The War Against Academic Freedom

The Enlightenment ideal of the university is a community of scholars seeking the truth. The methodology of this ideal is a multiplicity of voices and views engaged in discussion and debate, in seeking and adducing evidence, and in drawing and challenging conclusions.

Western universities have gradually but decisively moved away from the Enlightenment ideal. Many institutions have formally committed to Black Lives Matter, “anti-racism,” and societal transformation. Today’s “social justice” university has prioritized the political goals of social, economic, and justice reform, commonly conceptualized as “diversity, equity, inclusion.” These goals are applied within the university through policies that shape admissions, funding, hiring, promotion, residences, ceremonies, and awards.

In practice, “social justice” means preferential treatment for females and certain minorities, such as people of color, LGBTQ++, indigenous natives such as American Indians and Canadian First Nations, Muslims, and the disabled, along with the marginalization of overperforming minorities such as Asians (a.k.a. “white adjacent”) and Jews (a.k.a. “hyper-white”). It also necessitates discrimination against all males and the majority of whites and Christians. Universities establish differential standards for different categories of people, and assessment tools such as standardized exams, for example at the University of California and the Ontario College of Teachers, are abandoned altogether to guarantee equal outcomes between demographic groups.

“Social justice” principles have been formally instituted by university administrations, and are regarded as sacrosanct by many administrators, staff, professors, and students. Special administrative staff, called “diversity” or “diversity and inclusion” officers—numbering dozens or hundreds distributed throughout university offices and mirroring the political commissars of communist societies—are charged with policing “social justice” policies and ensuring conformity in both thought and action among university members.

Criticism of “social justice” ideas or policies has brought opposition, often quite virulent, not only from university administrations but also from fellow academics and students, many of whom are self-appointed “social justice” vigilantes opposed to “wrong think.” They deem critics of “social justice” to be heretics who must be either reformed or eliminated. The elimination of such heretics, involving the removal from administrative, editorial, or teaching positions, and in some cases, complete excommunication from the university, is increasingly common in university life, earning the label “cancel culture.”

It is not only university “social justice” policies that may not be criticized. “Social justice” ideology encompasses wide-ranging, substantive theories about society, including about race and racism, policing, sex and gender, crime, religion, and economic success. These include, for example, claims that the U.S. and Canada are “systemically racist”; that every black male is at risk of being killed by the police every day of his life; that universities have a “rape culture”; that economic success is the result of “white privilege”; that sex is not binary; that all of North America belongs to indigenous natives; that trans-women are women; and that all of the evils in the world are a result of European imperialism and colonialism. These theories may not be interrogated or contradicted, however much evidence is brought to bear. Anyone who dares to challenge such “social justice” doctrines is denounced as a racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe, Islamophobe, white supremacist, Klansman, fascist, Nazi, and/or “literally Hitler.”

Thus many topics relevant to society and to contemporary concerns are closed off from free inquiry, investigation, debate, and hypothesis. Sociologists, anthropologists, economists, political scientists, education specialists, legal experts, et al. must either swear fealty to “social justice” dogmata, endorsing them in their work, or steer clear of these topics and find anodyne subjects to research and teach.

In today’s “social justice” university, academic freedom means that you can either endorse the “social justice” policies of “diversity, equity, inclusion,” or you can stay silent, as Professor Dorian Abbot found out. The Enlightenment academic freedom, in which members of the university community could pursue their investigations without restraint and follow them to their conclusions, is but a distant memory. Universities have mostly given up the search for truth in favor of the advancement of DEI political goals, and are thus not so much educational institutions as they are “social justice” seminaries.

Enforcement of compliance with “social justice” ideology and policies does not rest only on the shoulders of diversity commissars. Some professors and students are ready to take up the cudgels to batter deviants and heretics. One method is to denounce the offender by circulating a petition among fellow professors, as a hundred Stanford medical colleagues did against Dr. Scott Atlas in 2020, following which the Stanford Faculty Senate voted to condemn Atlas.

Another popular method of canceling a faculty member is the “open letter,” written by DEI vigilantes to expunge the community of a heretic. At my home institution, McGill University, this method is a favorite among student activists. One such letter was directed to redefining academic freedom as limited to views that activists find acceptable. I, an emeritus professor of anthropology, was the example given for clamping down on unacceptable accounts and analyses. Eight student groups, including McGill’s two anthropology groups, took exception to a sentence I had written in a publication on my special field of study, tribal life in the Middle East, although they also condemned many of my other publications, which they misrepresented, as deviating from their preferred views.

This open letter did not argue that the statement in question was false, nor did its authors provide contrary arguments or conclusions. In short, they offered no academic criticism at all. Rather, they claimed that my statement made them feel “unsafe.” Furthermore, the letter asserted that I am a “racist” and an “Islamophobe,” although the offending article did not mention either race or Islam. For the sins of my research findings, and for, as the letter claimed, bringing disrepute to the university, the authors demanded that my emeritus status, which I had earned with fifty years of service to the university and to anthropology, should be revoked.

Another open letter at McGill targeted a distinguished senior professor in a different discipline. In this instance, five student groups attacked Dr. Douglas Farrow, professor of theology and ethics, for having views of sexuality with which they disagreed. The letter elaborated at length the students’ objections: “Dr. Farrow provides his students with a very particular perspective both on Christian theology and Christian understanding of gender and sexuality, which not only prevents a diverse learning environment, but also makes numerous students feel victimized by many of the views expressed by Dr. Farrow.” The letter goes on to explain how the students are allegedly “victimized”: Professor Farrow “denies the dignity of their identity and personhood, thus making the SRS [School of Religious Studies] inaccessible and unsafe to the many LGBTQ+ students.”

The students’ open letter is not shy about recommendations to correct Professor Farrow’s alleged “bigotry”: “We request that the SRS provide students greater flexibility in their course choice by assigning additional professors to the mandatory classes that are currently taught exclusively by Dr. Farrow. Many of Dr. Farrow’s classes have been taught by other professors in the past, and we hope that similar changes can be made again. We also call on the SRS to remove his homophobic and transphobic works from the display cases in the Birks lobby.” So basically, the students wish to disappear Professor Farrow for his views.

Once again, the letter offers no academic argument contrary to Professor Farrow’s views. It instead provides an ad hominem attack, along with a misrepresentation of his views, and does no more in support of its demands than claim identities or political support for identities. It asserts that this is a sufficient basis to discipline Professor Farrow.

McGill’s administration, unlike that of many other universities, has not bowed to politically motivated cancel culture. It has taken a moderate and balanced position, stating explicitly that academic freedom must be respected, and that differences of opinion are not grounds for disciplinary actions.

The latest open letter, signed by no fewer than 27 student groups and one staff group, as well as many individual students and faculty members, demands that McGill boycott all Israeli educational institutions and all companies which deal with Israel. The letter also demands that any and every statement deemed to be pro-Israel be banned from the university:

We believe in and fight for the rights of students to feel safe and condemn the McGill administration for not intervening in the spread of hate speech relating to the expansion of the Israeli settler-colonial project, the expulsion of Palestinians, and the violence against innocent civilians. We demand that McGill fulfill their mandate of ensuring a safe, non-racist, non-discriminatory environment by condemning Zionist speech on campus.

The letter further demands that McGill define “Zionism ideologies and speech as racism,” and thereby as violations of the university’s policy on discrimination. And, just in case the point has not been made sufficiently clear, the letter declares that

We demand that McGill recognize any speech that advocates for the expansion of a settler-colonial state, for the expulsion of native peoples from their homes, and for the use of violence against unarmed civilians as hate speech. Any student group or student who espouses these ideologies should be held accountable by the University for their violent, hateful, and harmful speech.

Note that the letter does not offer to debate the Israel-Palestine issue, or to provide evidence and arguments to support the authors’ case. No, it simply demands that any political position but its own be regarded as hate speech and banned from campus. This letter follows the long-standing policy of the McGill Daily newspaper to refuse any article or letter it deems to be pro-Israel. It also follows the long-standing policy of the Students’ Society to block the election of pro-Israel students and to eject those who were elected. The informal motto of the Students’ Society is “punch a Zionist today.”

McGill’s response is, once again, moderate and balanced. Here it invokes “equity and inclusion,” not to suppress academic freedom but to justify it:

The petition’s demands are in fact wholly antithetical to our commitment to equity and inclusion. They purport to draw on our commitment to equity and inclusion to call for measures that would divide our community, notably by demanding that we exclude some worldviews and ways of self-identifying from our campus. We cannot, indeed we will not, allow the misuse of our EDI-based [Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion] plans and policies to sow strife at McGill. While each of us enjoys the right to hold and express our own political views, the University will not respond to calls that would threaten to undermine our obligation to uphold a safe, respectful and inclusive campus for all.

The critical phrase for academic freedom is “each of us enjoys the right to hold and express our own political views.” The question is, how to enforce that?

At my university and others, there are no consequences for ad hominem attacks on individuals whose views differ from their attackers, nor for demanding that the individual targeted be punitively canceled. That is, any student, student group, or professor is entirely free to vilify a fellow member of the university community and to try to harm his professional reputation. There is no restraint on attacking others on behalf of a preferred political cause, and to gain kudos from fellow enthusiasts for doing so. The lack of consequences indicates that these attacks are acceptable and legitimate.

These attempted political assassinations are poison to the Enlightenment ideal of the university. It is critical to distinguish between legitimate academic inquiry and debate, on the one hand, and vicious political attacks on individuals and segments of the university community on the other. While academic debates on all topics should be encouraged and supported, political attacks should be rejected as anti-academic and anti-community.

Toleration of these attacks is a destructive policy for a university. The university must stand against them by instituting consequences for such attacks. Targeting individuals and segments of the university population should be banned outright. Those who flout the ban must be subject to consequences. University groups that sponsor and sign onto such attacks should be disbanded. Individuals, whether students, staff, or professors, who endorse such attacks should be disciplined, at least by a negative notation in their records.

University administrators have taken strong steps against sexual assault because it threatens collegial and academic relationships. Political assault also poses such a threat. Most universities have disciplinary codes with measures that could be brought against political assault. At McGill, the student code of conduct says that “No student shall, by action, threat or otherwise, knowingly obstruct university activities. University activities include but are not limited to, teaching, research, studying, administration, public service, scheduled events and activities.” So when students disrupt research, publishing, and teaching by trying to punish anyone whose findings and conclusions differ from theirs, they are in violation of the code of conduct.

Another offense in the Code of Student Conduct is False Accusation: “No student knowingly shall falsely accuse another Member of the University Community with an offense under the regulations policies, code or collective agreement to which the accused member is subject.” Accusing another member of one’s academic community of being a “racist” advances a serious charge—in the current climate, it is one of the most detrimental designations. The charge of “Islamophobia” is also serious. These accusations are particularly dangerous for an anthropologist, and even more so for a Middle Eastern area specialist. The damage of such accusations for academic and professional standing is severe. Unless students can substantiate their claims, they have committed an offense under the code.

Ideological divisions in universities and in contemporary society are broad and highly charged. This is a difficult situation for university administrators, who would face serious resistance to reining in extreme political activists and identity warriors. Yet the health of the university community, its very existence as an academic institution, is under threat by ideological partisans. Either academic freedom will be defended, or the university will become a political cult in which nothing but approved ideological truths may be spoken. University administrators have the responsibility and the power; let us hope that they have the will to defend academic freedom.


