Look over There! An Academic Freedom Crisis!

Katja Thieme
6 min readSep 21, 2022
Two students sit on a campus bench and look at a horrifying sky.

If you have followed think tank reports on academic freedom over the past number of years, you will have already noticed the pattern I describe here. If you haven’t read any of those reports, I’m happy to summarize the pattern for you. Call it a tongue-slightly-in-cheek genre analysis. I promise, someone somewhere in the English-speaking world is currently planning another one of these reports. I expect it to follow the below scheme, more or less. What fun it will be when, upon this future report’s publication, you immediately recognize the pattern.

First, the report author, probably employed by a university in some capacity, starts from their feeling of crisis. To them it is much more than a feeling, of course. It is a particular perception of the academic world, a picture that has been amply stoked and kindled by a rich donors’ outrage network. The report author will already be quite convinced that there is an academic freedom crisis. That sense is based on their own experience when views of theirs have received criticism as well as on opinion pieces that have bemoaned “cancel culture,” “wokeism,” “social justice warriors” (a further while ago), and (back in the day) “political correctness.” This author perhaps approaches their task with a growing desire to give academic form to some of their more reactionary thoughts. Since, in the absence of evidence, this slanted sense of crisis is at risk of being called no more than an outraged feeling, the report author will need to generate some evidence. How to do so? A survey!

Second, the report author approaches or is approached by a think tank, perhaps one that is already part of a tight network of reactionary organizations. Surveys need funding. They need technological support. They need tallying. Darkly resourced think tanks of more or less intellectual repute tend to like to pay for surveys that support reactionary ends. A collaboration ensues. Survey items need to be designed, questionnaires need to be sent out, results need to be analyzed. Perhaps the survey receives institutional ethics approval, perhaps it does not; the report itself will not need to specify either way. The report author and the think tank will want to design the survey so they can claim some type of superlative: the largest number of participants, maybe, or a new type of cross-country comparison, or responses from the top-ranked universities of several countries.

Third, what is the survey going to ask? Does it need to collect details of and analyze events as they have recently occurred? No! It does not! Or, not necessarily. Whatever it is that further feeds the looming sense of crisis, it does not need to have actually happened. Rather, the report author can ask — without providing any cases, details, or legal context — whether “academic freedom should always be prioritized even if it violates social justice concerns.” That’s quite enough. Or, the report author can create an impoverished hypothetical situation and ask respondents how they would act. Like so: “If a known Trump supporter applied for a job at my workplace, I would try to avoid hiring them,” yes or no? Or, “How comfortable are you sitting down to lunch with someone who supports gender-critical views?” Rate it on this five-point scale. Perhaps a bit more substantively, “To what extent are you worried about losing your job, having your reputation damaged, facing major adversity if your political views were to become known?”

Fourth, how to write the report. This kind of report is its own genre. A template has emerged and it is not hard to follow. Start with a literature review that sets the scene of the crisis. The report author might make the literature review quite in-depth and interesting, but there’s no need to do so. It’s enough to sketch out a publicly familiar narrative, add some references to a book on academic coddling or by John Stuart Mill, and cite the odd academic article. It will be easier if news articles, opinion pieces, and blog posts make up the majority of the reference list, so it is best to rely heavily on those. A nice touch is to link to the by-now rich array of similar think tank reports (see below). Perhaps the report author goes through the trouble of including some legal or historical scholarship on questions of academic freedom, but it is much easier to leave that out entirely. Then the report author heightens the sense of crisis by hinting at a publicly well-rehearsed story that includes names like: Noah Carl, Bo Winegard, Jordan Peterson, Kathleen Stock, Peter Boghossian.

Reference list from Goodwin, "Is Academic Freedom under Threat?“

Fifth, the report author reveals the findings of the survey. These findings might be presented more or less cleanly. Our report author might do the dodgy thing of merging answer categories together so they can be interpreted in the report’s favour. Add graphs. Use a good amount of graphs. And include tables. This part is the fun part. It really is. I actually like looking at these survey findings, in their varied visual forms, and think about them. The report author will then add some discussion, of course. The discussion can highlight key survey findings and it can develop the author’s interpretation; normal stuff.

Sixth, now here’s the really important moment: the grand finale! The big kaboom! Some report authors may be inclined to leave this part out, or dampen it by attributing the suggestions to others. I personally enjoy it more when, instead, the report author boldly proposes the interventions they most heartily wish for. Recommendations don’t strictly need to be connected to the survey results. Perhaps they are a little related to the survey findings, but really these links do not have to be deep. This final part speaks to politicians, mostly conservative ones, and I imagine they appreciate receiving simplified directions. The report author has said at the beginning there’s a crisis, so naturally there’s a crisis. We must act! The bolder the suggested interventions, the stronger the call to action.

For instance, does the report author want to make strict demands of university administrations? Absolutely! Has the report author discussed the existing landscape of university policies and procedures? You know, political readers might not actually want to know that; it could be a little too boring for them. So let’s leave the pesky details out but include the recommendation. Does the report author want to suggest legal changes at the federal or provincial level? Such as, the introduction of an academic freedom watchdog? The proposal that government take over or oversee the enforcement of certain university policies? Well, yes! Has the report author discussed legal scholarship and cases of conflict resolution regarding academic freedom? Most likely not. I ask you, do we really need to look at current legal frameworks to suggest a new law? You’d be surprised at how successful this approach of presenting bold recommendations can be. A few authors of such documents have been invited to provide expert testimony at government committees that were preparing their next overreaching intervention into higher education.

And now, dear reader, we wait. We wait for the next such report and what delightful survey choices it brings. Or, we wait for the next report-supported interference in university affairs by a, most likely, conservative government. Whichever comes first.