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The animus for much of the recent debate roiling Harvard is the claim that the liberal tilt of the academy has accelerated in recent years. This process is believed to have excluded heterodox voices and thereby restricted academic freedom of expression on college campuses.
Lack of viewpoint diversity is widely believed to pose an existential threat to the University’s core mission of deepening intellectual inquiry, learning, and knowledge generation.
As John Stuart Mill’s classic “On Liberty” framed the argument: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
The backlash against so-called “wokeness” is a core feature of contemporary conservative politics in America. Educational gag orders have been introduced by U.S. State houses in attempts to restrict freedom of learning and teaching, especially on discussions of race, gender, American history, and BGLTQ identities.
PEN America has tracked over 100 bills, introduced in dozens of state legislatures, that have sought to restrict the teaching of such topics. Similarly, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has documented how legislatures have introduced bills in state after state restricting what can be taught. Even where bills fail to pass, the process may have a chilling effect, especially promoting self-censorship among scholars lacking tenure.
This all is part of a global phenomenon: In Europe — Hungary and Poland in particular — authoritarian populist governments have sought to curb academic freedom as well.
Is there solid evidence that viewpoint diversity has indeed worsened over time in academia, as widely assumed?
After all, decades ago, Paul F. Lazarsfeld’s pioneering book “The Academic Mind,” based on a large-scale representative survey of American social scientists, demonstrated that scholars tended to be more sympathetic to liberal or left-wing values than the general population. And even if the arc of academia bends towards progressive values, this does not necessarily mean that free debate about heterodox views is stifled.
At the same time, arguments favoring the central claims that viewpoint diversity has worsened are often limited to certain well-known but highly selective anecdotal cases. Surveys of students’ perceptions of academic freedom provide insights, but responses may be colored by contemporary media debates and political polarization.
A 2023 survey I helped conduct with The World of Political Science monitored the economic and social ideological values of political scientists, as well as their attitudes towards academic freedom of expression and perceptions of cancel culture. Focusing upon a subset of respondents living and working in western universities and colleges, cohort analysis by decade of birth is a technique which can provide proxy insights into trends over time.
The results confirm that indeed, not surprisingly, the youngest cohorts of political scientists are significantly more liberal-left in their values than the oldest cohorts. This reflects the process of value change among the general population in western societies, which has moved younger generations towards more socially liberal positions on a wide range of issues, including tolerance of homosexuality and support for gender and racial equality, reproductive rights, and secularization. If we can extrapolate more broadly from the WPS survey, the data suggests that socially conservative views have probably become more heterodox on campus.
But does this imply growing intolerance of free speech on campus? Scholars were also asked whether they agreed or disagreed with several statements about “politically correct” speech, measured using five-point scales. For example, they were asked whether freedom of expression should be limited in order to avoid giving offense. Here, younger cohorts were slightly more in favor of restrictions than older cohorts, perhaps reflecting changing sensibilities about standards of civility.
On the other hand, orientations towards the core principles of academic freedom are far from simple and the broader shift towards liberal values among younger generations runs counter to supporting censorship. Compared with older cohorts, younger faculty were more favorable towards academic free speech, not less, when asked whether it was important to challenge conventional dogma, whether university policies should respect extremist views, and whether scholars should debate unpopular views about identity politics.
Overall, the evidence supports a nuanced picture of trends, suggesting the need to dismantle some of the simplistic stereotypes common in popular commentary about viewpoint diversity.
The evidence, at least within the discipline of political science, further confirms the long-standing drift towards more liberal-left values among younger faculty and their greater sensitivity towards “politically correct” language on moral issues. And yet, far from intolerance, the younger cohort simultaneously displays strong support for several core classical liberal principles of academic freedom and defends robust free speech. This suggests that some of the current moral panic over the threats facing academic freedom is over-inflated by partisan rhetoric.
Younger scholars are not the enemies of free speech on campus. Far from denigrating these developments, John Stuart Mill might well have approved.
Correction: February 12, 2024
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Pippa Norris is the Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard Kennedy School and a faculty affiliate in the Government Department.
Her piece is part of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard’s column, which runs bi-weekly on Mondays and pairs faculty members to write contrasting perspectives on a single theme. Read the companion to Norris’ piece here.
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