CAF survey reveals climate of oppression and fear in UK universities.

On 12 February, CAF sent an anonymous survey to the 319 signatories of its “three principles”, inviting them to answer ten questions about academic freedom with a “yes” or “no” followed by “further comments”. 95 responded.

CAF’s 319 signatories are academics of all disciplines, from universities of all types and in all regions of the UK. They are, of course, a “self-selected sample”, so not representative of UK academics as a whole. Nonetheless, if what they say holds true for even a small fraction of UK academics, we have reason to be worried. It is impossible to maintain the fiction that the free-speech crisis in our universities is an invention of the right-wing press.  

Official views on controversial matters

Increasingly, universities and their departments feel entitled or even obliged to have official views on a variety of matters – on race, gender, climate change, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza and many others. These views are blazoned publically on websites, posters, banners and flags.

So what? one might respond. Individual academics are free to dissent, if they so wish. But in reality, it is not easy to take sides in a debate against one’s employing institution. 58 per cent of our respondents reported that their university or its constituent institutions had “taken an official view on a political or cultural matter” and showed by their comments that they regarded this as objectionable:

The university promotes a whole range of the usual trendy ideas. There have been efforts to force academics to decolonise their teaching. To even impose racial quotas on reading lists.

We have various months e.g. pride, black history etc in which reading materials are promoted that only have a particular perspective.

Anti-David Hume, pro decolonisation, pro “beyond net zero” pro immigration. The list goes on.

My Faculty have developed a policy on Decolonisation that brands people who question the approach as ‘neoliberals’ which is taken to be a condemnation.

Gender identity ideology has become embedded in many University practices, e.g. encouragement to state pronouns, collecting data only on gender identity, not sex, etc

UCL has ‘cancelled’ the legacy of at least two of its former outstanding scholars and researchers, Karl Pearson and Francis Galton. There used to be a Pearson Building which has now been renamed. These are now both ‘unpersons’ as far as UCL is concerned. Their names are not to be uttered.

Churchill College (Cambridge) certainly took a position in favour of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, over my strong objections… Similarly, I objected when the College took an institutional position in condemnation of Russia’s outrageous invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Although I as a person vehemently detest the Russian autocracy and its invasion of Ukraine, I felt again that Churchill College should not be adopting an institutional position on a political matter that does not directly pertain to higher education in the UK.

On one issue, uniquely – the Israel-Palestine conflict – official pressure was reported coming from both sides:

The Principal has issued a strong statement in solidarity with Israel

My institution is very firmly aligned with the policies of the Israeli government.

There is a susceptibility in newsletters to swallowing pro-Palestinian interpretations/distortions of the history of the Israel-Arab conflicts.

Many institutions have chosen an “official” view on what constitutes anti-semitism. Though, in my case, the one chosen aligns better with my views. But that’s beside the point.

“Equality, Diversity and Inclusion”

Most UK universities now have large and growing departments of “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” (EDI, or DEI as Americans call it), whose mission it is to promote a particular vision of social justice. Some of our respondents dismissed this as tokenism. (“There is a culture here of not taking it seriously”, wrote one respondent from St. Andrews, adding “sadly that makes us like East German citizens used to behave”.) One respondent from Cambridge found EDI courses useful and harmless. Most, however, regarded them as a real threat to intellectual freedom:

It is compulsory at UCL to take online courses on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and Freedom of Speech. One doesn’t get to pass the course unless one submits the expected answers. In particular, the Freedom of Speech course makes it clear that one does not have Freedom of Speech

We never ever talk about the discipline we are working on, at least never seriously. Instead, we have meetings upon meetings, discussions upon discussions, and training courses upon training courses on equality, inclusivity, gender, political correctness, and so on.

The department is littered with posters for diversity initiatives. It is an oppressive environment which makes absolutely clear that dissent will not be tolerated.

Particular concerning is the fact that professed loyalty to EDI is now a condition of appointment and promotion in many universities. Again, some respondents saw this as essentially tokenistic:

Commitment to EDI principles is embedded in promotion guidelines, but I am not aware of any actual impact from this. However there is always the chilling effect to take into account.

I think that there would be cases where failure to hold the views most people hold would make a candidate for entrance or a post seem less attractive. To a great extent, though, and especially in the sciences and philosophy, selection is done properly on the basis of strictly academic criteria.

Most of our respondents, however, saw the influence of EDI on appointments and promotions as serious and pernicious:

Proposals are now in place for colleagues to have to demonstrate their commitment to DEI as part of their promotion applications. This includes evidence of active ‘allyship’ such as support for Stonewall initiatives, and also evidence that one is taking steps to ‘decolonise’ curricula.

Appointments to faculty positions are beginning to require statements about how one would address EDI issues, which are predicated on a single model of what these issues are and how they should be tackled. I am also increasingly concerned that the pursuit of Athena Swan certification is likely to lead to grave dangers to free speech.

I tweeted a political view that is completely mainstream in UK politics. However, many of my colleagues didn’t like it and I was brought before the chairs of the EDI committee to explain myself. They told me that tweeting things like this could damage my future career prospects.

