The Threat to Academic Freedom … From Academics

Here is a list of academics targeted for harm, i.e., punishment, by other academics for expressing ideas. Harm here refers not to vague allegations of unspecified damages, but real harms, such as being fired or having their papers retracted without evidence of fraud or rampant errors. Not all outrage mobs and denunciation petitions have been successful. Nonetheless, having to cope with such threats is a potentially major cost (in stress, time, and effort) even when the effort is ultimately unsuccessful. Furthermore, there may well be enduring damage to one’s reputation. Finally, even unsuccessful denunciations create an environment poisonous to academic freedom and free inquiry by sending a clear message to other academics, especially those in vulnerable positions (grad students, postdocs, job-seekers, tenure-seekers), “if you do this, may the gods help you, because we may come after you next”).

March 22, 2021

These sorts of attacks have continued more or less relentlessly since this time and I have surrendered trying to keep up with them all. On March 22, I added a handful of events over the past few months, but this list is no longer complete and no longer aspires to stay complete, and will no longer be updated.

Go here or here for lists of attacks specifically on academics. Go here or here for lists of these sorts of attacks that include but are not restricted to academics. None of those lists are mine and I cannot say whether they will be regularly updated.

This essay is about the mob psychology of punishment of, or attempts to punish, academics by academics, for expressing ideas. Both just and unjust punishments may be inflicted for all sorts of reasons (e.g., allegations of crimes, harassment, discrimination, etc.). Outrage over behavior is not addressed here; my focus is on attempts by academics to punish other academics for their ideas.

Who counts as “an academic”? In this essay, I include faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and university administrators. Many administrators, especially those in authority (such as deans, provosts, chancellors, and presidents) started as professors and at minimum have academic roots. However, I do distinguish between situations in which non-academics are the main instigators but punishment is meted out by administrators (those stories appear separately, at the end). In some of these cases, the targeted faculty simply resigned before being actually punished.

I exclude undergraduate students from “academics.” Faculty and administrators have some responsibility to protect the academic freedom of academics; when they shirk that responsibility, they have some culpability for any punishment that has occurred. Nonetheless, the nature of the culpability is different, and more extreme, when academics themselves initiate attempts to punish, versus when they simply fail to intervene to prevent punishment by others. Therefore, the list below is in two sections. The first includes attempts to punish initiated by academics; the second includes cases where academic faculty and administrators failed to prevent punishment by others.

There seem to have been far more attempts by academics to shut down, shut up, and censor their colleagues starting in 2017 than previously. This pattern is consistent with what I have called The Reality of the Rise of a Radical and Intolerant Left on Campus. In fact, all can be viewed as challenging a very specific subset of leftist sensibilities — those involving social justice (diversity, transgender activism, colonialism, racism). Has academic social justice ideology really become a quasi religious doctrine, complete with witches and heretics? Both scholars and cultural commentators who themselves have identified as left of center in their personal politics have sometimes said, “yes indeed.”

It is especially corrosive to academic freedom and free inquiry when academics target other academics for sanctions and punishments for expressing ideas. Please contact me with ones I have missed. All events occurred in the U.S., except where otherwise noted.

Princeton Faculty Nuclear Assault on Academic Freedom

This event is somewhat different than the others here; it is not an attack on a person or group. Instead, it is a statement (found here), in principle, opposing academic freedom by a group of some of the most eminent and accomplished academics in the country, Princeton faculty, and hundreds of administrators, students, and alumni of Princeton. Of course, it does not state “we oppose academic freedom” in so many words. Here, however, is what it does state:

[Princteon University should]: Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

If that is not a call for an academic version of Big Brother, I do not know what is. What’s next, re-education camps?

In addition to this assault on academic freedom, the Princeton statement also calls for illegal racial discrimination, demanding higher pay, lower work requirements and more frequent sabbaticals for faculty of color.

The Atlantic posted an interesting piece doing a deep dive of interviews with many of those signing on to this petition.

Academics Targeted for Punishment by Other Academics for Expressing Ideas:

Caryatid Fallen Under Her Stone; Source: Rodin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Kathleen Stock is a British philosopher at University of Sussex who received the Order of the British Empire from the Queen herself for her service to education. This is one of the highest honors the UK govt gives. She was promptly denounced and targeted as a “transphobe” by over 700 of her academic colleagues. However, another large group posted this counter-petition/open letter pointing out that the denunciation petition claims “harm” but provides no evidence of any, and that “ It cannot become our standard that the mere allegation of harm caused by some writing or speech, in the absence of any specific evidence to that effect, is sufficient to trigger such consequences.”

