truly are quite troubling. Economics professor Derek Pyne, for instance, recently returned to Thompson Rivers University after serving an eight-month suspension, during which he was banned from campus for, as he claims, publishing research about faculty members engaging with pay-to-publish “predatory journals” to boost their publication numbers. Indeed, there has been so much public debate around the state of free speech on campus that we were surprised when we found out that no one had bothered to perform a truly systematic study of Canadian academics.

One limitation of our research is that the term “academic freedom” is difficult to define. For purposes of our survey, in fact, we didn’t define it at all. If respondents feel like they have freedom, then they are free; and if they don’t, they aren’t. That said, we have some idea about what freedoms are at stake: As participants in bodies dedicated to academic governance at our university, we have seen blatant factual contradictions go unchallenged because they related to sensitive topics. In a room full of smart people, someone offering a budget proposal containing numbers that don’t add up will be challenged vigorously. But this spirit of vigor evaporates entirely when a participant expounds upon, say, the purportedly self-evident benefits of racial quotas, the need to prohibit offensive speech, or the exclusion of even the most mildly controversial speakers.

During our time as students, we saw the free expression of student groups compromised by nominally non-ideological administrative measures, such as five-figure “security fees” for off-message groups seeking to stage on-campus events. At the University of Alberta, the mere act of holding signs that signal one’s opposition to abortion will cost activists $17,500.

We don’t want to exaggerate the state of the problem. If you walk around our campus on a typical day, you won’t see students of professors being censured for the things they say or study. For the most part, it’s a lovely place. But for those people who are interested in asking questions about controversial topics in a way that marks them as heretical, the atmosphere is far from lovely. Ask a question about how racial hiring quotas and merit-based competitive hiring can coexist peacefully—whether in a classroom or administrative meeting—and watch the room go silent. Ask how a policy of believing accusers first is consistent with notions of due process, and suddenly you’re told that the meeting is set to adjourn. Ask if we academics should distinguish between a physically “safe space” and an intellectually safe space, and watch a university VP attempt his first filibuster in council. (Yes, this happened.) Ask if a university is willing to spread security costs evenly across activist groups instead of charging massive fees to selected constituencies, and you will find this marked as an agenda item for “future discussion.”

The subtle, back-office nature of these processes admittedly makes the threat to free speech on campus difficult to quantify and categorize, which is why we had no choice but to keep our survey questions vague. We are used to conceiving of the battle for free speech in clear, heroic terms—the free thinker who is censored, jailed or even brutalized for speaking hard truths. But our own experiences suggest that this typically isn’t what is happening on campuses. Rather, the threat is embedded in innocuous seeming administrative protocols, which serve to obscure and diffuse the means of authority used to discourage stigmatized opinions.

Even the pushback against this trend is largely a back-office phenomenon. When we have asked questions about dubious, thinly evidenced assertions offered in academic meetings, other participants find a reason to walk by afterward and offer some barely audible encouragement and thanks. If they could raise their own voices, they would, they tell us—but they can’t. One email we got from a senior academic leader echoed this perspective: “I commend you on…the questions that you put forward…speech is in one way or another being regulated in one of the most important places in Canadian culture for free speech to receive its fullest support.”

Comments like these have convinced us that more research is needed in this area. That said, we don’t want to make this research project an exercise in confirmation bias. And we will let others draw their own conclusions from our data, all of which is available at reclaimingdiscourse.org.

As for all the academics who feel they cannot speak out publicly, we welcome their private feedback at the email addresses linked below. We will honour your confidence. But of course, the best outcome would be if we were able to have this discussion out in the open. If academics don’t feel comfortable asking questions about important and sensitive topics, what is the point of becoming an academic in the first place?

 

Brayden Whitlock is a student in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Alberta. He is focused on biotech startups and intellectual freedom. Find him on Twitter @Whitlock_BDW.

Kyle Whitlock is a student in the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta. He is developing projects in sustainable exploration and public discourse at www.reclaimingdiscourse.org. Follow him on Twitter @KyleRWhitlock or contact him here about this survey. 

Featured image: McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

63 Comments

  1. X. Citoyen says

    These findings and your experiences don’t surprise me. Academics are experts at rationalizing, and then covering up the rationalization by persuading themselves that it never happened or they believed it all along. The Heterodox Academy conference was telling. So many “I’m all for free speech, but anyone not left of centre is a danger to society, so that’s not really a free speech issue.”

    • SommeVerdun says

      Just to put a more positive spin on the situation: Max Planck supposedly said that science advances one funeral at a time. It’s hard for people in any walk of life to give up on cherished concepts. It will take time for academia to be reformed, but it’s nice to see the first steps.

      • georgopolis says

        Unfortunately, the next cohort of faculty are more heavily skewed on what I believe to be the wrong side of this issue. When the old guard dies out I’m not sure we can rely on their replacements to uphold academic freedom and free speech.

        • David of Kirkland says

          @georgopolis – It’s a pendulum. Us vs. Them is universal in time and place. At this point, they think they are replacing your inferior ways with their better one. Time will tell since many cherished beliefs fall away (homosexuality; pluralism in religion/ethnicity/culture).
          If you accept some limits on free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to defend oneself, it stand to reason that putting limits on them cannot be de facto bad.

    • Yeah HA is a huge disappointment. They’re trying to make the academy safe for far left and center left views. The fail at actually honesty supporting conservatives.