There is at least one faculty member, with research responsibilities, who was promoted not on the basis of research but on the basis of his/her contribution to equality, diversity and so on. … Nobody was allowed to make any comments.

It is a requirement of my dept that lecturers take courses in unconscious bias, active bystander…and other similar courses. Being promoted is dependent on completing these.

Worryingly, there is a growing drive to promote EDI not just through extra-curricula training courses but as part of teaching and research itself:  

There is a fairly elaborate DEI bureaucracy at all levels of the institution that tries to impose its mandates on curricula.

I’m aware of the pressure applicants are under to demonstrate they are able to embed EDI aspects into their teaching. I know of applicants who are deemed to have underperformed on this aspect and been unsuccessful even when every other aspect of their application was as good if not better than the successful applicant.

A recently proposed research strategy suggested that colleagues should include DEI ‘in all aspects of research’ – from questions asked to research design and methodology.

[There are] social science courses [at UCL] where students are rewarded for parroting the politics of their lecturers and where social justice agenda is built into the curriculum – presumably though wiser students just avoid these courses.

Students in social science who wish to study ‘living subjects’ are increasingly forced to make performative declarations of putative political or social benefits to subject of research to get through ethics procedures. This I take as a form of ideological capture.

Disciplinary proceedings against academics with dissident views

Increasingly, UK academics with dissenting views are finding themselves the targets of politically motivated complaints, leading often to disciplinary inquiries. In most cases, these inquiries result in a complete exoneration of the academic concerned. Still, “the process is the punishment”, as they say – a nerve-wracking ordeal which can drag on for up to a year.

Usually, complaints are made by students, or by people unconnected to the university. Sometimes, lamentably, they come from other university lecturers. In one particularly shocking case, a lecturer who sent a circular email to his department complaining about aspects of critical race theory was hauled before a tribunal and subjected to a nine month disciplinary investigation.

It is impossible to know the total number of such cases – they are shrouded in secrecy – but the evidence suggests that there are many. In our survey, 28 respondents (30 per cent of the total”) agreed that “there are cases where your university has failed to maintain institutional neutrality in the disciplinary process” while 37 (39 per cent of the total) agreed that “there are academics at your university whose jobs have been threatened (or lost) because of their views.” Even if allowances are made for the small and partial nature of the sample, these are worrying high percentages.

Many of our respondents, under cover of anonymity, felt free to give more details about cases at their university, sometimes involving them personally:

In my case my views on a personal twitter account became the subject of a student complaint and the University took this forward despite the matter falling outwith the terms of the complaints procedure. Correspondence with my solicitor led to them backing down.

One colleague was subject to a disciplinary hearing because a student claimed that they were transphobic, based on the colleague holding the view that gender critical views should be debated (without even endorsing them himself).

I am aware of a case in which an academic was subject to a disciplinary inquiry for quoting the n-word in a public discussion of his research into far-right racism. It has been, to the best of my knowledge, an isolated case and no action was in the end taken.

I was investigated for transphobia, prompted by an anonymous vexatious complaint from someone purporting to be a student about a couple of retweets. This was instigated by EDI, who carried on despite being told by HR that we don’t investigate anonymous complaints.

I know of cases where people have been investigated for having contrarian (but reasonable and legal) views by management or have been bullied by colleagues/students, with management turning a blind eye.

I have had a number of meetings with HR and the Principal about things I have written. My job has not been threatened but it is an overhanging concern. It is also something that many other lecturers are aware and concerned about.

Occasionally, complaints have led to dismissal, or to “constructive dismissal” – i.e. the academic concerned has been forced to quit his or her job:

 A former head of a social science department was forced out, in part because of his vocal support for Brexit and in part for organising a series of events on the importance of free speech.

I know of two academics who lost their jobs. One of them got their job back after a long case at the Employment Tribunal. The other did not.

A highly regarded tenured professor lost position in one of our schools due to public expression of views on covid response and vaccine.

I lost my job (voluntarily, in a sense, though that’s not how it felt) because I felt I could no longer teach well after a series of politically motivated defamatory attacks on me. …The attacks were very clearly vexatious and ill-founded, responding to a few tweets asking awkward questions about some fashionable forms of activism. I had served as a lecturer for 35 years without blemish, yet after officially finding me innocent of any wrongdoing, the University refused to make any public statement of my innocence.

A colleague, now a senior member of management team, expressed surprise that a Catholic staff member could be allowed to teach medical students about the law and ethics of abortion. That Catholic staff member was subsequently hounded out of his/her job following a protracted HR process related to many trivial issues.

Biases in publication

40 of our respondents (44 per cent of the total) said that they were “aware of bias in the acceptance of work for publication, either by publishers or journals”. This appears to be more prevalent in some disciplines and areas of research than others:

Publishing anything that questions the direction of current climate policy has minimal chance of acceptance. Note, I am not referring here to work that questions the science of climate change itself – but more significantly work that questions the overwhelming policy focus on radical emissions reduction.

I’ve found it very difficult over the past few years to publish analyses of the Prevent counterterrorist programme because I deny that it is Islamophobic and racist.