Dr. Dorian Abbott is a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago who was denounced in November, 2020, and targeted for a range of punishments (removal from committees, loss of teaching and research assistants) primarily by graduate students and alumni for posting criticisms of the manner in which diversity, equity, and inclusion is being instituted in his department. A good overview can be found here. He originally posted videos on Youtube which, after the outrage mob mobilized, he took down. However, he posted powerpoint-type slides here and his response to the attack here. Dr. Abbott’s posted sources made claims such as “let’s try as hard as we can to treat everyone who applies to our department equally, and judge applicants only on the basis of their promise as scientists” and “let’s fight bias in science by working hard to reduce bias, not by introducing it.”

Dr. Norman Wang, a cardiologist at University if Pittsburgh, published an article, available here, in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA, August, 2020), that was critical of affirmative action in hiring and medical school admissions; and which was ultimately retracted-by-academic-outrage mob. It included evidence indicating such programs were ineffective and counterproductive, legal opinions indicating that, as currently conducted, it might be illegal, and indicating that affirmative action programs were failing to do much to accomplish some of their ostensible goals. Even though about 3/4 of Americans and majorities of both Black and Hispanic respondents say that only qualifications should be taken into account in hiring, and even though California, one of the most liberal states in the country, recently reaffirmed its ban on affirmative action, Wang’s article was denounced on Twitter and elsewhere. JAHA then retracted it, and the American Heart Association declared it “wrong” without identifying a single error — a pattern well-known in these sorts of cancellation attacks. JAHA issued this retraction notice, which presented additional context for two quotes presented in Wang’s article. Selectively quoting narrative-consistent findings is common across peer review genres; retracting a paper for this reason is unprecedented and inconsistent with Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines for retractions, especially since the online edition could have simply added the extra context and an addendum/correction could have been included in print. It is, however completely consistent with the notion of a “selective call for rigor” in which extraordinarily tough standards which one would never apply to work one likes are readily applied to work one dislikes. Regardless, not only was this followed by an obsequious apology by the journal editor but Dr. Wang was removed from a major administrative position at his hospital because of it.

Kirsty Miller is a British social psychologist now working outside of academia, and also had an opinion piece retracted due to an outrage mob. She published a letter in The Psychologist (August, 2020), a newsletter/blog site for the British Psychological Society (BPS). The letter was critical of BPS for not recognizing that lack of viewpoint diversity was a serious problem for BPS and that the way it embraced a social justice agenda was divisive and dysfunctional. Guess what happened? On cue, her letter was denounced by an academic Twitter mob and, eventually, the editor of The Psychologist retracted it. (Almost as if BPS is actually intolerant towards certain viewpoints). Amusingly, this attack was entirely consistent with one of the Grievance Studies Sting papers, published in a peer reviewed journal, and which argued that those who criticize or mock social justice should be punished (this is the paper titled “The Joke is on You” originally published in Hypatia, the leading journal of feminist philosophy). A fuller report and critique of this even can be found here.

Colin Wright is an evolutionary biologist who was driven out of academia by smear and whisper campaigns throughout 2020 instigated by various academic commissars of cancel culture including both faculty and graduate students. His sin? He has repeatedly argued that there are only two biological human sexes. He retells the story here, including screenshots of that smear campaign.

An academic outrage mob petitioned (July, 2020) to have Professor Steven Pinker, Psychology, Harvard, removed from the Linguistic Society of America’s list of distinguished academic fellows and their list of media experts. There were a variety of vague allegations. He was said to “move in the proximity of…scientific racism” (ahh, yes, the “you are not guilty of any actual bad thing but you are ‘adjacent’ to some bad thing’ charge). He committed the transgression of suppressing support for center-right editorialist David Brooks and he has taken “dubious stances” on rape and feminism.

This petition failed. It was so obviously ridiculous, that numerous sources were able to debunk its charges. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne wrote a tour de force debunking that was a forced march through each allegation and demonstrating they ranged from unjustified to ridiculous. Even Mother Jones (not exactly some alt-right propaganda outlet) got into the act of denouncing the denouncers, with an article titled “Good News About that Factually Flawed Anti-Pinker Letter: Its Dishonesty has been Widely Exposed.”

Professor Cees van Leeuwen, Philosophy, KU Leuven (Belgium) resigned from his position as editor of the journal, Philosophical Philosophy (June, 2020), because of controversies surrounding his acceptance of a paper arguing that the genetic bases of racial differences should be a legitimate topic of scientific study. (For the record, I long ago concluded that, in fact, it is not at this time a legitimate topic of scientific study, but that is not the point; the controversial paper passed conventional peer review, and, at that point, the appropriate response is to publish a critique, either at the same journal or elsewhere; if those arguing it is not legitimate have legitimate arguments against it, they should simply present those arguments).

