UB op-ed: The silencing of academic voices in turbulent times

Fear of retribution keeps professors from speaking out
By: | Issue: April/May, 2019
April 11, 2019
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Jason Seacat is a professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Academic freedom, which has existed since the early 1900s, is important to our democracy. Scholars can influence policy with arguments rooted in fact and empirical evidence, rather than in partisanship.

Unfortunately, the voices of academics are increasingly absent from our national discourse. The continued erosion of academic freedom will further undermine the confidence, willingness and ability of scholars to weigh in on matters of importance to our democracy.

This erosion will further delegitimize science in the public eye, as academics shy away from openly defending their scientific findings out of fear for their careers, funding and even their personal safety.

Professors—who ostensibly have the protection of academic freedom—should be able to speak out critically on issues relevant to their areas of expertise without fear of retribution. However, harassment, professional retaliation and even termination have become common institutional and societal responses to outspoken faculty members.

For example, Turning Point USA, a conservative watchdog group, maintains the Professor Watchlist and publishes the names of professors who, they say, advance “radical agendas” in the classroom. Appearing on this infamous list has led to hundreds of cases of faculty harassment and even death threats. The watchlist is an increasingly serious threat to academic freedom and free speech, but little is challenging it.

Fear of retribution

The silencing of the academic voice is a disturbing trend that has been playing out in higher education for decades. Trends like a 26 percent decline in tenured professors and a 50 percent decline in tenure-track faculty over the past 40 years have left far fewer scholars with the protections of tenure, let alone any semblance of academic freedom.

When academics are too fearful to challenge misinformation, misleading voices become the loudest and most influential ones in national debates.

The result has been a substantially weakened professoriate fearful of responding in the current zeitgeist of political, social and environmental misinformation. When academics are too fearful to challenge misinformation, misleading voices become the loudest and most influential ones in national debates.

Look at recent events in the media today. The debate over climate change, a phenomenon supported by scientific evidence, has made many climate scientists, especially women, targets of violent threats and public persecution.

Protecting academic freedom and the academic voice should be a universal goal for any democracy as academics are often stalwart defenders of democratic values. Data from the Social Research Institute suggests that public trust in scientists and professors remains extremely high (83 percent and 85 percent, respectively); academics need to capitalize on this trust.

Public scholarship

Convincing the public to support science requires academics to clearly communicate their research. Academics cannot expect public support when their research remains confined to scholarly journals. One way to improve the public’s connection to research is for academics to engage in public scholarship—a topic that is increasingly promoted by academic leaders, advocates for science and other academics.

Read: Freedom of expression on campus: Controversial speakers, student protests

Universities must also take a visible stand and be prepared to support faculty members who choose to speak out. Promoting a culture of critical thinking and community engagement is one way that higher ed institutions can nurture academic voice.

With public and institutional support, it is far more likely that academics will stand up and speak out on issues of importance and ensure that the academic voice is not silenced.

Jason Seacat is a professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts.