Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship

March, 2021

Main Findings

  • This study is the first of its kind to investigate authoritarianism and political discrimination in academia, relying on survey responses from both the perpetrators and targets of discrimination.
  • Across three Anglophone countries, a significant portion of academics discriminate against conservatives in hiring, promotion, grants and publications. Over 4 in 10 US and Canadian academics would not hire a Trump supporter, and 1 in 3 British academics would not hire a Brexit supporter.
  • Gender-critical feminist scholars appear to experience even more discrimination than conservatives. Only 28% of American and Canadian academics would feel comfortable having lunch with someone who opposes the idea of transwomen accessing women’s shelters.
  • Most professors do not back cancel culture in its most authoritarian forms. Only 1 in 10 academics supports firing controversial professors. Nonetheless, while most do not back cancellation, many are not opposed to it, remaining non-committal.
  • Right-leaning academics experience a high level of institutional authoritarianism and peer pressure. In the US, over a third of conservative academics and PhD students have been threatened with disciplinary action for their views while 70% of conservative academics report a hostile departmental climate for their beliefs.
  • In the social sciences and humanities, over 9 in 10 Trump-supporting academics and 8 in 10 Brexit-supporting academics say they would not feel comfortable expressing their views to a colleague. More than half of North American and British conservative academics admit self-censoring in research and teaching.
  • Younger academics and PhD students, especially in the United States, are significantly more willing than older academics to support dismissing controversial scholars from their posts, indicating that the problem of progressive authoritarianism is likely to get worse in the coming years.
  • A hostile climate plays a part in deterring conservative graduate students from pursuing careers in academia. Conservative and liberal graduate students differ far more in their perceptions of whether their politics fit academia than they do on questions related to how well academia pays, the isolating nature of the work, and other aspects of the profession.
  • One policy option is for government to proactively apply the law to universities, instituting sanctions for institutions that repeatedly breach individuals’ academic freedom while opening up a means for plaintiffs to appeal around their universities to a regulatory ombudsman. While this report makes no policy recommendations, this approach has been largely adopted by the British government.


High profile incidents of campus illiberalism are often brushed off as spirited exceptions to the rule that academic freedom is safe. Recent examples include the mob violence directed against Charles Murray at Middlebury College and Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State University. Progressive critics view the free speech debate–on campus and more generally–as overblown, a moral panic concocted by the right.[1] In universities, many don’t experience a threat to their ability to teach and research, so they wonder what the problem is.

This report seeks to cut away from the headlines to explore large-scale survey data for the US, Canada, and the UK. Its unique contribution is providing robust quantitative analysis that reveals the nature and extent of punishment for speech and political discrimination from the perspectives of both perpetrators and victims. Few academics favor dismissal campaigns, but a significant minority admit to discriminating against conservatives, and a near-majority seem to do so when a “list method,” designed to get around social desirability bias, is used to elicit responses. From the perspective of the small minority of right-leaning academics, we see the consequences of this behavior, with most saying they experience a hostile climate in their departments and that they self-censor in their teaching and research. According to our surveys, over a third of conservative academics and PhD students in the United States say they have been threatened with disciplinary action for their beliefs.

While even one episode of intolerance of free speech should raise concern, it is important in science to be able to generalize findings to a wider population. This report begins with high-profile de-platformings and dismissals. But it soon moves beneath the surface to expose what are far more pervasive threats to academic freedom stemming from fears of a) cancellation­–threats to one’s job or reputation, and b) political discrimination. These I dichotomize as hard and soft authoritarianism. 

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