The Threat to Academic Freedom … From Academics

Lee Jussim
Dec 27, 2019 · 14 min read

Here is a list of academics targeted for harm, i.e., punishment, by other academics for expressing ideas. Harm here refers not to vague allegations of unspecified damages, but real harms, such as being fired or having their papers retracted without evidence of fraud or rampant errors.

This essay is about the mob psychology of punishment of, or attempts to punish, academics by academics, for expressing ideas. Both just and unjust punishments may be inflicted for all sorts of reasons (e.g., allegations of crimes, harassment, discrimination, etc.). Outrage over behavior is not addressed here; my focus is on attempts by academics to punish other academics for their ideas.

Who counts as “an academic”? In this essay, I include faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and university administrators. I exclude undergraduate students. Faculty and administrators have some responsibility to protect the academic freedom of academics; when they shirk that responsibility, they have some culpability for any punishment that has occurred. Nonetheless, the nature of the culpability is different, and more extreme, when academics themselves initiate attempts to punish, versus when they simply fail to intervene to prevent punishment by others. Therefore, the list below is in two sections. The first includes attempts to punish initiated by academics; the second includes cases where academic faculty and administrators failed to prevent punishment by others.

There seem to have been far more attempts by academics to shut down, shut up, and censor their colleagues starting in 2017 than previously. This pattern is consistent with what I have called The Reality of the Rise of a Radical and Intolerant Left on Campus. In fact, all can be viewed as challenging a very specific subset of leftist sensibilities — those involving social justice (diversity, transgender activism, colonialism, racism). Has academic social justice ideology really become a quasi religious doctrine, complete with witches and heretics? Both scholars and cultural commentators who themselves have identified as left of center in their personal politics have sometimes said, “yes indeed.”

It is especially corrosive to academic freedom and free inquiry when academics target other academics for sanctions and punishments for expressing ideas. Please contact me with ones I have missed. All events occurred in the U.S., except where otherwise noted.

Academics Targeted for Punishment by Other Academics for Expressing Ideas:

Caryatid Fallen Under Her Stone; Source: Rodin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The National Association of Scholars (NASC) has a meeting scheduled for February 2020 titled “Fixing Science” that has been denounced as a shill for conservative and corporate interests, including calls for invited scholars to withdraw. I am one of the invited attendees, and I can attest that I did indeed receive an email from a prominent biologist urging me not to attend on those grounds. He is active on Twitter and regularly links to this article, as if it is some sort of damning indictment of the group. Although the article can be viewed as critical in some ways, including making vaguely-worded allegations of corporate conspiracies, it also refers to a report by the NASC that includes these quotes:

Brian Nosek: There is a lot to like in the report.

Andrew Gelman: Overall, I am happy with the report.

Nosek and Gelman are both very prominent scientists involved in attempts to, shall we say, “fix science.”

Nonetheless, this essay by a prominent science reformer also denounces the event and calls for scientists to withdraw. This denunciation met with widespread accolades among prominent science reformers on Twitter.

On the other hand, in this essay, I argued that the denunciations of this conference were, no matter how sincerely felt, little more than a manifestation of the political biases so common in academia. From that essay:

Hidden agendas and bad actors pervade the social sciences. Its just that they are usually bad actors with hidden agendas that are on the “correct” (left) end of the political spectrum and most of their academic colleagues either share those views or fear to speak up. The problem does not seem to be having hidden agendas and political goals; its not having the “right” ones (and by “right” I mean “left”). One’s fine as long as one‘s hidden agendas advance leftist goals.

Laura Tanner, graduate student in Feminist Studies, U. California, Santa Barbara, 2019, denounced, and subjected to attempts to remove her from campus and teaching. Laura’s sin is, depending on how one views it, claiming on Twitter that there really are just two human sexes, or denying the existence of transgender people. You can find a full story on this situation here. For example, she tweeted: “Genital cutting of any kind does not change one’s sex and can never make a man into a woman.” This has evoked protests and outrage that has included other graduate students (thus rising to my definition of “academics”). Protestors have called for her to be removed from campus or, at least, from teaching. I could find no evidence that the administration or faculty had done anything to protect her academic freedom.

Stephen Gliske, Neuroscientist, U. Michigan, 2019, call to retract article. Targeted by this petition calling for retraction of this article. I described this situation in my recent essay here. The targeted paper presented a new theory of gender dysphoria that offended trans activists and their academic supporters.

Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise Engelbrecht and Elmarie Terblanche Department of Sport Science, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2019, retraction. This article, which was accepted under conventional peer review practices, was subject to a petition initiated by an academic and which eventually garnered over 10,000 signatures. As usual, the petition had a slew of poorly specified allegations of error, or, when clearly specified, failed to articulate why the particular imperfections identified were more egregious than what is usually published in psychology journals. For example, one of the claims was that the article’s conclusions were overstated or overgeneralized. This may well be true, but I have written in lots of places (such as here and here and here) how this problem is pervasive throughout much of psychology. Thus, this appears to be a selective call for rigor. Nonetheless, the Journal retracted it.

Michele Moore, an independent scholar who has had affiliations with several universities in the U.K, has been denounced by petitioners who seek to oust her as editor of the peer reviewed journal, Disability and Society, 2019. The petition, signed by hundreds of academics and which can be found here, claims she has express trans-phobic ideas, such as “trans suicide rates are a myth” (seems to me this is either true or not and can be resolved with data; and even if she is wrong, and I have no idea whether she is right or wrong, that would still, not constitute being transphobic, it would just mean “she was wrong”). Although she has, so far, neither been ousted nor resigned, about a third of the editorial board has resigned in protest and some have called for boycotts of the journal.

Source: Atheist Forums

Martin Medhurst, Rhetoric and Communication, Baylor University, 2019, denunciation and retraction. Dr. Medhurst is (for now) editor of the peer reviewed journal, Rhetoric and Public Affairs. He wrote an editorial there arguing against a change in the way the National Communication Association (NCA) honors its members as Distinguished Scholars (it was subsequently taken down, possibly before print publication) and can no longer be found in the Journal). Under the old system, former Distinguished Scholars identify new ones. Under the new system, a committee of senior members would identify candidates. The controversy occurred because nearly all of the prior recipients of the honor are white, so many members of the NCA saw the new system as constructively altering a biased system; and, consequently, also saw Dr. Medhurst’s opposition as a defense of a system that advantaged white scholars. He was denounced in a petition that included a call for him to resign his editorship and there have been other calls to boycott the journal he edits.

Abigail Thompson, Math, U. California, Davis, 2019, denounced and called to resign. Dr. Thompson is VP of the American Mathematical Society. Her sin? She posted this essay characterizing diversity statements (new requirements for faculty job applications at many universities) as thinly-veiled political litmus tests to insure a sufficiently “woke” (my term, not her’s) faculty. I recently blogged about this situation here. The best overall discussion of this situation, including links to her essay, the denunciation petition, other denunciations on blog sites, as well as support, can be found here.

Alessandro Strumia, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), fired (not renewed), 2018–2019. After giving a controversial talk at a CERN conference arguing that women were underrepresented in physics because they were less accomplished, thousands of people, many of whom were academics, signed a petition denouncing him and including this thinly-veiled threat: “We hope that Strumia’s professional colleagues and superiors will take all these points into careful consideration in all future decisions involving him.” CERN ultimately decided not to renew his contract, effectively firing him without actually having to fire him. The situation is rendered more complex than it might seem at first glance, because, in the same talk, Strumia is plausibly viewed as having violated professional ethics by engaging in an ad hominem attack on a colleague present at the meeting (see this story for the full nuanced picture). It is nonetheless included here because the petition of denunciation spent far more space denouncing his ideas than his professionalism.

Noah Carl, Social Scientist, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, UK, 2018–19, fired. He had received a postdoc but an outrage mob of academics launched a petition and open letter condemning him, and, as usual in these situations, made vague and unsubstantiated allegations of errors, along with guilt-by-association tactics. St. Edmunds launched two investigations. One, led by a veterinarian, concluded that Dr. Carl’s work was flawed, without identifying any particular flaw. I cannot help but wonder, given psychology’s replication crisis, where half or more of all studies tested have failed to replicate, should we also be firing half of all psychological scientists?

A distinguished lawyer oversaw the second investigation and reached this quite contrary conclusion:

“Dr. Carl was … an extremely strong candidate indeed having performed with conspicuous success at every academic stage … [and] was the unanimous choice. No-one else impressed to anything like the same degree.” Nonetheless, St. Edmunds fired him, or, more exactly, withdrew the postdoctoral position that they had previously committed to provide him.