      • MMS says

        As a Libertarian leaning person (I don’t share the Libertarian position on guns but I do on much else). I completely disagree, my experience with HA is that they are working to make campus and society open to wide spectrum of belief be they Moderate, Liberal, or Conservative. Most folks at HA are likely Center Left but their intent is sincere.

        We are lucky to have Heterodox Academy!

    • Actual researcher says

      As much as I commend your effort, it’s not at all surprising that UofA’s ethics board did not approve the research request of two undergraduate students with no expertise in scientific research and no faculty sponsor/supervisor for the project.

      If you’d had any legitimate experience in research, you’d have known this and secured a faculty sponsor prior to applying for Ethics clearance (a step that is required for all ethics applications in all Canadian and most US universities).

      Also, given that conducting survey research on Google rather than a proper platform like Qualtrics or Surveymonkey is a red flag of amatuerism, it’s also no surprise why you received so much skepticism and pushback from many of the academics you solicited.

      Again, your results aren’t too surprising, and somewhat encouraging in some respects, but it was poorly conceived and poorly executed and the fact that you’re trying to spin a lack of ethics approval (given your failure to follow proper ethics procedures) is laughable.

      I say all of this not as someone who disagrees with your intent or goals; indeed I support this. I say this as a PhD candidate at a Canadian university who does this type of research for a living and who has never encountered the type of ethics pushback that you did, but I also actually know what I’m doing and it seems you didn’t.

      • Becky Palapala says

        You shouldn’t be proud of the level of condescension here, especially your unwillingness to attach your name to it. You are aware that anyone can use google forms for any reason that does not violate Google policy. I could distribute a survey to 8,000 people on whether boxers or briefs are superior without obtaining ethics approval. I could then publish the results in any publication, for argument’s sake, as much as I wanted.

        As a person who works among academic researchers (including graduate students) daily, I don’t disagree that academics on the whole can be prone to taking things more seriously than is necessary, particularly when they believe that others have not suffered adequately with the bureaucratic burdens they face daily. I don’t blame them for resenting the latter. Academic bureaucracy is grueling, exhausting, and cruel.

        But I encourage you to consider what is actually happening here, and what should have been obvious to any of the indignant faculty: Two (apparently quite precocious) undergrads seeking an overview of anonymous opinions for an op-ed is not academic or medical research. This is what the University means by “outside of its jurisdiction.” If they had wanted them to find a faculty sponsor, they would have said so. The University simply didn’t want to be associated because the topic is (regrettably and nonsensically, I think we can agree) sensitive in academic circles, and two undergrads are easy to brush off. They said as much–in their administrative way.

        Any faculty with genuine concerns about the privacy of their answers or information could have (and did!) simply ignore the survey.

        Any attempt to invalidate or discourage (let alone report) such a survey on the grounds that it violates professional academic bureaucratic hegemony reveals nothing except the surpassing pettiness of relatively small (if not insignificant) number of faculty. It is miserly punching down on their part. It’s a rhetorical weaponization of bureaucracy by those who can navigate it to inflict difficulty on people who can’t and who are pursuing answers the faculty do not find interesting or important, for ends those faculty are opposed to, politically.

        “Ethics concerns” seem less like a good reason in this case and more like a serviceable rationalization for pompous, self-gratifying and, in some cases, politically motivated behavior.

  2. David says

    Whitlock and Whitlock said: “Contrary to the presumed fears of many Quillette readers, a full 84% of respondent academics disagreed that there are some topics that are so sensitive that they should not be discussed on campus.”

    Are we to presume all these people were being honest?

    The obscurantism in postmodern academia has been well-documented.

    For example, Chris Martin writes that in American sociology:

    “Data are also truncated to hide facts that subvert a liberal narrative.”

    There are a few other studies that came to the same conclusion.

    So are we to believe that they will hide facts in their studies and be open with researchers?

    It seems we need an unusually large margin of error when conducting surveys of postmodern academics.

    http://chriscmartin.com/pdf/Martin%20(2015)%20How%20ideology%20has%20hindered%20sociological%20insight_web.pdf

    • Stephanie says

      Interesting that 85% of academics are also left of centre. I wonder if these academics are actually as tolerant as they like to think they are, or if they have categorised speech they disagree with under the category of hate speech, which can safely be excluded.

    • Calvin Ho says

      Or maybe American universities are just more fucked up than Canadian ones.

    • Accidentally In Law says

      What information suggests that they sampled academics from disciplines which involve postmodernism? Postmodern theory is really only discussed in feminist, sociological, and art disciplines and even then it depends largely on the professor. Postmodern theory gets absolutely no traction in the sciences which make up far greater numbers than gender studies, sociology, and art majors.

      I majored in sociology and minored in english literature. Not once did we discuss postmodernism in english lit, nor did we use the theory to interpret literary works. None of my sociology professors were self-proclaimed socialists or Marxists. We studied postmodernism as a theory among other theories of modernity and not once did we hear a glowing endorsement of postmodernism.

      Now, I know that’s my own personal experience so it doesn’t count for a lot, but as a sample, it seems about right. Where I encountered the kind of behavior that people are afraid of is in gender studies and political science. Gender studies is riddled with postmodern thinkers because that’s when feminist literature started to develop and it went closely in hand with postmodern thinkers of the 50, 60s and 70s.