Image: Ziad Al Halabi, Public Domain

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

10 thoughts on “The War Against Academic Freedom

  1. When one asks for a defense of the attacks on teachers such as those described by Mr. Salzman, the only response I have been given is that the views of those teachers are so abhorrent and dangerous that they must be “denied a platform” to present them.

    There is no arguing with this viewpoint. If that is what they believe, then they see such denial as punishment fully justified. These are heretics and must be dealt with as such!

  2. The remedy for bad speech is not censorship, but more speech. That’s a necessary (though not sufficient) principle for any humane civilization.

    If you want greater social justice, the answer is not to increase limits on free speech. Here are two big ways to advance social justice: 1) instead of only wealthy people freely picking schools for their K-12 children, spread educational choice and freedom to all families. Let education funding follow families to a non-state school of their choice. This is already happening increasingly in many states. It’s happening through a variety of means, such as Education Savings Accounts, Vouchers, Tax Credit Scholarship Foundations, and more. See, for information and research on this question, the website edchoice dot org. 2) Advance the development and spread of steward-ownership capitalism. To see what that is, check out the 20-minute TED talk by Armin Steuernagel.

  3. Salzman is no different from his censorious critics. He demands “consequences for ad hominem attacks” and rejects the idea that anyone should be “free to vilify” someone else on campus. We need to reject Salzman’s hypocrisy, and instead call for freedom for both Salzman and his critics.

    1. It appears that Mr. John K. Wilson does not have a very clear understanding that a university is a scholarly community devoted to the search for truth through investigation and debate. If advocates of various positions in the debate are silenced and cancelled, the functioning of the university is undermined.

      Perhaps Mr. Wilson is unclear about the difference between “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom.” The former is a no-holds-barred verbal bar fight, in which ad hominem attacks are legitimate. As the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed on multiple occasions, in the eyes of the law there is no such thing as “hate speech.” But academic freedom is more narrowly defined as freedom to make academic claims, usually couched in terms of hypotheses, evidence, argument, and conclusions. Ad hominem attacks for political reasons are not legitimate. I do not want the right to make political ad hominem attacks on fellow members of the university, nor do I want them to have that right.

    2. And yet, what consequences are there for those who attack, villify, and censor their ideological opponents? Such practices will continue until there are consequences for this anti-libertarian behavior. No professor or student group should be “cancelled” for holding antithetical views. Attempts to shut down the open exchange of ideas should be censured. There is no place for this in a “uni-versity.”

    3. Professor Salzman acts as his own lawyer, and in doing so overstates his case. The regulations from the student code his cites apply to his mistreatment in only an oblique way. The terms ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobia’ are matters of opinion, and as such may not qualify as defamation.

      ¶He might be forgiven, though. Facing with such accusations, how could is response be anything but visceral? Faculty who find themselves the quarry of witch-hunts suffer in real ways. Colleagues, editors, and publishers shun them, and speaking invitations grow scarce.

      ¶Even worse, entire disciplines suffer when debate is shut down. Faculty avoid controversial research when they know they will pay a price. Trofim Lysenko would feel right at home in the universities of today.

      ¶McGill should be recognized for not caving to student demands. In many other institutions, spineless administrators would have thrown Salzman to the wolves.

      ¶Among other things, the purpose of a university is to be a guardian of reason and inquiry. This is not possible without faculty who value collegiality. Is it so unreasonable to expect that students behave in a collegial manner as well?

  4. So far administrators are holding the line. But where will we be when the current generation of leaders ages out? When today’s junior faculty and grad and undergrad students become tomorrow’s administrators, where will we be?

  5. The fix is simple, but it will take intestinal fortitude on the part of all concerned. We must starve the beast. Legislatures must reduce funding by the amount spent on these “political commissars.” When universities divert other funds to keep the system running, again reduce funding by that amount, continued until the beast disappears.

    Donors (myself included) need to cut off all monies until the problem is eradicated and parents need to stop sending their children to schools that enact these policies.

    Unless these things happen, nothing will change and the higher education system in America will be lost forever.

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