His resignation letter declares:

After 25 years at the journal, I am resigning as editor of Philosophical Psychology.

The reason is the imminent publication of a commentary bypassing editor moderation. While my co-editor and part of the editorial board felt that a stream of insinuations and personal attacks on social media left them with no better choice, my resignation should be seen as taking a stand for an independent, non-partisan forum for philosophical debate. The journal has witnessed forceful clashes of opinion in the past, and I hope this will continue in the future. But efforts to enforce ill-motivated slogans upon the journal’s pages should be kept at bay, in particular when they are dressed in a cloak of social justice.

I continue to support emphatically the very cause of antiracism these activists pretend to support, for which catfights within the academic establishment are as remote and ineffectual as they could possibly be. My only concern is that they will be grist to the mill of our detractors in and outside of academia.

I would like to express my gratitude to those who have contributed as reviewers to the journal, and my confidence in Mitchell Herschbach, the incumbent editor, and Taylor & Francis, the publisher, to steer the journal through its current turbulence.

Professor Kathleen Lowery was removed from her position as Associate Chair for Academic Programs in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta (June, 2020). Her transgression? She expressed this sort of belief in an undergraduate class: “People should be able to express their gender in whatever manner they wish (but) I don’t agree with biological sex being irrelevant. I think treating biological sex as irrelevant has some really serious policy implications. As an example, housing trans-identified men in women’s prisons is not fair to women prisoners and I think it puts women at risk.”

She was accused (of course!) of making students feel “unsafe.” The administration agreed enough to pressure her to resign her position as Associate Chair. According to Lowery: ““The university has said it’s perfectly OK to fire people for doubting that men can get pregnant, for doubting lesbians can have penises. The implications are very dangerous because this is a live issue in our contemporary Canadian democracy.”

Tomas Hudlicky is an eminent chemistry professor at Brock University in Canada, had a paper retracted because of a single paragraph critical of the manner in which chemistry sought greater demographic diversity. The original paper, which was a 30 year perspective and retrospective in honor of a colleague about the state of organic synthesis, was originally published in then retracted from Angwe Chemie in May, 2020. It can be found here. As usual, an academic outrage mob on Twitter denounced the paper as racist. You can find many of those tweets beginning here. I could find no explanation for the retraction. The full text of the “offensive” paragraph is presented here:

Professor Stephen Hsu, Senior VP for Research and Innovation at Michigan State University was compelled to resign from this position in June, 2020, in response to a graduate student-initiated petition and other denunciations proclaiming him a racist, sexist, and eugencist. He retains his position as a tenured faculty member. The denunciation included the verified fact that Hsu appeared on a podcast hosted by Stefan Molyneux, widely viewed as a conspiracy theorist and white supremacist. Hsu has posted several blog entries on this issue. This essay by libertarian legal scholar Eugene Volokh, after reviewing the facts, reached this conclusion:

“Whether there are race- or sex-based differences in intelligence, temperament, and the like is a scientific question, not a logical question or theological question. It can’t be resolved by abstract theory, and it shouldn’t be resolved as an article of faith. It needs to be seriously discussed, in light of the constantly developing research in the area (which surely is still in its infancy, given how much we are only now learning, and have yet to learn, about the human genome and about cognitive science). This MSU incident is likely to just further interfere with such serious discussions.”

Professor Bo Winegard, assistant professor of psychology at Marietta College, fired for Unidentified Flying Reasons that are most likely “violations of academics political sensibilities.” March, 2020. He relays the full side of his story here. Dr. Winegard was also a target of a RationalWiki hit job calling him everything from a white nationalist to a pseudoscientist. This was apparently accepted uncritically by students and faculty at University of Alabama, some of whom wrote an editorial denouncing him. It was then sent to Winegard’s employer, Marietta College, and was followed by what was, in essence, a lobbying attempt to get him fired. The immediate catalyst was probably this article, published in a high quality peer reviewed journal, Personality and Individual Differences, which includes this statement, “ We argue that population-based cognitive differences are congruent with our best understanding of the world because there are strong reasons to believe that different environments and niches selected for different physical and psychological traits, including general cognitive ability.”