      From my experience, and again, I know it’s just my experience, the noises about shutting down “harmful ideas” and censorship and safe spaces and so on is coming mostly from a very vocal minority of people mostly from the arts, and especially from gender studies. Which makes sense. Gender studies (and sometimes political science) lean heavily on politics of oppression, grievance, and activism. A lot of these students are trying to arm themselves with knowledge that will help them advance their own cause. That’s fine, unless of course they’re misguided 20-somethings who went to college straight from high-school and have yet to experience real responsibility and accountability.

      What I fear you’re doing here, however, is committing the fallacy of composition where you’re assuming that a vocal minority of these kinds of people represents a much larger number of people. I don’t think it’s true and most people who have taken a wide sample of classes on any given college will note that it’s not much of an issue. Now, there may be a general atmosphere of walking on eggshells for some people out of fear of being harassed by crazy people, but that’s how life works in general. The frustrating thing is that the vocal minority of students tends to have sympathy from professors and administrative bodies even when they are clearly in the wrong, so in my opinion, the biggest challenge on campuses is not some runaway Marxist faculty but rather the unwillingness of the administrations to challenge crazy people and punish them for their misbehavior, which sometimes raises to levels of criminality as we’ve seen with Evergreen.

    • 1/4horse says

      .

      what the answer is
      unwilling
      2act

      /\uld Chinese Cohen:.. “If a tree FFalls in a ∯orest… ”

      ================ “If a body catch a body . . . ”

      ?
      rite
      !

      .

  3. Ravager says

    No there is not we do not need “more research”. We’ve been “researching” this “problem” since 2015 and nothing has changed.

    If there is anything clear based on this article it’s that the universities are unwilling to even allow evaluation of the problem at this point. They know what the answer is and are unwilling to accept that answer.

    Universities have always been habit-holes of groupthink and compliance. They will not yield without force. It serves the purposes of no members inside the insular institutions to come against the norm and those that might be inclined to take up a stance are regularly run out (see Rick Mehta) or shunned into silence.

    What we need is: http://thefederalist.com/2019/03/11/conservative-alumni-smart-heres-theyd-punish-campus-hooliganism/

    We also should adopt a “college debt forgiveness” stance. Except the universities should be paying for the exploitation of their own students and alumni, not the federal government. It is quite clear that as long as the universities exist in their own world, they will never change–and if anything will only double down.

  4. S. Cheung says

    Roughly 17% feel that tenure is not protective, and a similar number did not feel unfettered in their pursuit of academic inquiry. That seems internally consistent. But 19 % feel that tenure SHOULD NOT be protective. That’s pretty unfortunate among a cohort like this. I wonder what the proportion was of full professors vs not.

    Given the numbers, any look at subgroups would probably be pretty dicey. But I’d be curious as to whether there were faculty to faculty differences in trends. i would expect there to be. Or school vs school differences, to see if discontent was isolated or widespread.

    At least REB approval was sought, so they won’t land in hot water like Peter Boghossian.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Should professors that study flat earths, why Christianity is evil, why white people are racist imperialists, why The Enlightenment is evil, why there are hundreds of fluid genders instead of two/three? Is tenure a good idea for all other jobs because it would lead to the best workers?

      • Accidentally In Law says

        Who is studying “flat earths, why Christianity is evil, why white people are racist imperialists, why The Enlightenment is evil, why there are hundreds of fluid genders instead of two/three?”

        None of these are fields of research by professors. Professors may sometimes write academic papers on these topics, which go through the process of peer review and if the survive then maybe they’re worth reading, but nobody is going into academia with the goal of studying the shape of the earth or to prove that white people are the devil….

        Some professors make outrageous claims, sure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do their jobs. If what they are teaching is questionable, then that’s up to the university to review and up to the students to challenge.

  5. Trevor Sedis says

    “We don’t want to exaggerate the state of the problem. If you walk around our campus on a typical day, you won’t see students of professors being censured for the things they say or study. For the most part, it’s a lovely place.”

    So was Berlin 1933-39 under Nazism. You just had to avoid The Other and be sure not to irk SA brownshirts.

    Prisons can be peaceful places, too, especially ones like “supermax” ADX Florence in Colorado.

    The Harvard Crimson found 83% of professors were liberal:
    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/red-alert-politics/harvard-students-call-for-the-hiring-of-more-conservative-professors

    When abnormality is the norm, normies are deemed freaks.

  6. S Cheung says

    I’m sure all you nazi quillette readers hoped for the smoking gun of “censorship”. Conservatives are nazis. We do not, and should not allow nazis a platform. It is not that difficult to understand. You don’t have a “right” to speak hate.
    I am for love. If you disagree with me it means you are for hate. Hate speech is not protected speech. That is a fundamental lie of the patriarchy.

    • ga gamba says

      Spoofing another’s account is an underhanded tactic. You ought to knock it off. If you have something to say, do so under your own handle.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @ga gamba

        That is surely a provocation bomb? S Cheung might be somewhat inclined to become personal, but surely that’s not really hx? Yes, it’s one thing to troll, but another to impersonate. Can Claire do something?

        • ga gamba says

          Yes, both provocative and impersonation. But the style is so different it was transparent to those who are accustomed to his/her writing.

          It’s peculiar here is one of the few websites around without user credentials. I can’t even remember when I last encountered this. Maybe blogs with comments by anonymous accepted? That said, if logon credentials were implemented S Cheung and S. Cheung are both unique, so each would likely be accepted if special characters such as spaces and dots are permitted.

