Academic freedom is under siege. A new survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) reveals professors are shutting their mouths and biting their tongues out of fear of being canceled.
In their newly released report “The Academic Mind in 2022,” FIRE (where I’ve been a fellow since 2021) surveyed nearly 1,500 professors from colleges and universities across the country. The results show mass self-censorship and a widespread fear that saying the wrong thing could cost them their reputations — or even their jobs.
“I’ve been defending free speech on campus for twenty-two years now, and it was clear that things have been getting much worse over the past couple years,” FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff told me. “But looking at these numbers, it’s even worse than I thought.”
More than half (52%) of professors reported being “afraid of losing their jobs or reputations because someone misunderstands something they said or did, takes it out of context, or posts something from their past online.”
Some 72% of conservative faculty members and 56% of moderates felt this way, while 40% of liberal faculty members did. Roughly one-third (34%) said they often feel they can not express their opinions because of how students, colleagues or school administration might respond.
I witnessed this erosion of free speech on campus firsthand as a college student at NYU. As a then-junior in 2021, I wrote about the pressure I felt to conform to the ultra-progressive environment at my university — and the satisfaction I ultimately felt when I spoke out and was true to my values.
It’s no wonder professors feel this way too, considering just how illiberal campuses have become. Professors from across the country have found themselves ensnared in cancel culture — and some have even been punished by their universities for breaking with campus orthodoxy.
Lukianoff says he was especially shocked to learn 11% of faculty members say they’ve either been disciplined or threatened with discipline by administrators for what they taught in the classroom. An additional 4% were threatened or punished for research, academic talks or work in non-academic publications.
That means that roughly one in seven professors have been intimidated for their speech.
“We already know that hundreds of professors have been targets of cancel culture, but we also know that there are closed-door hearings and other ways to pressure professors into conformity that are done entirely in secret,” Lukianoff said. “This destroys lives and harms the integrity of academic research.”
Free speech on campus is critical to ensuring that professors and students alike can wrestle with difficult ideas and ask tough questions. That is, after all, the very purpose of a college education.
But when significant numbers of professors are being threatened and even punished for daring to being controversial, it sends a chilling message to others around them: conform or risk the same fate.
“An investigation, or the mere threat of one, can create or strengthen existing social pressure to avoid certain topics, questions, or viewpoints, stifling classroom discussions of complex and important topics,” the FIRE report reads.
FIRE’s survey makes it clear: academic freedom is suffering at colleges and universities across the country—including our most prestigious ones. In fact, last year FIRE bestowed Yale University with its Lifetime Censorship Award for “repeatedly violating the free expression and academic freedom rights of students and scholars.
“Yale’s formidable academic reputation is on a collision course with reality, and there’s no sign that its leadership is even trying to swerve.”
When professors at even the finest of institutions are avoiding controversy, it spells disaster for public faith in academia. How can we trust academics to push boundaries and make discoveries if everyone is too afraid to challenge the status quo?
“This is not a sustainable environment for a place that is supposed to produce ideas,” Lukianoff warned. “And it’s something that should have all Americans concerned.”