Professor Selina Todd, history professor and feminist at Oxford University’s St. Hilda College, was targeted twice. The first successfully deplatformed her. In 2019, Todd was invited to speak at the Oxford International Women’s Festival. She was the target of protests by transgender activist groups and several speakers withdrew in protest. The organizers then deplatformed her. Later, in 2020, she was invited to give a keynote address at the University of Kent, which sparked another outrage mob, this time, primarily academics, denouncing her in an open letter as causing “harm” and requiring trans and nonbinary people to have to defend their “right to exist.” In a similar vein, the large number of signatories on the letter represent some level of consensus about Todd’s views among members of that portion of the academic community.The talk was eventually postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, and it remains to be seen whether she will be allowed to give it.

The primarily academic signatories of the denunciation letter directly referenced one page on Todd’s website where she stated that she is opposed to amending the law in the United Kingdom so that people would “be able to define themselves as men or as women simply by describing themselves as such.” Todd gave 3 reasons for her views:

  1. There is a need for women-only spaces because of past violence against women by natural born males;
  2. The need to collect robust data on sex-based participation in a variety of professional domains so that discrimination on the basis of sex can be identified and hopefully remedied; and,
  3. Because the notion that someone could “feel feminine” may reinforce conservative gender stereotypes about femininity by overlooking that what is defined as “feminine” or “masculine” has changed over time.

Todd concluded by noting her membership in and support for Woman’s Place UK (WPUK), a woman’s rights group concerned about how the push to replace biological sex with gender identity may obfuscate current levels of sexism against women in a variety of domains.

It is clear that there was concern about Todd because of her views — they were described as not only “problematic” and “unpopular,” but “harmful.” These sorts of criticisms do not address whether she was actually factually or empirically wrong. Furthermore, and perhaps even more important, “harm” is tantamount to calling her ideas “dangerous,” and dangerous ideas are explicitly protected under the principle of academic freedom.

The National Association of Scholars (NASC) has a meeting scheduled for February 2020 titled “Fixing Science” that has been denounced as a shill for conservative and corporate interests, including calls for invited scholars to withdraw. I am one of the invited attendees, and I can attest that I did indeed receive an email from a prominent biologist urging me not to attend on those grounds. He is active on Twitter and regularly links to this article, as if it is some sort of damning indictment of the group. Although the article can be viewed as critical in some ways, including making vaguely-worded allegations of corporate conspiracies, it also refers to a report by the NASC that includes these quotes:

Brian Nosek: There is a lot to like in the report.

Andrew Gelman: Overall, I am happy with the report.

Nosek and Gelman are both very prominent scientists involved in attempts to, shall we say, “fix science.”

Nonetheless, this essay by a prominent science reformer also denounces the event and calls for scientists to withdraw. This denunciation met with widespread accolades among prominent science reformers on Twitter.

On the other hand, in this essay, I argued that the denunciations of this conference were, no matter how sincerely felt, little more than a manifestation of the political biases so common in academia. From that essay:

Hidden agendas and bad actors pervade the social sciences. Its just that they are usually bad actors with hidden agendas that are on the “correct” (left) end of the political spectrum and most of their academic colleagues either share those views or fear to speak up. The problem does not seem to be having hidden agendas and political goals; its not having the “right” ones (and by “right” I mean “left”). One’s fine as long as one‘s hidden agendas advance leftist goals.

Professor Nathaniel Hiers of the College of North Texas was fired for calling microaggressions “garbage” in November, 2019. By December, he was fired. Hiers filed a lawsuit in April 2020, against the College and Department Chair for violation of his rights to speech and academic freedom. Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence, appearing in one of the highest quality peer reviewed journals in all of psychology, Perspectives on Psychological Science, by the eminent and award-winning psychologist, Scott Lilienfeld, can be found here.

Laura Tanner, graduate student in Feminist Studies, U. California, Santa Barbara, 2019, denounced, and subjected to attempts to remove her from campus and teaching. Laura’s sin is, depending on how one views it, claiming on Twitter that there really are just two human sexes, or denying the existence of transgender people. You can find a full story on this situation here. For example, she tweeted: “Genital cutting of any kind does not change one’s sex and can never make a man into a woman.” This has evoked protests and outrage that has included other graduate students (thus rising to my definition of “academics”). Protestors have called for her to be removed from campus or, at least, from teaching. I could find no evidence that the administration or faculty had done anything to protect her academic freedom.

Stephen Gliske, Neuroscientist, U. Michigan, 2019, call to retract article. Targeted by this petition calling for retraction of this article. I described this situation in my recent essay here. The targeted paper presented a new theory of gender dysphoria that offended trans activists and their academic supporters.