          Can Claire do something? I’ll contact my Psychic Friends to find out.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @ga gamba

            Even when names are fictitious I still think it’s beyond the pale. If some ‘ga gamba’ started advocating for socialism it would be very confusing. In this case, as you say, it was transparent but it might not have been. I wasn’t suggesting that Claire visit a psychic or invoke black magic, I was wondering if some practicable steps might be taken that do not involve the paranormal.

          • ga gamba says

            This is a wordpress platform and unique logons are supported though not enabled. This site is configured to use the jetpack plugin for those who don’t want to logon using a wordpress, google, twitter, or facebook account.

            Looking at the config, comment_registration=0&require_name_email=1, this shows that user registration is turned off and that only an email address is required to comment.

          • Saw file says

            It’s only happened to me once, and the juvenile nature of the writing style (such as this one) made it quite apparent that it wasn’t me.

    • S.Cheung says

      This is the second time in 2 days, pal. It’s getting a little stale.

      I haven’t been around here long, so I don’t know if this is a common issue here. But perhaps Quillette needs to consider login for comments.

      • Peter from Oz says

        But you have to admit S.Cheung that S Cheung does do a good job of presenting the sort of arguments you make on this forum.

        • S. Cheung says

          Peter-
          Perhaps a visit to the optometrist is in order…

    • Either your post is satire, or you are a vile human being.

    • A quick “don’t feed the trolls” is all the response this type of comment deserves.

    • stevengregg says

      Conservatives are not National Socialists, you dunce. Furthermore, claiming that the people with who you disagree are Nazis who have no right to speak is remarkably Nazi-like with regards to its opposition to free speech.

  7. Stephanie says

    The University of Alberta is indeed a lovely place, but it turns ugly really quick as soon as someone wants to say something against abortion. I remember students having a total meltdown over a few such protesters, including spreading the word hysterically on social media so that “vulnerable people” could be “kept safe” from such horrible ideas. The police were called and the protesters vacated.

    Unless we’re talking about an active warzone, situations typically look fine on the surface. Seeing things like the unhinged hysteria around pro-life protesters, no matter how rarely, indicates that we are always one heterodox opinion away from madness.

    • Saw file says

      @Stephanie
      The U of A is indeed a nice campus with generally decent and tolerant students.
      You are right though about how certain topics quickly enrage a certain demographic there.
      Not just the abortion issue, but also loony brand feminism, aboriginal issues, ‘black’ issues and the environment. It’s impossible to have public discussions about any of these without the fringe
      hysterically busting a nut and doing whatever it can to shut it down.

    • Accidentally In Law says

      Yeah, at Usask, things are pretty quiet as well, but every now and then you get flare-ups of pretty ridiculous student outrages regarding sexual assault, the environment, and indigenous people. It’s like people physically cannot handle hearing different opinions and just immediately have to prescribe some evil label on others if they disagree.

      Imagine arguing that literally legal adults need to be sheltered from bad ideas because they can’t handle it. I guess we should stop learning about history and the holocaust and Nazi Germany since it’s full of bad ideas. Can’t teach history of USA since slavery was legal, and obviously that’s one of the worst ideas of them all.

      In truth, college students are no more adults than high school students. The only difference is that they can have sex with adults and not go to jail.

  8. Serenity says

    “there are key scientists with vested interests in particular ideas that actively subvert the thinking of critics by negatively reviewing papers, grant submissions and conference abstracts…”

    This is the power of sacred dogma – it gives free pas to mediocrities, provides power hounds with defenseless preys and sacred cause as a cover-up – it rewards envy and channels malevolence.

  9. ga gamba says

    Such a benign survey caused that much heartburn for the research ethics office, eh?

    Harrumph. “We won’t even look at it. Take it away.”

    Confounding, isn’t it?

    • Heike says

      Deplatforming and delegitimizing in action.

      It’s not that they don’t want the answers. They don’t want anyone asking the questions. Hooray for our universities.

  10. E. Olson says

    I applaud the authors for taking the initiative on this project, and their story regarding their research process in many ways provides a more illuminating picture of the state of campus free speech than their survey results.

    On problem is that the response rate is very low, and there appears to be little ability to check for non-response biases, so it has to be asked who would be the most reluctant to respond? If faculty members are terrified at being “outed” as conservatives would they trust that the survey would truly be anonymous and hence less likely to respond (or respond honestly)? On the other hand, Leftist faculty members who make up 80-90% of the faculty are much more likely to think things are perfectly fine because none of the Leftist speakers they enjoy or Leftist topics they research/teach are threatened, so they are much more likely to respond that every is wonderful on the free-speech front, OR try to shut down the survey if they are suspicious of the study motives. In other words, the results are probably missing some respondents who would be more likely to state they feel free speech is under threat. It also must be considered the rabble rousers who desire to go against the flow and attack majority viewpoints are by their nature almost always going to be a minority, so it wouldn’t be strange to see relatively low percentages of faculty who feel their own freedom or the freedom of their colleagues is under threat. Thus a more accurate sampling frame (or sub-analysis) might have focused on faculty who have a history of teaching or research controversial topics, or who have been involved in free speech controversies.

