New projects in higher education such as the University of Austin promise to counterbalance the notorious left-leaning political bias in academia. However, to have this kind of cultural impact, they must ensure that they provide a strong educational experience in a range of academic fields, particularly in the natural sciences.
Without question, there is a need for more viewpoint diversity in academia. Among university faculty in the US, Democrats outnumber Republicans by an estimated 10 to1. A 2021 research report published by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI) found that “over 4 in 10 US and Canadian academics would not hire a Trump supporter, and 1 in 3 British academics would not hire a Brexit supporter.” In 2018, an estimated 99.5% of the political donations made by Cornell University faculty went to left-wing organisations or candidates, and there are reportedly similar political-donation ratios at Stanford, Harvard, Yale and other top universities. As a result of this skew, politically conservative students tend to mute their views on campus. In a 2019 survey by the Fix, 73% of conservative students reported that they do not express their political views in class for fear of retaliation—in the form of poor grades from professors or social sanctions from peers. The 2021 CSPI report revealed similar concerns among faculty members:
In the US, over a third of conservative academics and PhD students have been threatened with disciplinary action for their views while 70% of conservative academics report a hostile departmental climate for their beliefs … In the social sciences and humanities, over 9 in 10 Trump-supporting academics and 8 in 10 Brexit-supporting academics say they would not feel comfortable expressing their views to a colleague.
Professors have also been fired or suspended for expressing conservative views. For example, a Marquette University professor—the late John McAdams—was suspended in response to his 2014 blog post criticising a liberal teaching assistant for having shut down a classroom debate over same-sex marriage. (He was reinstated only as a result of successfully suing the university for breach of his employment contract). Bo Winegard, formerly a professor of psychology at Marietta College, was fired in March 2020 for expressing views that the university deemed politically incorrect. Gordon Klein, a professor of accounting at the University of California-Los Angeles was suspended in June 2020 for having denied an (ironically, non-black) student’s request that black students’ final exams be graded more leniently in deference to the “trauma” they were assumed to be experiencing after having learned of the killing of George Floyd. In March 2021, Georgetown Law School fired one professor, Sandra Sellers—and placed another, David Batson, on administrative leave. Their crime? A private Zoom conversation, during which Sellers lamented that each semester some of the worst performing students in her class happened to be black, and Batson nodded in agreement.
Firing or suspension is not the only type of punishment a professor may receive for engaging in thoughtcrime. For example, in October 2021, Dorian Abbot, a geophysics professor at the University of Chicago, was invited to give a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). (Abbot’s impressive credentials include a Harvard PhD in applied mathematics and a strong publication record.) However, some people objected to the invitation after finding out that he would be advocating for merit-based (as opposed to diversity-based) criteria for faculty hires and fellowship awards, and as a result, MIT cancelled his talk. In response to this cancellation, the director of the University of California Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center, David Romps, invited Abbot to give the talk at Berkeley instead. When other Berkeley faculty members overruled the invitation, Romps resigned in protest, noting, “It was never my intention to lead an organisation that is political or even ambiguously so.” Abbot’s and Romps’ experiences are examples of the pitfalls that academics face when they step even slightly outside the lines of the prevailing political orthodoxy.
Dorian Abbot’s interview on Areo‘s Two for Tea podcast:
To make matters even worse, according to a 2020 report by Fox News’ Hollie McKay, ties have been increasing between Antifa (a left-wing terrorist organisation) and certain college campuses—via the Campus Antifascist Network. (Antifa extremists have repeatedly used violent tactics to terrorise conservatives at universities across the country, and have even been cheered on by some radical academics.) The increasingly radical leftist atmosphere on college campuses has resulted in a lack of any meaningful access to conservative viewpoints in higher education, a lack of any substantive counter to left-wing narratives and an increasingly negative view of higher education among conservatives.
University of Austin: A New Hope
In November 2021, against this backdrop, the formation of the University of Austin was announced. This new educational institution, committed to the free pursuit of truth—political consequences be damned—may serve as a model that could help upend modern university culture. Pano Kanelos (until last June the president of St. John’s University in Annapolis, Maryland) made the announcement with these words:
We are a dedicated crew that grows by the day. Our backgrounds and experiences are diverse; our political views differ. What unites us is a common dismay at the state of modern academia and a recognition that we can no longer wait for the cavalry. And so we must be the cavalry … An education rooted in the pursuit of truth is the antidote to the kind of ignorance and incivility that is everywhere around us. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed: “Education…means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free.”
The announcement created quite a buzz. Within a week, over 3,000 academics had expressed an interest in joining the project. The university, which has been described both as “anti-woke” and as critical of cancel culture, lists Dorian Abbot as a member of its board of advisors, and Peter Boghossian among its founding faculty fellows. Boghossian, formerly a professor of philosophy at Portland State University, resigned in September 2021 in response to the increasingly hostile atmosphere there towards political incorrectness. As he explains in his resignation letter:
I noticed signs of the illiberalism that has now fully swallowed the academy quite early during my time at Portland State. I witnessed students refusing to engage with different points of view. Questions from faculty at diversity trainings that challenged approved narratives were instantly dismissed. Those who asked for evidence to justify new institutional policies were accused of microaggressions. And professors were accused of bigotry for assigning canonical texts written by philosophers who happened to have been European and male.