Update 5/1. The journal, in its infinite wisdom, retracted the paper. They posted their justifications here. Retraction Watch posted a scathing criticism of ENeuro’s decision here, that, among other things, says this: “… the journal appears to have badly botched this case” and “…it can’t fairly hide behind the claim — which it now seems to be making — that it had inadvertently accepted a poorly-done study.” This justification for retraction — treating Gliske’s paper as an empirical rather than theoretical one — beggars belief because it is so transparently absurd to evaluate a theoretical paper as if it reports new studies. The Retraction Watch also made this simple statement, which probably captures the core reasons the paper ran afoul an academic outrage mob: “A journal has retracted a controversial paper that questioned what it called the “existing dogma” about gender.”

Susan Crockford, Zoologist, University of Victoria (Canada), fired (not renewed), 2019, for unspecified reasons that smell a lot like a political purge. The University has steadfastly declined to justify their decision. Therefore, we are left to guess. Dr. Crockford published The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened (2019). Previously, her popular blog, Polar Bear Science, had been denounced as “denialist” in a 2017 paper published in a peer reviewed journal by 14 academics. Judith Curry, one of the most prominent climate skeptics, with over 100 peer reviewed article and not easily dismissed as a “denier,” referred to that article as one of the “stupidest I have ever seen.” The weight of the evidence, therefore, is that Dr. Crockford was targeted and ultimately fired for her ideas, and is, therefore, included here.

Postscript: It was not hard to track down credible estimates of the polar population over time. In 2012, Canadian Geographic, not exactly a shill for rightwing oil interests, estimated the population at 20,000–25,000. On April 5, 2021, I retrieved this article posted by The World Wildlife Fund, at 22,000–31,000.

Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise Engelbrecht and Elmarie Terblanche Department of Sport Science, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2019, retraction. This article, which was accepted under conventional peer review practices, was subject to a petition initiated by an academic and which eventually garnered over 10,000 signatures. As usual, the petition had a slew of poorly specified allegations of error, or, when clearly specified, failed to articulate why the particular imperfections identified were more egregious than what is usually published in psychology journals. For example, one of the claims was that the article’s conclusions were overstated or overgeneralized. This may well be true, but I have written in lots of places (such as here and here and here) how this problem is pervasive throughout much of psychology. Thus, this appears to be a selective call for rigor. Nonetheless, the Journal retracted it.

Michele Moore, an independent scholar who has had affiliations with several universities in the U.K, has been denounced by petitioners who seek to oust her as editor of the peer reviewed journal, Disability and Society, 2019. The petition, signed by hundreds of academics and which can be found here, claims she has express trans-phobic ideas, such as “trans suicide rates are a myth” (seems to me this is either true or not and can be resolved with data; and even if she is wrong, and I have no idea whether she is right or wrong, that would still, not constitute being transphobic, it would just mean “she was wrong”). Although she has, so far, neither been ousted nor resigned, about a third of the editorial board has resigned in protest and some have called for boycotts of the journal.

Source: Atheist Forums

Martin Medhurst, Rhetoric and Communication, Baylor University, 2019, denunciation and retraction. Dr. Medhurst is (for now) editor of the peer reviewed journal, Rhetoric and Public Affairs. He wrote an editorial there arguing against a change in the way the National Communication Association (NCA) honors its members as Distinguished Scholars (it was subsequently taken down, possibly before print publication) and can no longer be found in the Journal). Under the old system, former Distinguished Scholars identify new ones. Under the new system, a committee of senior members would identify candidates. The controversy occurred because nearly all of the prior recipients of the honor are white, so many members of the NCA saw the new system as constructively altering a biased system; and, consequently, also saw Dr. Medhurst’s opposition as a defense of a system that advantaged white scholars. He was denounced in a petition that included a call for him to resign his editorship and there have been other calls to boycott the journal he edits.

Abigail Thompson, Math, U. California, Davis, 2019, denounced and called to resign. Dr. Thompson is VP of the American Mathematical Society. Her sin? She posted this essay characterizing diversity statements (new requirements for faculty job applications at many universities) as thinly-veiled political litmus tests to insure a sufficiently “woke” (my term, not her’s) faculty. I recently blogged about this situation here. The best overall discussion of this situation, including links to her essay, the denunciation petition, other denunciations on blog sites, as well as support, can be found here.

Alessandro Strumia, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), fired (not renewed), 2018–2019. After giving a controversial talk at a CERN conference arguing that women were underrepresented in physics because they were less accomplished, thousands of people, many of whom were academics, signed a petition denouncing him and including this thinly-veiled threat: “We hope that Strumia’s professional colleagues and superiors will take all these points into careful consideration in all future decisions involving him.” CERN ultimately decided not to renew his contract, effectively firing him without actually having to fire him. The situation is rendered more complex than it might seem at first glance, because, in the same talk, Strumia is plausibly viewed as having violated professional ethics by engaging in an ad hominem attack on a colleague present at the meeting (see this story for the full nuanced picture). It is nonetheless included here because the petition of denunciation spent far more space denouncing his ideas than his professionalism.

