At the end of September, cancel culture in academia made another conquest. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) and Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) pulled from their annual meeting program a panel set up to discuss the place of biological sex in anthropological research. As Colin Wright observes, the cancellation quickly became a cause célèbre, in part because one of its originally intended participants was a well-known evolutionary biologist who has been vocal about how she has been unfairly targeted for her research. (She recently resigned from Harvard as a result.)
To their credit, a number of academics spoke up, decrying the decision, and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression promptly wrote a response. These replies, understandably, focused on themes that critics of academia’s censoriousness have often made central. They condemned the “crybullying” and “safetyist” aspects of the affair; as is typical these days, the AAA’s higher-ups invoked a threat to the “safety” of other attendees that such a discussion would have represented, claiming that it would wreak unspecified “harm” to members of the anthropological community. The AAA’s assertion that LGBT inclusion demanded the removal of such topics from consideration was justly criticized. These commentators also cited the fact that the panel had been approved and was revoked only after the organization received blowback, revealing as a pretense the claim that the panel was removed for reasons of quality.
Those who took the time to raise these points should be commended. But the AAA and CASCA’s action is not just another case of the enemies of academic freedom striking, though that is true enough. The case also reveals why a main plank of academic freedom has lost much of its credibility.
To see the difficulty, let us start not with academic freedom but with liberal democracy, a better-known concept with a built-in tension. To simplify, liberalism is a substantive theory of individual rights and government obligations: it offers an answer to the question of what citizens are owed and what values a political society should promote. Democracy, on the other hand, is a theory of popular self-government. How can, and why should, authority be exercised by a whole public and not by, say, an external power (as in the case of colonialism) or a mere part of the population (as with an aristocracy)?
Liberalism and democracy can conflict. The people might desire, through unimpeachably democratic processes and systems, outcomes that violate liberalism’s moral demands. The potential for trouble here remains widely recognized among serious academics, though center-left discourse increasingly collapses the idea of democracy into liberalism itself.
A parallel tension resides in the American conception of academic freedom. The structure of American academic freedom conjoins theories of individual rights and self-government. First, academic freedom ensures that faculty can “investigate, publish, and teach in accordance with their intellectual convictions,” as the University of Chicago’s Shils Report puts it. Second, academic freedom is associated with faculty, and especially disciplinary, collective autonomy. From this angle, academic freedom exists when, in the core functions of a discipline (setting curricula, settling research priorities, making decisions about hiring and promotion), it is the scholars themselves who decide without undue interference from non-scholars, including administrators, donors, and other interested parties.
Satisfying both dimensions is difficult, even when the university is functioning well. Like liberal democracy, academic freedom is dualistic—entailing a “liberal” claim about protecting the individual’s rights and a “collective” claim that a certain group of people should be able to govern itself.
Despite some high-minded efforts to minimize the gap between these dimensions conceptually or even to prove that individual expression and faculty autonomy are two sides of the same coin, the reason the two actually managed to travel together historically is more mundane. Simply put, the defenders of this model assumed that academics would not only have the best judgment about their specialized fields but would also reliably champion small-l liberal values. Who better than the professoriate could recognize the importance of dissent, the necessity for criticism to test findings and hypotheses, the benefits of intellectual experimentation, the distinction between truth and popularity, or the value of following the evidence wherever it leads? The standard American model assumed that funders, politicians, and the public—not the faculty—were the real threats to the independence of mind and liberty of speech that good research and teaching demanded.
These assumptions no longer hold. Today’s academics are no longer more tolerant than their lay counterparts. Studies routinely show the extraordinary and accelerating partisan lopsidedness of the faculty ranks. Everyone inside the university willing to speak candidly knows that ideological discrimination and double standards are rife. The upshot: the combination at the heart of American academic freedom has become a matter not of complementarity but of contradiction. The democratic side is swallowing up the liberal side. Empowering faculty to govern themselves increasingly means violating the rights of individual members who fall on the wrong side of ideological contests.
Return to the inciting incident to see the depth of the problem. Tellingly, the AAA and CASCA leadership laundered its political censorship through the pretense that it was exercising that second face of academic freedom: deploying the community’s scholarly judgment about what work deserves to be elevated purely on the grounds of the discipline’s canons of evidence.
