With academic freedom under attack, how does the U.S. stack up vs. other nations?

Gag orders, recent tenure cases in two states and the rise of disinformation is putting American liberal democracy at risk.

Over the past decade, academic freedom has declined in the United States and impacted 40% of people worldwide, according to a new report from the University of Gothenburg and FAU Erlangen-NÁ¼rnberg.

Though the barriers aren’t as severe as they were in the 1960s and ’70s, researchers show in their Academic Freedom Index that a remarkable pinch has been put on academic scholars since 2011, especially in regions such as Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa. And North America is not immune.

According to the Index and the separate V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2022, the “level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is down to 1989 levels—the last 30 years of democratic advances are now eradicated.” There are various factors in play, including the global pandemic, the rise of autocrats, the escalations of war and the increase in disinformation.

In the U.S., researchers say polarization of political factions has led to a decrease of freedoms—and that is playing out in a number of states and legislators seeking bans and/or restrictions on instruction and subject matter, such as critical race theory and gender studies. There are 50 gag orders targeting freedom of speech alone in higher education, as well as battles over limits on tenure in Florida and in Texas, where three professors are suing Collin College over their contracts not being renewed because of what they claim is the result of their teachings.

Authors of the report say government disinformation is largely to blame for the fallout and for polarization. “These governments almost never used to spread misinformation,” authors wrote after researching 30 million data points from 202 countries and 3,700 scholars. “Misinformation and fake news regarding political opponents can inflate negative feelings and distrust or even instigate violence, which in turn aggravates levels of polarization. This pattern played out during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

They said the U.S. is in danger of losing its status as a liberal democracy “after substantial autocratization” during the Trump Administration. Its Academic Freedom Index (which factors in nearly 100 measures including politicization, misinformation, liberty, and checks and balances) has fallen 15% and is among 34 nations identified by researchers as being vulnerable to further attacks on freedom. The UK is also losing ground, which sparked researchers to note that the two superpowers have always been near the top when it comes to academic freedom and science-based evidence but have fallen back behind a tier of countries that includes Germany and Norway. The nations near the bottom are China, Syria, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Russia and Cuba are in a group just above them.

Researchers noted five main criteria in determining the Academic Freedom Index:

  • The freedom to research and teach
  • The freedom of academic exchange and dissemination
  • The institutional autonomy of universities
  • Campus integrity
  • The freedom of academic and cultural expression

They said scholars in 35 countries are under extreme threats of freedom of expression, up from just five in 2011. That’s because 70% of the world now lives under autocratic rule, an increase of 20% in the past decade. So what must happen to change that dynamic?

“Polarized publics are more likely to demonize political opponents and distrust information from diverse sources, and mobilization shifts as a result, [so] engagement to protect and promote democracy must build on science to be effective,” authors say. “Facts must meet misconceptions and lies about the virtues and limitations of democratic and autocratic governance.”

More from UB:

When is the right time for college presidents to speak the truth?

Three state universities caught in the crosshairs of critical race theory

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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