Faculty members are more likely to self-censor today than social scientists did during McCarthy era of the 1940s and 50s, according to a recent report from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).
At the end of the Second Red Scare in 1955, 9% of social scientists said they toned down their writing for fear of causing controversy.
In the current day, a survey – sponsored by FIRE and administered by Social Science Research Services – asked nearly 1,500 university faculty about their views on campus civil liberties and found that faculty today are more afraid.
A quarter of faculty said they were very or extremely likely to self-censor in academic publications, and over one in three do so during interviews or lectures. 72% of conservative faculty, 56% of moderate faculty, and 40% of liberal faculty reported being afraid of losing their jobs or reputations due to their speech. And 42% of untenured faculty reported censoring themselves, compared with 31% of tenured faculty.
A third of faculty said they often feel that they cannot express opinions because of how students, colleagues, or the administration would respond. And faculty are more likely to feel pressure to avoid researching controversial topics from fellow faculty than from the administration.
“We’re finally seeing the extent to which faculty have lost their peace of mind,” said FIRE Research Fellow Dr. Nathan Honeycutt. “When professors across the political spectrum become terrified of losing their jobs for exercising their rights, true academic inquiry and diversity of thought become nearly impossible.”
The report also found that up to 36% of faculty would endorse college investigations into other faculty for controversial expressions; 50% of faculty think that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements are a justifiable requirement for a university job; 57% of liberal faculty said that improving political diversity is less important than advancing race and gender diversity; 20% of faculty under age 35 report some level of acceptance of students using violence to stop controversial campus speakers; and 19% of female faculty said that it was acceptable to limit potentially “hateful” speech even when that speech is not intended to be hateful.
“Faculty members complain that they can’t speak freely, but they’re also turning on each other,” said Dr. Sean Stevens, director of polling and analytics at FIRE. “They can’t have it both ways. If faculty members want to feel safe to speak freely, they have to stop supporting the censorship of others.”