Noah Carl, Social Scientist, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, UK, 2018–19, fired. He had received a postdoc but an outrage mob of academics launched a petition and open letter condemning him, and, as usual in these situations, made vague and unsubstantiated allegations of errors, along with guilt-by-association tactics. St. Edmunds launched two investigations. One, led by a veterinarian, concluded that Dr. Carl’s work was flawed, without identifying any particular flaw. I cannot help but wonder, given psychology’s replication crisis, where half or more of all studies tested have failed to replicate, should we also be firing half of all psychological scientists?

A distinguished lawyer oversaw the second investigation and reached this quite contrary conclusion:

“Dr. Carl was … an extremely strong candidate indeed having performed with conspicuous success at every academic stage … [and] was the unanimous choice. No-one else impressed to anything like the same degree.” Nonetheless, St. Edmunds fired him, or, more exactly, withdrew the postdoctoral position that they had previously committed to provide him.

Sign seen in Woodstock, NY. Picture by Lee Jussim

Linda Gottfredson, Psychology, University of Delaware 2018, disinvited from a conference in Sweden for having produced research showing that there are group differences in average IQ test scores and for reviewing research showing that intelligence is heritable. The conference received letters and emails from academics throughout Scandinavia and other parts of the world, and one purporting to represent the official view of an entire university in Finland.

Lisa Littman, MD & behavioral scientist, Brown U. 2018, call to retract. Dr. Littman’s paper identifying “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” was targeted by transgender activists, professionals, and academics alike for retraction. I told the story here; the paper was ultimately revised and (in my view) improved, but, along the way, Littmann was fired from a consulting position.

Ted Hill, Math, Georgia Tech, 2018, acceptance of a paper rescinded (twice). Dr. Hill wrote a paper offering an evolutionary theory for the male variability hypothesis (the idea that human males are more variable than human females on many attributes). It was accepted for publication at a journal; this evoked protests and outrage, which had the effect of pressuring the accepting journal to “unaccept” the article (the only such case of which I am aware). He then had it accepted at another journal, where there were more howls of outrage, and it was again unaccepted. Most of the story can be found here, though a case can be made that the second unacceptance occurred, not because of political pressure, but because the paper was accepted by an inappropriate process of too-cosy-insiders rather than bona fide peer review. The paper remains unpublished as far as I know.

Jonathan Anomaly, Philosophy, UPenn, 2018, denunciation and all-but-call-to-retract. Dr. Anomaly published an article titled Defending Eugenics, which argued that the early 20th century form of eugenics (racial superiority, forced sterilizations, etc) was revolting, but that genetic counseling and modern genetic engineering is going to be a boon to young couples seeking some control over the genetics of their offspring. This article evoked this letter expressing offense and outrage and stopping barely short of calling to retract: “We suggest that it is never the time for an article that defends eugenics to be published in a reputable international scientific journal.”

Allan Josephson, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Louisville, 2018, fired after faculty complained about his comments regarding gender dysphoria at a conference. What was the complaint? Josephson made this point: “When treating children with gender dysphoria, medical professionals should first seek to understand and treat the psychological issues that often cause this confusion before pursuing more radical, aggressive treatment.” As of this writing, he was suing the university for violation of has academic freedom.

Bret Weinstein & Heather Heying, Biology, Evergreen College. 2017, ousted. Both were forced to resign when student protests against them turned violent. They are included here because the most of the faculty and administration at Evergreen actively embraced and contributed to the most virulent and authoritarian forms of “social justice” that created the environment from which these protests emerged, and literally none of the administrators did anything to defend either their academic freedom or their physical safety.

N. Bruce Duthu, pressured to resign as Dean for Faculty of Arts and Sciences, of Dartmouth. His sin? Signing a petition supporting BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions, against Israel). Apparently, a named chair in economics at Dartmouth emailed fellow Dartmouth professors about Duthu’s support for BDS, and this generated enough publicity and controversy thta Duthu eventually resigned from his deanship (though he is still at Dartmouth).

Bruce Gilley, Political Science, Portland State U. 2017, paper retracted. His paper, The Case for Colonialism, was retracted after academics initiated a petition calling to retract, signed by thousands, and then both Gilley and the journal editor received what they considered to be credible death threats.

Rebecca Tuvel, Philosophy, Rhodes College, 2017, call to retract. She published a paper on trans-racialism which argued if people can change sex because of which sex they identify which, and if race is a social construct with no basis in biology, why can’t they also change race simply by changing which race they identify with? This evoked an outrage mob of academics petitioning to have the paper retracted. In this case, they failed.