    The other issue that this article only lightly addresses, which might lead to wrong or incomplete sampling and question framing, is the lack of attention given to administration, because they increasingly control the degree that freedom of speech is protected on campus. Thus more accurate or complete picture would likely have been obtained by including questions about administrative support and protection of free speech on campus, and the sample likely should have included administration. Of course given that administration tends to be even more Leftist than the faculty and hence unlikely to see any problems with limiting free speech on the Right, it may not have changed the responses very much.

    • Fran says

      One problem with any such surveys is that we have been well taught by our tech people not to reply to unsolicited emails from unknown sources. Universities are magnets for spammers. You don’t just look at the address, you check out the url and hidden extensions before touching anything unusual.

  11. Morgan Foster says

    “We also got questioned fairly often about our motives: Who are you?”

    Before exposing myself to professional suicide, I like to know who I’m talking to.

    “Why are you looking into this?”

    Tell me why, and then I’ll decide if you’re being entirely candid.

    “Do your superiors know about what you’re doing?”

    Because you appear to be students, I would assume that you have advisors and I would be concerned about their access to my email address and my supposedly anonymous responses, despite the assurances of two students whom I do not personally know.

    “We wondered why our identities matter.”

    Why would any prudent, intelligent person, with a lot to lose, professionally and personally, be interested in the identities of a couple of students asking dangerous questions that could, if answered honestly, get one fired if you both turned out to be SJWs hunting for conservative faculty?

    • I posted the above before adding the following:

      I admire the intention and the effort of these two students in pursuing this line of enquiry, but it seems to me that surveys of this type accomplish little that is ultimately useful.

      The fault is not so much in the methodology used by the authors, but in the nature of surveys themselves. Few people trouble to respond to them. Of those who do, few of them are entirely truthful in their responses. Some flat out lie throughout the entire process. And the statistical contortions used to make allowances seem unconvincing.

      Trust of a stranger, even one who presents himself as a fellow academic, is a hard thing to come by. There cannot be more than a handful of people in any man’s life to whom he can speak with perfect ease and confidence.

      I don’t think you can ever believe someone’s telling you the complete truth about something as important as this research topic unless you’ve known that person for some considerable amount of time and have learned to trust them.

      And I would never – ever – trust any stranger who approached me with an unsolicited email. Nor would I ever fully trust in the candor of any stranger who responded to one of mine.

      • Accidentally In Law says

        This is so far off the mark it’s kind of amazing.

        First of all, the very fact that you think you’ll be exposed to “professional suicide” for anonymously answering a survey about freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus is telling.

        I’m not sure why you think it’s compelling to say: “tell me why and I’ll decide if you’re being candid” and then follow up by saying that you think everyone lies on surveys and that these researchers could just be “SJWs” trying to out conservative professors. So there’s really no way of convincing you that they’re being candid, is there? Not quite sure how those students could out professors if they collected anonymous data, as well as how anyone would get away with that kind of behavior on campus considering the ethics board exists….

        Anyway…I can tell you either have not a shred of experience with statistics and how research is conducted or you just never cared to pay attention in school. I sure hope that you’re not in a teaching position based on your comments because you have absolutely zero understanding of why and how surveys are conducted, as well as their validity and accuracy. These methods of research have so much literature associated with how to interpret and use the data produced that it’s kind of amazing how you’ve managed to miss at least a sliver of it.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Morgan Foster

      “We wondered why our identities matter.”

      Brilliant. Gawd I love it when I myself get woken up. We can’t be on guard against the hidden premises in every last sentence all day long, we end up just nodding. But every last sentence does need to be examined. I had nodded off, thanks again.

    • Joe Tundra says

      What professional suicide? The respondents remained anonymous. Is paranoia so much the norm at academic institutions that one dare not whisper even when there is no chance of being heard?

      I think we have an answer to the question; “What is the state of free speech on campus?”.

      I’ll spell it out; the answer is ‘shitty’.

  12. Cynical old biologist says

    Well done Brayden and Kyle. Another important reason why academics (particularly scientists) are sceptical of the lay media is that they more often than not report inaccurately on science. The sensational implications of the story is more important than the story itself. It is just embarrassing to hear one’s work misrepresented by (possibly) well meaning journalists who, out of ignorance, cannot get it right. What must one’s colleagues think when they hear/read it!

    I very much agree with your comment regarding peer review that it, “is great at reinforcing popular ideas, but suppresses new or challenging ideas”. This is a very real problem but I feel that the game of publication in prestigious high-impact journals is breaking down. We want our research published open access and reviewed only on the basis of the science rather than its perceived significance. Journals like PLoS ONE are excellent for that reason.

    Shame on your institution’s research ethics committee for not supporting student-led research by the way. Maybe you can find an academic mentor willing to put their name to an application to the committee?

  13. martti_s says

    I am just so very very worried about the upper middle class follies of one of the richest and safest countries in the world.

  14. David says

    In addition to the methodological problems I and others have noted regarding the 84% data point, we also need to keep in mind that it only takes a small minority to terrorize a majority.

    Claire Lehmann has made this point:

    “For this kind of ideology to become harmful to companies, to public institutions, to broader society, it does not need to be held by a majority.

    “It only needs a motivated minority to hold these views, and what happens is that the majority acquiesce to the fixed, fanatical minority.

    “You can take the analogy of primary schools. You cannot take peanuts onto a primary school because they’ll be one or two kids in each classroom who are allergic to peanuts.

