By Christopher Dummitt and Zachary Patterson
An international debate swirls around the state of universities today.
Critics claim that universities have become political monocultures, hostile to those who challenge the merits of contemporary “progressive” thought. They warn of an academic culture where viewpoint discrimination is rampant and academic freedom is threatened.
Others have been skeptical, arguing that fears over cancel culture and political homogeneity are overblown and are merely right-wing talking points.
Until now we have not had sufficient information to assess whether these accusations fit the experience of Canadian universities. Our new report for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, The Viewpoint Diversity Crisis in Canadian Universities, offers the first in-depth survey-data of the opinions and experiences of Canadian professors on these issues.
Our report corroborates the claims of a serious crisis in higher education. Canadian universities are, like universities in the U.S. and the U.K., politically homogenous institutions whose lack of viewpoint diversity contributes to serious problems on campus including a weakening of support for academic freedom, a hostile climate for those who disagree with left-leaning values, and significant levels of self-censorship.
Our report corroborates the claims of a serious crisis in higher education
The survey shows that fully 88 per cent of professors identify as “left-leaning” and voted for left-leaning parties in the 2021 federal election. Only nine per cent of professors voted for conservative parties in the past federal election, compared with just under 39 per cent of the general population.
This political homogeneity is a significant problem. While it might seem that professors can park their politics at the classroom door, what we know about social psychology makes this optimism seem naïve at best. Organizations filled with like-minded individuals often fall prey to some of the most dangerous forms of conformity. Studies show that homogenous decision-making bodies make poor decisions because they operate on incomplete information, silencing (often unintentionally) those with diverse viewpoints.
Our study shows that this is exactly what is happening. Fully 57 per cent of right-leaning professors report that they self-censor to avoid professional harm. Even amongst left-leaning faculty, 37 per cent self-censor. Around half of right-leaning faculty express fear of social and professional consequences should their colleagues even learn about their opinions or political affiliations. Forty per cent of right-leaning faculty report their university department as a hostile work environment.
One of the reasons for this fear amongst political minorities on campus is likely tied to another key finding of our report: although most professors value academic freedom, a substantial minority — roughly one-third of professors — admit that they would support cancelling a colleague if that colleagues’ research conflicted with certain contemporary social justice values. In other words, for a significant portion of the professoriate, academic freedom matters — but only when it doesn’t conflict with their political opinions.
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The defence against viewpoint discrimination should be academic freedom. The good news is that there is widespread support amongst Canadian professors for academic freedom.
But clearly current provisions are insufficient. Part-time faculty (who can simply not be re-hired) and students are not protected under collective agreements. Moreover, though some professors may be protected from their employers, discrimination carried out by colleagues or online mobs remains unaddressed.
Other jurisdictions have realized the need to do more to protect universities. The U.K. House of Commons has passed a Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill to ensure universities are required to protect academic freedom on campus. The province of Quebec has similarly just passed Bill 32 to protect academic freedom on campuses.
Given the serious threats to academic freedom, the significant levels of self-censorship on Canadian campuses, and how this imperils the very purpose of higher education, it is time for governments in Canada to provide greater protections for academic freedom at Canadian universities. Ottawa should also enshrine academic freedom provisions within national research funding agencies.
At a time when political polarization and social media algorithms diminish trust in institutions, Canadian universities need to be part of the solution — modelling intellectual humility and genuine acceptance of all forms of diversity, especially viewpoint diversity.
Christopher Dummitt is a professor of Canadian history at Trent University. Zachary Patterson is an associate professor of geography at Concordia University.