Lindsay Shepherd, graduate student and teaching assistant in Communications, 2017, Wilfred Laurier University, Canada, subject to a 21st Century Inquisition for showing a debate video. She was teaching a course and showed this video of Jordan Peterson discussing/debating with Nicholas Matte (among others) issues involving gender, transgender, and pronoun use. She was promptly called to account by a trio of professors and administrators in what was intended to be a confidential meeting, which she recorded and released to the public. The full recording is available here and a transcript is available here. To many, her grilling appeared to constitute a 21st century mutant offspring of a Kafka-like interrogation, a Mao-ist struggle session, and Orwellian double think and totalitarianism. The university did eventually come to Ms. Shepherd’s defense, but only after she exposed the meeting to the public, which evoked a large outcry of support for her. The various actors involved in this controversy — Peterson, Wilfred Laurier, Shepherd, the professors who interrogated her, were, last I knew, basically engaged in a game of musical lawsuits.

This experience has helped launch her career and she is plausibly described as a free speech warrior, a description I suspect she would be proud of.

Rachel Fulton Brown, Historian, U. Chicago, 2017, unspecified sanctions. She was denounced as a white supremacist in a letter signed by over 1300 academics calling for unspecified sanctions, (apparently for writing for Breitbart and being friendly with Milo Yiannopolous, and for defending herself against relentless attacks by Dorothy Kim, such as this one). At least some outsiders viewed the attacks on Brown as little more than a smear campaign designed to silent nonleftist voices in the academy.

Lennart Bengtsson, Climate Science, U. of Reading (UK), 2014, resigned. Dr. Bengtsson joined a conservative climate skeptic thinktank, and was, as he described it, subject to an onslaught of pressure, insults, and hostile emails basically declaring him a traitor to the cause. After three weeks, he could not stand it any longer and resigned.

Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard, 2006, ousted. Forced to resign by Harvard faculty outraged for many reasons, but what triggered the most aggressive faculty protests of outrage were his comments raising speculative hypotheses about women’s under-representation in science fields.

Michael Bailey, Psychology, Northwestern, early 2000s, denounced, falsely accused of scientific misconduct, and harassed by academic transgender activists. This story was retold extensively in Alice Dreger’s award-winning book, Galileo’s Middle Finger; for a shorter version, see this essay.

Napoleon Chagnon, Anthropology, U. Michigan, 2000, censured. He was an early sociobiologist (forerunner of evolutionary psychology) and biological explanations for social behavior are often controversial in academic circles. He was censured by the American Anthropological Association on sensationalistic charges of inflicting mass death on indigenous South Americans; charges that were insufficiently vetted and which ultimately shown to be unfounded and possibly fraudulent.

Linda Gottfredson, Psychology, U. Delaware, early 1990s, her funding source was banned, promotion to full professor delayed, and was subject to various types of retaliation for objecting. Dr. Gottfredson has done perennially controversial research on intelligence and race. For some time, her main funding source was banned by U. Delaware, and her promotion to full professor delayed because some of her colleagues objected to her conclusions — not because they found the work more flawed than any other work in psychology. She retells that story in this paper, which included winning academic freedom suits, a dean resigning (after years litigating against his harassment of her and a colleague), and settlement of other suits in such a way that insured Dr. Gottfredson’s academic freedom.

Camille Paglia, Humanities, U. Penn, denounced. She has been protested on and off for decades, sometimes by students but often enough by faculty who have sought to stigmatize her or deplatform her for her views, which many consider anti-political correctness and/or anti-feminist.

Faculty Punished or Threatened by Non-Academics and Who Received Little or No Support from Faculty or Administrators at Their College or University, or, in some cases, were punished by the administrators.

Kit Parker is a highly accomplished war vet and engineering professor at Harvard; he had a class on innovative and creative policing reform techniques, developed in full cooperation with and support of community leaders and many residents, canceled by administrators when a social justice fundamentalist student outrage mob objected.

Here are some of the students’ objections:

“…we have grave concerns about the nature of this work, its academic legitimacy, and ethical implications for marginalized communities around the world.

How does the computational nature of the initiative and proposed coursework naturalize policies and practices that have had disparate impacts on Black and Brown communities?

…his email advertising the course has failed to appropriately center the ways in which policing and surveillance in the United States disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities…

…there is no analysis of structural racism, political economy, inequity in criminal justice, or residential segregation…

…the militarization of society is normalized with no acknowledgement of last year’s largest civil rights movement against police brutality and militarized police forces in America’s history.”