Several peer-reviewed journals are showing ideological capture, requiring gender terminology rather than sex and obfuscating sex-based categories by including men identifying as women. It is extraordinary how science is being debased.

Many journals have explicit views and quotas for certain type of research carried out by specific segments of the research community.

It is impossible to prove but rejections of work often come with clear political bias. There is of course, built into many journals, a ‘correct’ use of terms ‘not he use she etc’, i.e. a correct type of language that they proscribed.

Three years ago I was in contact with Rowman & Littlefield regarding the publication of my new book, which was a series of dialogues with other philosophers on fundamental questions in philosophy. By the time most of those dialogues had already been written. The editor, Frankie Mace, was initially very positive and we already discussed the details of the publication process when she asked to see the chapter I had written with Holly Lawford-Smith, who is a well-known gender-critical feminist. I sent it, she read it, and then told me that she had “major concerns”. She felt that the chapter did not “meet a publishable standard”, contained “numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations, including logical fallacies which can be very easily disproved”, was “very limited and weakly argued on Holly’s part, and lacking in nuanced philosophical imagination and sophistication”. She ended her email saying “To be clear, I am also not willing to publish material that contains any degree of hate speech, on both legal and ethical grounds. Repeatedly calling trans men ‘women’ and trans women ‘men’ falls into this category.” In response, I refused to drop the chapter and we agreed not to pursue this any further. I then published the book with UCL Press, who didn’t express any concerns.

Top journals clearly display enormous editorial bias toward one political viewpoint.

Not in my field, economics, but that is pretty much the only discipline in social sciences where this remains the case. There are efforts from other disciplines to impose their ideological programme on economics and ‘decolonise’ it.

This is ubiquitous. Some publish editorials explicitly saying they require more evidence for non-PC topics, or simply won’t publish controversial topics.

In philosophy it is almost impossible to publish work defending “right of centre” positions

Non-adherence to gender identity ideological concepts and language makes publication very difficult indeed.

Many academics, it seems, simply don’t bother writing articles which they know will be rejected.

I have no doubt whatsoever that this happens, but mostly through self-censorship and self-editing.

Most people self-censor. Papers just never get written. People don’t work on certain topics.

Informal pressures

As well as mandatory training courses, decolonisation initiatives, etc., academics are subject to a myriad of informal sanctions, ranging from social media pile-ons to simple shunning. These are probably more powerful than the formal pressures, since they go to the roots of self-respect:   

Since the BRISOC (University of Bristol Islamic Society) scandal broke I’ve been shunned by nearly all my colleagues including many who I thought were my friends.

I’m proBrexit and believe the Ukraine war was provoked by NATO, attitudes for which I have been shunned and/or caricatured by colleagues publicly.

Several colleagues publicly refused to continue a research collaboration with me because of my public opposition to the Stonewall charity.

I have not been subject to such treatment myself, but I am aware of a colleague some of whose students described him as a ‘bigot’ because he questioned the wisdom of allowing trans women to participate in female sports. When he responded to this charge the students subsequently brought a disciplinary complaint against him – he was cleared of wrong-doing but his entire department was required to have gender diversity training.

One of the lecturers in Social Sciences told me that she was more or less isolated after it became known that she was one of the people who signed the open letter asking the university to cancel its membership of the Stonewall scheme.

This is a problem in a number of faculties. In my case, a potential PhD student refused to work with me because of my views on the transgender issue.

There was a conspiracy to get me fired because of my comments on climate science – I appear in the climategate emails – but my university played no part in it (UEA behaved appallingly however – they knew the threats were happening and did little or nothing to stop them).

I have been blacklisted because I don’t agree with the actions of the local extinction rebellion group.

Colleagues and I signed an open letter suggesting that Cardiff University leave Stonewall. In response, there was a long campaign of threats and harassment against us, which the university mainly ignored.

I am now retired but would not feel comfortable giving guest lectures, and no longer feel that the university would fully support me.

Over 4,000 signed a petition to have me sacked and there were 7,000 ‘likes’ on relevant social media platforms.

I have definitely noticed I don’t get invited to things. It’s insidious – you have no obligation to invite people to events or to collaborate on grants etc., so you don’t know if it’s paranoia or real, but I’m pretty sure the invitations have dropped off.

A very small but vocal group of Fellows at a Cambridge college refused to sit with or talk to retired Fellows who had advocated for institutional impartiality and voted against flying a progress pride flag.

Given such treatment, it is unsurprising that many academics keep their more “toxic” views to themselves.

I’m careful to avoid topics around students and colleagues

I live in fear of conflict. … Even though I know I am allowed to hold and express such views, I am genuinely fearful. I know other colleagues feel similarly.

I never ever disclose my views. I learned to exercise self-censorship. I learned that when I had a Chair in Sweden. Things are much worse there.

Many of my colleagues keep quiet (talking only to me and only in private) because they fear this would happen.

I am very careful now to hide my views about gender definitions and I am VERY much more circumspect in any discussion of my family’s Jewish faith.

There’s a pervading sense that you must ‘keep your head down’ if you want to get on.

These statements would not seem out of place in a report from Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China. No one who reads them can honestly claim that there is no free-speech problem in UK universities.