A recent study conducted by a non-partisan proponent of free speech concluded a record-high number of school faculty and staff reporting fear of reprimand for expressing their views, topping numbers recorded during the Red Scare more than 50 years ago.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) surveyed almost 1,500 faculty across four-year colleges and universities and found “more than half of faculty (52%) reported being worried about losing their jobs or reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done, takes it out of context or posts something from their past online.” Fearing reprimand, 25% reported being “very” or “extremely likely” to self-censor in academic publications. A similar study conducted at the end of the McCarthy era in 1958 found only 9% of social scientists had toned their writing believing “it might cause too much controversy.”
Furthermore, when taking faculty’s broadest channels of communication into account, such as social media, meetings, presentations and publications, 91% were at least somewhat likely to self-censor.
The proliferation of faculty fear seems to be linked primarily to undergraduate student backlash. In one figure the study cited, there were 450 attempts to sanction scholars from 2015 to the present, 328 of which came from undergraduates. Out of the overall sanctions included from graduate students and other scholars, 62 resulted in termination or forced resignation.
“We’re finally seeing the extent to which faculty have lost their peace of mind,” said FIRE Research Fellow Dr. Nathan Honeycutt, according to Diverse. “When professors across the political spectrum become terrified of losing their jobs for exercising their rights, true academic inquiry and diversity of thought become nearly impossible.”
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However, the study noted how the administration currently contributes to subtle forms of chilling speech among colleagues in what FIRE identifies as “soft authoritarianism.” For example, over 10% of faculty reported being pressured by their administration to avoid researching controversial topics at least occasionally.
Initiatives to restrict speech are pronounced across ideological lines: When only taking conservative faculty into account, the number of administrations pressuring faculty to avoid specific research topics jumped past 20%. Similarly, when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion statements being a mandatory hiring provision, 90% of conservative faculty and 56% of moderate faculty see them as political litmus tests; however, three-in-four liberal faculty support it.