Sign seen in Woodstock, NY. Picture by Lee Jussim

Lisa Littman, MD & behavioral scientist, Brown U. 2018, call to retract. Dr. Littman’s paper identifying “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” was targeted by transgender activists, professionals, and academics alike for retraction. I told the story here; the paper was ultimately revised and (in my view) improved, but, along the way, Littmann was fired from a consulting position.

Ted Hill, Math, Georgia Tech, 2018, acceptance of a paper rescinded (twice). Dr. Hill wrote a paper offering an evolutionary theory for the male variability hypothesis (the idea that human males are more variable than human females on many attributes). It was accepted for publication at a journal; this evoked protests and outrage, which had the effect of pressuring the accepting journal to “unaccept” the article (the only such case of which I am aware). He then had it accepted at another journal, where there were more howls of outrage, and it was again unaccepted. Most of the story can be found here, though a case can be made that the second unacceptance occurred, not because of political pressure, but because the paper was accepted by an inappropriate process of too-cosy-insiders rather than bona fide peer review. The paper remains unpublished as far as I know.

Jonathan Anomaly, Philosophy, UPenn, 2018, denunciation and all-but-call-to-retract. Dr. Anomaly published an article titled Defending Eugenics, which argued that the early 20th century form of eugenics (racial superiority, forced sterilizations, etc) was revolting, but that genetic counseling and modern genetic engineering is going to be a boon to young couples seeking some control over the genetics of their offspring. This article evoked this letter expressing offense and outrage and stopping barely short of calling to retract: “We suggest that it is never the time for an article that defends eugenics to be published in a reputable international scientific journal.”

Bret Weinstein & Heather Heying, Biology, Evergreen College. 2017, ousted. Both were forced to resign when student protests against them turned violent. They are included here because the most of the faculty and administration at Evergreen actively embraced and contributed to the most virulent and authoritarian forms of “social justice” that created the environment from which these protests emerged, and literally none of the administrators did anything to defend either their academic freedom or their physical safety.

Bruce Gilley, Political Science, Portland State U. 2017, paper retracted. His paper, The Case for Colonialism, was retracted after academics initiated a petition calling to retract, signed by thousands, and then both Gilley and the journal editor received what they considered to be credible death threats.

Rebecca Tuvel, Philosophy, Rhodes College, 2017, call to retract. She published a paper on trans-racialism which argued if people can change sex because of which sex they identify which, and if race is a social construct with no basis in biology, why can’t they also change race simply by changing which race they identify with? This evoked an outrage mob of academics petitioning to have the paper retracted. In this case, they failed.

Lindsay Shepherd, graduate student and teaching assistant in Communications, 2017, Wilfred Laurier University, Canada, subject to a 21st Century Inquisition for showing a debate video. She was teaching a course and showed this video of Jordan Peterson discussing/debating with Nicholas Matte (among others) issues involving gender, transgender, and pronoun use. She was promptly called to account by a trio of professors and administrators in what was intended to be a confidential meeting, which she recorded and released to the public. The full recording is available here and a transcript is available here. To many, her grilling appeared to constitute a 21st century mutant offspring of a Kafka-like interrogation, a Mao-ist struggle session, and Orwellian double think and totalitarianism. The university did eventually come to Ms. Shepherd’s defense, but only after she exposed the meeting to the public, which evoked a large outcry of support for her. The various actors involved in this controversy — Peterson, Wilfred Laurier, Shepherd, the professors who interrogated her, were, last I knew, basically engaged in a game of musical lawsuits.

This experience has helped launch her career and she is plausibly described as a free speech warrior, a description I suspect she would be proud of.

Rachel Fulton Brown, Historian, U. Chicago, 2017, unspecified sanctions. She was denounced as a white supremacist in a letter signed by over 1300 academics calling for unspecified sanctions, (apparently for writing for Breitbart and being friendly with Milo Yiannopolous, and for defending herself against relentless attacks by Dorothy Kim, such as this one). At least some outsiders viewed the attacks on Brown as little more than a smear campaign designed to silent nonleftist voices in the academy.

