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FACULTY SURVEY: Support for free speech varies by academic discipline
Two weeks ago FIRE released the findings of its first ever survey of faculty attitudes toward free expression and academic freedom on campus. We asked 1,491 U.S. college and university faculty about issues related to free speech and academic freedom and received some very concerning results.
According to FIRE’s survey, the majority of faculty are generally supportive of free speech and endorsed an expansive definition of academic freedom, but other metrics suggest a troubling state for expression on campus. Specifically, many faculty reported frequently self-censoring, expressed concern about losing their job or reputation, or reported being threatened with discipline or actually disciplined for their research, teaching, talks, or writing.
Rather than a career of free and open inquiry, academic life for many instead appears to be plagued by fear and intimidation.
While most faculty supported academic freedom and were wary of restricting speech, these positions found the greatest support among faculty in STEM and business.
However, according to the survey, faculty attitudes toward free speech and academic freedom differ not only by political affiliation but also by academic discipline. There are many reasons to expect this. At the most basic level, faculty characteristics, such as political ideology, can be quite different between academic disciplines. For example, while faculty today are predominantly liberal, liberals often don’t constitute a majority in disciplines such as business, STEM, or agriculture.
This piece briefly explores a handful of differences that emerged between academic disciplines on key questions such as support for academic freedom, balance between free speech and hate speech, support for university administrators remaining politically neutral, and support for DEI statements. Faculty in the sample were divided into five academic disciplines: STEM (n=501), social sciences (n=372), the arts/humanities (n=335), education (n=72), and business (n=96). The balance provided insufficient information to be categorized into any academic discipline.
Academic freedom, hate speech, and being ‘politically neutral’
In each academic discipline, a plurality of faculty supported the broadest and most tolerant conceptualization of academic freedom: that “a university professor should be free to express any of their ideas or convictions on any subject.”
However, while about two-thirds of faculty in STEM (66%), business (66%), and the arts/humanities (65%) endorsed this position, support was lower among faculty in the social sciences (55%) and faculty in education (45%).
A similar pattern also emerged when asking faculty about the balance between free speech and hate speech. Majorities of STEM and business faculty said speech should only be restricted “where words are certain to incite physical violence” (58% and 65%, respectively). But support for this position was lower among faculty in the social sciences (48%), the arts/humanities (48%), and education (42%).
REPORT: Faculty members more likely to self-censor today than during McCarthy era
Thus, while most faculty supported academic freedom and were wary of restricting speech, these positions found the greatest support among faculty in STEM and business.
Consistent with most faculty supporting broad conceptualizations of academic freedom and speech, more than two-thirds of faculty surveyed (68%) also indicated that they believe university administrators (excluding teaching faculty and students) have a duty to be politically neutral in their statements when speaking in their official roles.
Across academic disciplines, the magnitude of support for this position was greatest in STEM and business where 74% and 81% of faculty, respectively, supported this position, compared to 62% to 67% in the other academic disciplines. Only a minority of faculty across disciplines (19% to 37%) indicated that they thought university administrators (excluding teaching faculty and students) should be free to make political statements in their official role even if some students and faculty disagree.
Additionally, faculty views on requiring DEI statements as a component of the university’s job application process varied between disciplines. In the social sciences, the arts/humanities, and education, majorities of faculty indicated they believe DEI statements are a justifiable requirement for a job at a university.
Conversely, majorities in STEM and business indicated they believe DEI statements are an ideological litmus test that violates academic freedom.
Political ideology by academic discipline
One possible explanation for STEM and business faculty appearing more supportive of a broad definition of academic freedom and of free speech could be their political views. In the sample, there were predictable ideological splits by academic discipline, with a majority of faculty in the social sciences, the arts/humanities, and education identifying as liberal, and business and STEM having larger proportions of conservatives. So, some of the differences between academic disciplines may be related to STEM and business having greater proportions of conservative faculty.
These findings suggest that efforts to increase awareness of, and support for, free speech and academic freedom in the academy might be best served by nuanced discipline-specific approaches, given that the magnitude of support for these concepts varies between academic disciplines. Additionally, as the use of DEI statements for evaluating faculty continues to become more prevalent, administrators might do well to recognize that — in addition to many notable issues with DEI statements which may warrant abandoning them entirely — in some disciplines within the academy opponents of such statements outnumber supporters.
Finally, the data on faculty preferences suggests that university administrators acting in their official capacity should consider staying politically neutral, unlike, for example, what was seen late last week at Stanford Law. It’s also possible that university administrators might garner additional support from faculty by adopting statements or policies such as the “Kalven Report,” codifying institutional neutrality on politicized issues.
A large and rich dataset forms the foundation for these findings and our full report. It is available on request by emailing email@example.com.
If you haven’t already, check out the full report from our 2022 faculty survey. Stay tuned for additional follow-ups!
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