    “You only need a tiny minority who have fixed values or fixed demands, and the majority end up acquiescing.

    “So I think this is what we’re seeing in universities; we’re seeing it in companies like Google.

    “There’s a tiny minority, but they are very stubborn and very determined to get their way, and then the majority of people, who are moderates, who are apolitical in a way, acquiesce to their demands.”

    When you take a look at their tactics, I think you can see how it wouldn’t require a large number of people.

    The threat of one person calling you a racist or a sexist is enough to cause many to self-censor, particularly if the accuser is a faculty member, an administrator, or has more privilege points than you do.

    Then consider there might be a crowd of 50 calling you a racist, as happened to Bret Weinstein.

    Fifty students was only about 1% to 2% of the student population, but it was enough to cost Weinstein his job, and surely that is enough to cause most to self-censor.

    https://youtu.be/xdnSweR7F0Q

    • MMS says

      True enough because many in the majority middle are like parents; they just want the kids to shut up already and quite down. Give them their damn candy and soda if it will just shut them up and give us a moments peace… And so the Enlightenment falls gradually out the window….

    • Serenity says

      David,

      I think, totalitarian movement has more powerful drive than voluntary concession of the healthy majority to the needs of tiny minority of allergy sufferers.

      It is not the proclaimed sacred ends (protection against peanut allergy) but the preferential means which draw the red line between social justice warriors and genuine supporters of the common good. People who genuinely seek to find common ground and to reconcile differences don’t shut down their opponents and don’t assign them pernicious labels.

      Struggle for sacred values has the same root cause as bullying—unbridled psychopathic behaviour of ‘allergy sufferers’.

      I would also draw a more nuanced picture of ‘healthy majority’. They play their part in this peanut drama.

      “The dynamics …include not only the bully—or bullies—and the victim, but also those nearby: onlookers who fall into two categories, the audience and the bystanders. The audience enjoys the show that the bullies put on. Bullies interpret that enjoyment as support for their actions and that intensifies their actions. Bystanders pretend they haven’t seen what is going on, most often because they fear that voicing objection to it will make them a target. The bullies interpret this as implicit support.”

      • scribblerg says

        Where is the common ground between the values and ideas of the Enlightenment/Classical Liberalism and the Prog-Marxist Left of today? Consider that socialism itself begins by rejecting the classical liberal order as insufficient. They don’t want individuals to be free. They want to “transform” our societies and are well on their way to completing the task.

        There is no compromise available with such people. There is only conflict and winning or losing – and currently folks who support classical liberalism are losing badly and have been for a very long time.

        • Serenity says

          scribblerg,

          In Israel kibbutz movement peacefully and successfully coexists with capitalist economy.

          If you are a true supporter of equality, public ownership and principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” — go and join kibbutz, but don’t enforce your worldviews on entire population.

          • Accidentally In Law says

            Just because the Kibbutz “coexist” with the rest of Israel doesn’t mean they’re not at odds with the majority of the country. If they had their way, the rest of Israel would be Kibbutz. It’s not a “peaceful harmony.” Their coexistence is possible because both parties take a laissez faire approach to things and don’t engage.

            The Amish exist in United State as well, that’s doesn’t mean that what the Amish believe is compatible with US culture or even US law. If you create a community small enough to be isolated and self-sufficient, you can live under whatever conditions you please so long as the majority decides to let you do your thing.

            The world-views of whoever is in charge are by default enforced on the entire population. You may think abortion is evil, but so long as Roe v Wade stands, you don’t get to watch people go to jail for it. Maybe you disagree with gambling laws. That doesn’t mean you won’t go to jail. Politics is entirely about forcing your world view onto others. That’s why healthy conversation, common decency, and freedom of speech serve as a filter to promote political ideas which actually help us achieve the common good versus bad ideas which put us in zero-sum games. Eroding the foundation of this conversation by attacking freedom of speech and trying to table certain ideas as “off-limits” doesn’t help us reach the common good. It helps us paint people we disagree with as those who must “lose” and us as those who must “win.” We should ALL try to win.

  15. Hub 312 says

    “If academics don’t feel comfortable asking questions about important and sensitive topics….”

    …then for them and for those questions there’s no academic freedom.

  16. scribblerg says

    Since in the humanities, 90%+ of profs are radical Prog-Marxist wingnuts, why would I be surprised so many profs don’t see a big problem?

    The academic posture here is quite silly to me, as though this was something that needed to be validated. Simple question: Does your university have a speech code? Does it have orientations which inform and seek to enforce Prog-Marxist ideas about race, oppression, identity and speech? Does it conflate speech with violence? Does it have a gender studies dept?

    Yes to any of those? The school is a university-gulag. Period. The idea that profs are going to self-report anything of interest in such a corrupt, self-serving environment in the first place is quite naive.

    Wanna really make some changes? End tenure. Why on earth are teachers the only folks who are “guaranteed” a job? The answer is obvious – cuz they can get away with it. Then if you really want to make higher ed work, take away the govt tax subsidies. Actually make university worthwhile enough to pay for oneself, versus spreading the cost to others, many of whom will never go to university. But hey, we can’t have universities that actually have to deliver real value, after all, that would convert most of these hacks into the baristas that many of them should be…

    I know, I’m supposed to pretend to take this kind of article seriously. But we aren’t doing science here, we are doing policy and exercising good judgment. Collecting more data would make any difference.