Laura Kipnis, Communications, Northwestern U, 2015–2018, Title IX was weaponized to harass her (some events may have occurred prior to 2015). Dr. Kipnis was first accused of harassment and creating a “hostile environment” after she posted an essay arguing that faculty-student romantic relationships might not be so terrible. It subjected her to months of what she declared her Title IX Inquisition. She was ultimately cleared of all charges. She then wrote a book about that experience, and the same person who accused her previously, accused her again under Title IX, and also sued her for civil damages. Kipnis was eventually cleared again and the suit was dropped. This is included here because academic administrators absolutely should, in my view, have a responsibility to insure that protections against harassment and discrimination cannot be weaponized in this manner and should have had procedures in place for summary dismissal of the complaints (e.g., “you cannot bring a Title IX case because someone published an essay, unless it defames you personally.”).

Lennart Bengtsson, Climate Science, U. of Reading (UK), 2014, resigned. Dr. Bengtsson joined a conservative climate skeptic thinktank, and was, as he described it, subject to an onslaught of pressure, insults, and hostile emails basically declaring him a traitor to the cause. After three weeks, he could not stand it any longer and resigned.

Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard, 2006, ousted. Forced to resign by Harvard faculty outraged for many reasons, but what triggered the most aggressive faculty protests of outrage were his comments raising speculative hypotheses about women’s under-representation in science fields.

Michael Bailey, Psychology, Northwestern, early 2000s, denounced, falsely accused of scientific misconduct, and harassed by academic transgender activists. This story was retold extensively in Alice Dreger’s award-winning book, Galileo’s Middle Finger; for a shorter version, see this essay.

Napoleon Chagnon, Anthropology, U. Michigan, 2000, censured. He was an early sociobiologist (forerunner of evolutionary psychology) and biological explanations for social behavior are often controversial in academic circles. He was censured by the American Anthropological Association on sensationalistic charges of inflicting mass death on indigenous South Americans; charges that were insufficiently vetted and which ultimately shown to be unfounded and possibly fraudulent.

Linda Gottfredson, Psychology, U. Delaware, early 1990s, her funding source was banned, promotion to full professor delayed, and was subject to various types of retaliation for objecting. Dr. Gottfredson has done perennially controversial research on intelligence and race. For some time, her main funding source was banned by U. Delaware, and her promotion to full professor delayed because some of her colleagues objected to her conclusions — not because they found the work more flawed than any other work in psychology. She retells that story in this paper, which included winning academic freedom suits, a dean resigning (after years litigating against his harassment of her and a colleague), and settlement of other suits in such a way that insured Dr. Gottfredson’s academic freedom.

Camille Paglia, Humanities, U. Penn, denounced. She has been protested on and off for decades, sometimes by students but often enough by faculty who have sought to stigmatize her or deplatform her for her views, which many consider anti-political correctness and/or anti-feminist.

Faculty Punished or Threatened by Non-Academics and Who Received Little or No Support from Faculty or Administrators at Their College or University

Sam Abrams, Politics, Sarah Lawrence College, 2018, threatened physically and professionally.

Sign seen at the NYC March for Science, Lee Jussim

Dr. Abrams was targeted by student protestors, which included threats, defacement of his property, and calls for his tenure to be revoked. What was his sin? He published this editorial in the NYTimes, which was based on a survey that he conducted finding that administrators are even more extremely homogenously leftwing in their politics than are faculty — and faculty are already very leftwing in their politics. As they say, “students are always revolting,” so what’s the problem? The problem is that he received little or no support from administrators at Sarah Lawrence (who should have been leaping to defend his academic freedom); and many faculty even signed a petition supporting the students!

Amy Wax, Law, UPenn, 2018, pulled from teaching. Dr. Wax has been controversial for a long time, including have argued that black students at Penn Law perform poorly, for the superiority of bourgeois values, and, most recently, for immigration preferences that would advantage those already most culturally similar to the U.S., by which she meant belief in individual rights, free markets, and fair elections (and which, she explicitly pointed out, would have the effect of advantaging immigration from countries that are majority white). Many have argued that one or more of these positions are bluntly racist, though others view it quite differently. Regardless, her own dean denounced her as racist and prohibited her from teaching first year law students.

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If you find this sort of topic interesting, feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I comment on and critique work in social psychology and the social sciences, as well as topics such as these that impinge on issues of academic freedom and free inquiry.

Lee Jussim

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