The other two founding faculty fellows are Kathleen Stock, formerly a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, who resigned from that post last month after being harassed for questioning far-left orthodoxy about transgenderism, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former politician, scholar and women’s rights activist. All three are outspoken critics of wokeism. Also among the founders and advisory board members are two prominent political journalists: the former New York Times editor Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan, author of The Conservative Soul. Yet it is not, as some have claimed, a “conservative” university: the group includes both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. What they have in common is a rejection of the cancel culture that has been fomented by far-left academics and students.
Of course, there are dedicated right-leaning institutions in the US. One prominent example is Hillsdale College in southern Michigan, which operates entirely without government funding and sports statues of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on its campus. Liberty University, established by Rev. Jerry Falwell and Elmer Towns in 1971, is also famously conservative. These institutions are valuable because they provide strong alternatives to leftist universities (indeed, enrollment has increased at conservative Christian colleges while it has decreased elsewhere). But they have not altered the overall political landscape of academia. Perhaps the bipartisan nature of the University of Austin will enable it to have a greater cultural impact.
Saving Academic Freedom in the Sciences
A concern about the University of Austin is that most of its founders, advisors and faculty have expertise in the social sciences: only a few are well versed in STEM fields. This is understandable: social science experts are more likely to comment on social issues—and thus are more likely to have been cancelled. But cancel culture and leftist identity politics are becoming increasingly prevalent in the natural sciences as well, threatening the integrity and quality of scientific research. For example, conservatives who are considering a career in scientific research may balk at seeing Nature, a prestigious (and supposedly non-partisan) science publication, breaking with tradition by endorsing a presidential candidate in 2020, or Scientific American writers advocating for genderless pronouns, complaining that the term “quantum supremacy” is too similar to “white supremacy” and criticising Star Wars for promoting “white saviors.”
Our scientific institutions are rapidly making identity politics a higher priority than scientific progress. For example, in May 2021, the American Medical Association announced a plan to “embed racial justice and advance health equity” that included promoting critical race theory within the medical profession. Similarly, the president-elect of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Judith Giordan, has made “furthering diversity, inclusion, justice, equity, and respect” her top priority. The website of the ACS’s Division of Analytical Chemistry, greets visitors thus:
The Division of Analytical Chemistry would like to reaffirm support for equality, social justice, and fairness for Black, Brown, and Indigenous scientists. We condemn racism, discrimination and harassment in all forms and are committed to embrace long-lasting, transformational change. In light of recent events in the US, we recognize that now is the time to seize upon momentum in addressing the challenges we face. The Division realizes that standing with our Black colleagues is not enough and we will strive to work with the community and address our shortcomings related to equality. We call on leaders in academia, state and federal government, private and nonprofit sectors to develop substantive and multi-pronged strategies to eliminate systemic racism in our community.
One finds this emphasis on identity politics at national and regional ACS meetings as well. For example, upon arriving at a National ACS conference, one is invited to pick up a so-called personal pronoun pin; and the title of the June 2021 Great Lakes Regional ACS meeting is “Elevating the Importance of Diversity and Inclusion in Chemistry.” These may simply seem like efforts to make science more inviting and accessible—a laudable goal—but in fact they reflect an ideological shift that has resulted in substantive policy changes, requiring scientists to promote particular racial- and gender-identity political goals at the expense of scientific best practices. For example, an increasing number of science publications now include a so-called citation diversity statement, described as “a short paragraph, included before the References section, in which the authors consider their own bias and quantify the equitability of their reference lists.” The implication is that publication decisions will be based on whether the paper includes enough citations to authors with particular racial or gender identities, rather than on the scientific merit of those citations.
A similar problem is also increasingly seen in faculty job postings, many of which require applicants to submit a so-called diversity statement in addition to the traditionally required research and teaching statements. For example, the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley, requires applicants for faculty positions to provide a “Statement on Contributions to Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion [summarizing] your contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion, including information about your understanding of these topics, your record of activities to date, and your specific plans and goals for advancing equity and inclusion.” And federal funding programmes for science in the US are also increasingly emphasising contributions to diversity, inclusion and equity over scientific merit. Those who question the virtue of these policies tend to be met with rapid and severe professional backlash. Thus, academic science departments, professional scientific associations and science publishers have all become increasingly politicised and anti-meritocratic, leaving conservative scientists with few avenues for conducting impactful research.
The challenge—both for conservative institutions and for what might be called anti-woke universities—is to provide a venue for talented researchers who have been fired, cancelled or eliminated from a job applicant pool for transgressing identitarian political dictates. This will require significant financial investment—in more lab space, more scientific equipment and more PhD programs in STEM fields. In addition, anti-wokeism policies must be applied, not only to classroom teaching, but also within research labs, science publications and scientific professional associations. It is unclear whether institutions such as the University of Austin will be able to inspire these wider social changes. Perhaps significant investments from free-thinking billionaires will help save research-based education. (In autumn 2021, Elon Musk tweeted about forming his own STEM university, although it’s unclear whether his proposal is serious.) And perhaps some existing research institutions will realise that they can strengthen their programmes by hiring cancelled talent. One way or another, we must create more scientific and educational institutions in which innovation is prioritised over political correctness. The decision by the University of Austin’s self-described coalition of the cancelled to band together and build such an institution is an exciting first step.