    Last. Just the friction received by these folks is enough proof there is a problem. My question is: What are you going to do about it? We on the right have been going through this since the “Red Baiting” shaming of the right for calling out actual communists for destroying our societies and being agents of foreign powers. This is nothing new. The question is when are any of you actually going to get up on your hind legs and actually do something about it?

    Crickets….

  17. Joe Tundra says

    I think all the summary you need is that the UofA research ethics office refused to even consider looking at your work.

    If the people supposedly guarding the gates of ethics, deem your compiling of anonymous opinions on freedom of expression and thought too hot to handle, how much academic freedom could possibly exist at your own institution of higher learning?

    If the ethics police are too timid to dare speak, how free could anyone else’s speech be?

  18. John says

    There are even MORE important questions to ask IMHO. Like: who and what is the SOURCE of the impediment of liberty. Not just in academia, but for all of humanity. Academic places are simply the tip of the spear, where the “Plan” is first being noticed. You’re an academic, so you might even read what I’ve pasted below. There’s a link to the full document at the end.

    PROTOCOL 12 
 
    CONTROL OF THE PRESS
    Masonic “freedom” – Control of printing and publishing – Vishnu, idol of the Press

    The word “freedom,” which can be interpreted in various ways, is defined by us as follows –

    

2. Freedom is the right to do that which the law allows. This interpretation of the word will at the proper time be of service to us, because all freedom will thus be in our hands, since the laws will abolish or create only that which is desirable for us, according to the aforesaid program.



    We shall deal with the press in the following way: what is the part played by the press to-day? It serves to excite and inflame those passions which are needed for our purpose, or else it serves selfish ends of parties. It is often vapid; unjust; mendacious; and the majority of the public have not the slightest idea what ends the press really serves. We shall saddle and bridle it with a tight curb: we shall do the same also with all productions of the printing press, for where would be the sense of getting rid of the attacks of the press if we remain targets for pamphlets and books? The produce of publicity, which nowadays is a source of heavy expense owing to the necessity of censoring it, will be turned by us into a very lucrative source of income to our State: we shall law on it a special stamp tax and require deposits of caution-money before permitting the establishment of any organ of the press or of printing offices; these will then have to guarantee our government against any kind of attack on the part of the press. For any attempt to attack us, if such still be possible, we shall inflict fines without mercy. Such measures as stamp tax, deposit of caution-money and fines secured by these deposits, will bring in a huge income to the government. It is true that party organs might not spare money for the sake of publicity, but these we shall shut up at the second attack upon us. No one shall with impunity lay a finger on the aureole of our government infallibility. The pretext for stopping any publication will be the alleged plea that it is agitating the public mind without occasion or justification. I beg you to note that among those making attacks upon us will also be organs established by us, but they will attack exclusively points that we have pre-determined to alter.
 
    WE CONTROL THE PRESS
    Not a single announcement will reach the public without our control. Even now this is already being attained by us inasmuch as all news items are received by a few agencies, in whose offices they are focused from all parts of the world. These agencies will then be already entirely ours and will give publicity only to what we dictate to them.


    If already now we have contrived to possess ourselves of the minds of the goy communities to such an extent that they all come near, looking upon the events of the world through the colored glasses of those spectacles we are setting astride their noses; if already now there is not a single State where there exist for us any barriers to admittance into what goy stupidity calls State secrets: what will our positions be then, when we shall be acknowledged supreme lords of the world in the person of our king of all the world…


    Let us turn again to the future of the printing press. Every one desirous of being a publisher, librarian, or printer, will be obliged to provide himself with the diploma instituted therefore, which, in case of any fault, will be immediately impounded. With such measures the instrument of thought will become an educative means in the hands of our government, which will no longer allow the mass of the nation to be led astray in by-ways and fantasies about the blessings of progress. Is there any one of us who does not know that these phantom blessings are the direct roads to foolish imaginings, which give birth to anarchical relations of men among themselves and towards authority, because progress, or rather the idea of progress, has introduced the conception of every kind of emancipation, but has failed to establish its limits.…All the so-called liberals are anarchists, if not in fact, at any rate in thought. Every one of them is hunting after phantoms of freedom, and falling exclusively into license, that is, into the anarchy of protest for the sake of protest.…
 
    FREE PRESS DESTROYED
    We turn to the periodical press. We shall impose on it, as on all printed matter, stamp taxes per sheet and deposits of caution-money, and books of less than 30 sheets will pay double. We shall reckon them as pamphlets in order, on the one hand, to reduce the number of magazines, which are the worst form of printed poison, and, on the other, in order that this measure may force writers into such lengthy productions that they will be little read, especially as they will be costly. At the same time what we shall publish ourselves to influence mental development; in the direction laid down for our profit; will be cheap and will be read voraciously. The tax will bring vapid literary ambitions within bounds and the liability to penalties will make literary men dependent upon us. And if there should be any found who are desirous of writing against us, they will not find any person eager to print their productions. Before accepting any production for publication the publisher or printer will have to apply to the authorities for permission to do so. Thus we shall know beforehand of all tricks preparing against us and shall nullify them by getting ahead with explanations on the subject treated of.


