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FIRE used to stand for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, but it changed the last word last year to Expression.

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression website

The authors of a new survey and report on faculty members’ free speech views concluded that they generally oppose punishing free expression. Very few support actions like firing professors for controversial speech, but many nonetheless fear ramifications for their own speech.

Faculty members also express more support for what the report, released Tuesday, labels “soft authoritarianism.”

“These restrictions include openly condemning certain views but not punishing the faculty member for expressing them, investigating faculty for controversial expression and applying social and professional pressure to get professors to take mandatory training they oppose,” the report says. “The number of faculty who endorse such actions is far from insignificant, and this has produced a chilling effect which disproportionately strikes political minorities: principally, but not exclusively, faculty with more moderate or conservative viewpoints.”

The survey wasn’t nationally representative, said Nathan Honeycutt, the report’s lead author and a Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) research fellow, “but we are pretty confident that these are generally representative of faculty attitudes.” He said the findings reflected previous research.

FIRE, a campus free speech organization, and Pennsylvania-based Social Science Research Services collaborated on the survey of 1,491 tenured and tenure-track faculty members (and a few others) at degree-granting U.S. four-year public and private nonprofit universities.

Colm O’Muircheartaigh, a University of Chicago professor and academic director of the university’s Center for Survey Methodology, said, “SSRS is an entirely reputable research company.” But he expressed concerns about the survey questions only being pretested on participants from the FIRE Faculty Network, and about the “appalling low” response rate.

The report says two lists of faculty were surveyed, with one list from FIRE and the other from Market Data Retrieval, and the “response-rate for the FIRE sample was 2.2 percent and the response rate for the MDR sample was 1.6 percent.”

“This is certainly at the very, very low end,” O’Muircheartaigh said. “So in terms of thinking whether it’s biased or not it’s kind of crapshoot … this is not a technical term.”

Tia Brown McNair, vice president for diversity, equity and student success at the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said that “given the low response rate for the report, I would be hesitant to draw any major conclusions or to generalize any of the findings.”

“I also am concerned that community colleges and adjuncts are not included in this study, because they teach the majority of the undergraduate student population in this country,” she said. “I believe that any institution has the right to ask any candidate for employment for a statement on any topic that is stated as part of the institution’s mission, values and goals. This includes the institution’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.”

One of the questions the survey asked was “Some universities ask applicants for faculty positions to submit statements demonstrating their commitment to equity and diversity before they can be considered for a job. Which comes closer to your view?”

The responses split evenly between “This is a justifiable requirement for a job at a university” and “This is an ideological litmus test that violates academic freedom.”

The data were weighted “by balancing the demographic profile of the sample to target population parameters,” the report says, but no weighting was done for political ideology or partisan affiliation.

“Most people don’t weight for ideology,” Honeycutt said. “The variable is fluid and can fluctuate within a single individual. And we also didn’t have access to national data on what the representative percentages would be.”

“Half of the faculty surveyed identified as liberal, 17 percent identified as moderate, and just over one-quarter (26 percent) identified as conservative,” the report says. “The percentage of professors who identified as conservative was somewhat higher than the percentages found in other recent surveys of faculty. This could reflect the associations made by respondents. The survey recruitment email specifically mentioned FIRE, an organization that some academics consider overly sympathetic to conservative viewpoints. The email also specified that the survey focused on issues of free expression and academic freedom. It’s possible that these factors increased the likelihood that moderate and conservative faculty would participate.”

One question was “How worried, if at all, are you about losing your job or reputation because someone misunderstands something you have said or done, takes it out of context, or posts something from your past online?”

Just over half of the respondents said they were “somewhat” or “very” worried. And 36 percent said they were “likely,” “very likely” or “extremely likely” to self-censor in academic publications.

“Notable portions of faculty are self-censoring in their academic publications, in professional meetings, when speaking to a general audience and on social media,” the report says. “Almost two in five faculty are doing so more often in 2022 than they did in 2020 and, as in the McCarthy era, specific kinds of political views are likely to be targeted for sanction. Furthermore, today, compared to the McCarthy era, larger proportions of faculty hold non-tenured status. As the academy grows not only more liberal, but also more heavily staffed by non-tenured faculty, self-censorship may continue to increase particularly among those in the ideological minority and more generally among those with weaker job protections.”

Younger, self-identified liberal faculty were generally more supportive of things like students shouting down campus speakers and blocking entry to speakers, and female faculty members were more supportive of restrictions on speech than male ones.

“Young liberal faculty differed significantly from older liberal faculty on these measures,” the report says. “Among liberal faculty over 55, 51 percent indicated that shouting down a speaker is never acceptable, 83 percent indicated that blocking entry was never acceptable and 96 percent said the same for using violence to stop a campus speech—considerably higher numbers than among young liberals. Overall, young liberal faculty members clearly stand out as more illiberal than their peers. The views of young faculty resemble those of their students, suggesting that age and ideology, rather than just being a faculty member, are the key predictors of intolerance.”

“Females tend to be more left-leaning and more supportive of speech restrictions than males, even as age and ideology are typically more important independent variables than gender,” the report says. “On some questions, racial and ethnic minorities are less supportive of free expression, though this is not as strong or consistent a finding as that between support for free speech and age, ideology and gender. This suggests that as a relatively more Boomer/Xer, male and white professoriate is replaced by a relatively more Millennial/Gen-Z, female and minority professoriate, support for restrictions on expression may increase. These trends also indicate that free speech advocates need to spend more time thinking about how to tailor their arguments to young, liberal, female and minority faculty, as well as considering how to build on these groups’ majority opposition to most forms of hard authoritarianism.”

Honeycutt, the lead author, said, “I think it’s encouraging that most faculty are supportive of academic freedom and free speech, particularly, especially, that they’re more supportive of these things than students in the campus free expression surveys we have conducted.”

But he said too many faculty, including liberals, don’t feel as comfortable as they should speaking openly.

“I hope that faculty who read this report can find some solace in maybe knowing they aren’t alone,” he said.

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