Charles Negy, a tenured professor at University of Central Florida, was fired when a mostly student outrage mob formed after he tweeted “Black privilege is real.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education addressed the situation in an article titled, “UCF is killing academic freedom to punish tweets it didn’t like.” From their article:

“To be clear, UCF does not want you to think Negy is being punished for his speech…But this is all either theater or self-delusion…The entire process of preparing this report was motivated by complaints about Negy’s tweets…UCF’s conclusion rests on a nonsensical implementation of academic freedom so razor-thin as to be transparent.”

The FIRE essay refers to UCF “trying” to fire him. They succeeded.

However, the main perps here seem to be students and administrators, rather than professors.

Gordon Klein, a lecturer at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management was suspended from teaching (June, 2020) after 20,000 students signed a petition calling for him to be fired. His transgression? He was a bit flip and brusque in responding to a (white) student’s request he provide more lenient grading of Black students because of George Floyd’s horrible death at the hands of police captured on widely-viewed video. His response to the request included:

“Do you know the names of the classmates that are black? How can I identify them since we’ve been having online classes only?”

“Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half-Asian? What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half?”

“Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated by ‘the color of their skin.’ Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK’s admonition?”

Eric Thompson, Moreno Valley College, Sociology, 2017-ongoing. Fired in 2017. The story is a weird mix of allegations and legal complexities. He is “out” as a (very rare) conservative sociologist and held many conventionally conservative views about homosexuality. The college has all sorts of claims that are cloaked in non-ideological terms and may even be sincere, but its hard to tell; its also possible that they are a thin guise for an ideological purge. Stories on his situation can be found here and here.

Phillip Adamo, history professor, Augsburg University, 2019, removed from position has head of honors program. Why? He had students read work by James Baldwin (a mid-20th century iconic African-American author and intellectual) that used the n-word. Some complained. Despite being wildly popular and award-winning, though he was not fired from his position, he was removed as head of the honors program.

Evan Charney, Duke, Political Science, 2019, fired (not renewed). Why? This is going to sound nuts, but check out the sources linked here. Apparently, a handful of students objected to the way he handled issues of race and racism in his classes. This was enough for administrators to not renew his contract, even though had taught there for 20 years, apparently, with very positive student evaluations and some glowing testimonials and a letter of support submitted signed by scores of his former students. Charney’s description of events can be found here.

Sam Abrams, Politics, Sarah Lawrence College, 2018, threatened physically and professionally.

Sign seen at the NYC March for Science, Lee Jussim

Dr. Abrams was targeted by student protestors, which included threats, defacement of his property, and calls for his tenure to be revoked. What was his sin? He published this editorial in the NYTimes, which was based on a survey that he conducted finding that administrators are even more extremely homogenously leftwing in their politics than are faculty — and faculty are already very leftwing in their politics. As they say, “students are always revolting,” so what’s the problem? The problem is that he received little or no support from administrators at Sarah Lawrence (who should have been leaping to defend his academic freedom); and many faculty even signed a petition supporting the students!

Amy Wax, Law, UPenn, 2018, pulled from teaching. Dr. Wax has been controversial for a long time, including have argued that black students at Penn Law perform poorly, for the superiority of bourgeois values, and, most recently, for immigration preferences that would advantage those already most culturally similar to the U.S., by which she meant belief in individual rights, free markets, and fair elections (and which, she explicitly pointed out, would have the effect of advantaging immigration from countries that are majority white). Many have argued that one or more of these positions are bluntly racist, though others view it quite differently. Regardless, her own dean denounced her as racist and prohibited her from teaching first year law students.

Laura Kipnis, Communications, Northwestern U, 2015–2018, Title IX was weaponized to harass her (some events may have occurred prior to 2015). Dr. Kipnis was first accused of harassment and creating a “hostile environment” after she posted an essay arguing that faculty-student romantic relationships might not be so terrible. It subjected her to months of what she declared her Title IX Inquisition. She was ultimately cleared of all charges. She then wrote a book about that experience, and the same person who accused her previously, accused her again under Title IX, and also sued her for civil damages. Kipnis was eventually cleared again and the suit was dropped. This is included here because academic administrators absolutely should, in my view, have a responsibility to insure that protections against harassment and discrimination cannot be weaponized in this manner and should have had procedures in place for summary dismissal of the complaints (e.g., “you cannot bring a Title IX case because someone published an essay, unless it defames you personally.”).

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

If you find this sort of topic interesting, feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I comment on and critique work in social psychology and the social sciences, as well as topics such as these that impinge on issues of academic freedom and free inquiry.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store