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.
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.