    Literature and journalism are two of the most important educative forces, and therefore our government will become proprietor of the majority of the journals. This will neutralize the injurious influence of the privately-owned press and will put us in possession of a tremendous influence upon the public mind….If we give permits for ten journals, we shall ourselves found thirty, and so on in the same proportion. This, however, must in no wise be suspected by the public. For which reason all journals published by us will be of the most opposite, in appearance, tendencies and opinions, thereby creating confidence in us and bringing over to us quite unsuspicious opponents, who will thus fall into our trap and be rendered harmless.


    In the front rank will stand organs of an official character. They will always stand guard over our interests, and therefore their influence will be comparatively insignificant.


    In the second rank will be the semi-official organs, whose part it will be to attack the tepid and indifferent.


    In the third rank we shall set up our own; to all appearance, off position; which, in at least one of its organs, will present what looks like the very antipothesis to us. Our real opponents at heart will accept this simulated opposition as their own and will show us their cards.


    All our newspapers will be of all possible complexions – aristocratic, republican, revolutionary, even anarchical – for so long, of course, as the constitution exists…. Like the Indian idol “Vishnu” they will have a hundred hands, and every one of them will have a finger on any one of the public opinions as required. When a pulse quickens these hands will lead opinion in the direction of our aims, for an excited patient loses all power of judgment and easily yields to suggestion. Those fools who will think they are repeating the opinion of a newspaper of their own camp will be repeating our opinion or any opinion that seems desirable for us. In the vain belief that they are following the organ of their party they will, in fact, follow the flag which we hang out for them.


    In order to direct our newspaper militia in this sense we must take special and minute care in organizing this matter. Under the title of central department of the press we shall institute literary gatherings at which our agents will, without attracting attention, issue the orders and watchwords of the day. By discussing and controverting, but always superficially, without touching the essence of the matter, our organs will carry on a sham fight fusillade with the official newspapers solely for the purpose of giving occasion for us to express ourselves more fully than could well be done from the outset in official announcements, whenever, of course, that is to our advantage.


    These attacks upon us will also serve another purpose, namely, that our subjects will be convinced of the existence of full freedom of speech and so give our agents an occasion to affirm that all organs which oppose us are empty babblers, since they are incapable of finding any substantial objections to our orders.
 
    ONLY LIES PRINTED
    Methods of organization like these, imperceptible to the public eye but absolutely sure, are the best calculated to succeed in bringing the attention and the confidence of the public to the side of our government. Thanks to such methods we shall be in a position, as from time to time may be required, to excite or to tranquillize the public mind on political questions, to persuade or to confuse, printing now truth, now lies, facts or their contradictions, according as they may be well or ill received, always very cautiously feeling our ground before stepping upon it….We shall have a sure triumph over our opponents; since they will not have at their disposition organs of the press in which they can give full and final expression to their views; owing to the aforesaid methods of dealing with the press. We shall not even need to refute them except very superficially.


    Trial shots like these, fired by us in the third rank of our press, in case of need, will be energetically refuted by us in our semi-official organs.


    Even nowadays, already, to take only the French press, there are forms which reveal masonic solidarity in acting on the watchword: all organs of the press are bound together by professional secrecy; like the augurs of old, not one of their numbers will give away the secret of his sources of information, unless it be resolved to make announcement of them. Not one journalist will venture to betray this secret, for not one of them is ever admitted to practice literature unless his whole past has some disgraceful sore or other….These sores would be immediately revealed. So long as they remain the secret of a few, the prestige of the journalist attacks the majority of the country – the mob follow after him with enthusiasm.


    Our calculations are especially extended to the provinces. It is indispensable for us to inflame there those hopes and impulses with which we could at any moment fall upon the capital, and we shall represent to the capitals that these expressions are the independent hopes and impulses of the provinces. Naturally, the source of them will be always one and the same – ours. We require that, until such a time as we are in the plenitude of power, the capitals should find themselves stifled by the provincial opinion of the nations, i.e., of a majority arranged by our agentur. What we need is that; at the psychological moment; the capitals should not be in a position to discuss an accomplished fact for the simple reason, if for no other, that it has been accepted by the public opinion of a majority in the provinces.


    When we are in the period of the new regime; prior to the transition to that of the assumption of our full sovereignty; we must not admit any revelations by the press of any form of public dishonesty; it is necessary that the new regime should be thought to have so perfectly contented everybody that even criminality has disappeared…Cases of the manifestation of criminality should remain known only to their victims and to chance witnesses – no more.


    https://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sociopolitica/esp_sociopol_zion06.htm

  19. Grant A. Brown, DPhil (Oxon), LL.B. says

    Times have changed since I was a law student at the University of Alberta almost 20 years ago. Back in those days, I signed up to do an independent study course, and proposed to examine how the Prosecutors and judges in Edmonton handle “domestic violence” cases (i.e. intimate partner violence, or IPV). My project involved collecting and analyzing data from the files at the Crown Prosecutors Office. I was compelled to go through the Research Ethics Board for approval, which was very time-consuming for a student. Some members of the panel were afraid that my research might produce politically incorrect results (i.e. that the legal system treats men accused of IPV more harshly than women – which was in fact what I found, in spades), and wanted to shut me down. After a few trips around the barn, I managed to convince a bare majority of the panel to allow me to proceed. I would have thought that this bureaucratic over-reach would only have increased with time; but you say that the REB did not want to review your proposal at all. Very strange.

  20. Ron Arts says

    secured a faculty sponsor

    Shouldn’t that just have been a remark from the ethics committee though? Shouldn’t they have pointed that out?

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