“The session was rejected because it relied on assumptions that run contrary to the settled science in our discipline,” wrote the association’s directors. In the letter to the participants announcing the rescinding of the panel, they likewise cited concern for “scientific integrity” to justify their action. Here is a case of political censorship through the appeal to scholarly expertise: only they, the members of the discipline and their appointed leaders, know the settled science, and only they can distinguish scientific reasons from faux-scientific propaganda. If one takes the democratic or self-governance view of academic freedom seriously, one would have nothing to object to about this verdict.
But if this is how academics run conferences, imagine how they run even more consequential affairs, from job searches and designing courses to grading and carrying out peer review of new work. Indeed, the AAA and CASCA’s self-justification is far from exceptional. Academics increasingly exercise ideological control under the pretext of disciplinary expertise. Whenever an article gets retracted after becoming the object of mob outrage, claims emerge that fatal scholarly defects were the cause.
Perhaps the most pervasive and troubling instance occurs in the use of DEI statements in the faculty hiring process. While the manner in which these statements facilitate viewpoint discrimination has been established, their defenders insist that this is just another case of faculty self-governance, and that the opponents of DEI statements are the real enemies of academic freedom. When a sociology department conducts a job search, mustn’t sociologists judge whose research and teaching is of sufficient quality? And might they not conclude that excellence in promoting DEI is part of what it is to be an excellent researcher and teacher of sociology? Following this reasoning, no one but sociologists (or faculty generally) can determine whether merit as a sociology professor (or professor generally) involves a certain commitment to DEI.
The situation calls into question how much longer the package deal of American academic freedom can last. Legitimate disciplinary judgment is the basic justification for deference to faculty. Yet the AAA/CASCA tumult exemplifies a field’s leaders corruptly deploying their authority as “experts” over knowledge production in service of ideological enforcement, and the rest of the field’s being too afraid or indifferent to object.
Academic freedom is worth defending to the extent that it promotes disinterested research and teaching, giving non-specialists confidence that the knowledge generated has some solid foundation and is not just dressed-up advocacy polluted by political imperatives. But the empowerment of academics to govern themselves and their disciplines has become a severe threat to the ability of individual faculty members to produce such research.
It is a problem with no easy solution. If academic fields become dedicated to giving themselves over to ideological fads, then it is unlikely they will be stopped. Greater administrative direction is unlikely, in most cases, to do much good, because if anything administrators today are even more biased than are faculty. And trustees, let alone legislators, cannot acquire the specialization needed to dictate in any detail intradisciplinary priorities or to evaluate scholarly merits.
But some forms of productive collaboration could be in order. Defenders of an older conception of liberal academia who come into positions of influence—as regents or trustees, via political office, or through alumni and donor organizations—should work to identify professors committed to upholding free inquiry and a non-politicized conception of scholarship and empower only them whenever they can. When debacles like this one occur, they must insist that university representatives speak out against the disciplinary degradation and the use of censorship. And insofar as they can do so without compromising other valuable principles and practices, they should work to remove from power those, like the AAA leaders, whose behavior is inconsistent with the notion of the university as a place of free inquiry.
The pathologies identified in the AAA’s cancellation episode are hardly unique to academia. Just as this scholarly forum pursued a political agenda while calling for the public to defer to its expertise and subsidize its activism, so, too, have museums, newspapers, and orchestras declared that their mission is not simply to curate art, report important stories, or play music but to pursue social justice. The most notorious example may be the public health community’s claim of jurisdiction, at the height of Covid, over the fraught question of racial disparities. What all these examples share is a crisis of vocation: a belief that working in culturally vital institutions is a less important calling than politics.
This professional-spiritual crisis poses a grave threat to the health of our social order. In a liberal society, the state refrains from dominating civil society on two grounds: first, that individual freedom requires a variety of institutional pursuits, each with its own logic and forms of excellence, that cannot be reduced merely to the political demands of the moment; and, second, that public trust is less likely to be abused and special talent more likely to be rewarded when expertise is not vacuumed up by the state but parceled out among a range of institutions devoted to specific purposes.
If the fabric of liberal civil society is to remain intact, it will require a renewed sense among the educated citizenry of the dignity of specialized work. Today, we are not just polarized but inclined to regard many political issues as existential emergencies. These are unpropitious conditions for a reassertion of pluralism. But without it, these institutions will continue to decline into partisan-ideological concerns. Figuring out how to stop these institutions’ deterioration—how to restore them to a condition in which they can fulfill their essential missions—is one of the great tasks facing us all now.