Christopher Dummitt and Zachary Patterson, September 28, 2022
After having read tweets from Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates about our recently released report from MLI, and particularly his recent post “Viewpoint Diversity” on September 22, we felt compelled to respond. We should start by saying that of course there are ways in which our study (or any study) could be improved and we welcome constructive critiques.
Usher’s first critique seems, on the surface, to be quite reasonable. He claims that our sample over-represents humanities and social sciences professors, and importantly, that this drives the results of the paper. Or as he dramatically puts it: our sample is “ludicrously biased” and our study “overrepresented the known-to-be most leftist bits of the academy by 2 times and underrepresented the known-to-be less leftist bits of the academy by a similar factor, and just blithely carried on as if nothing were amiss.”
This seems quite hard-hitting and it’s true that our sample does over-represent the social sciences and humanities. And other studies from other countries do show that the political imbalance in universities tends to be much starker in the social sciences and humanities.
However, what Usher neglects to mention is the data in Figure 5 of our report, which shows that while we found some differences in political affiliation across the disciplines, these differences aren’t very pronounced (over 80 percent of respondents from each of the disciplines categorize themselves as being on the left) and the confidence intervals of the different categories all overlap. So, if we were to weight the sample to balance out these disciplinary differences, the effect would be very small.
What Usher offers as a damning critique of the study seems to be based on the fact that he just missed data that is very clearly in the study itself. Furthermore, given that while conducting the survey there was a public attempt by some professors – whose public statements suggest they are on the left of the political spectrum – to boycott the survey, it is likely that if anything our survey responses underrepresent the proportion of academics who identify as being on the left.
Still, we wanted to double check. Perhaps, we thought, Usher is right that social sciences and humanities faculty are more prone to “cancelling” their colleagues. Even if there aren’t many political differences between the disciplines, science faculty might act differently than those in the humanities and social sciences. We found that roughly one-third of faculty would opt to “cancel” a colleague whose research offended modern progressive values. So, Usher’s criticism pushed us to test this. The result surprised even us.
Amongst our respondents, science faculty showed the highest support (38 percent) in a question that asked whether the respondent would support a petition to “cancel” a professor.
In other words, what Usher presents as a “slam dunk” criticism is more like an “air ball.” He didn’t seem to have noticed the figure in the study (let alone the entire paragraph of text) that showed why the criticism had no merit. And then when we tested our data to double-check, we found even more confirmation of why his critique was baseless.
Usher also offers another criticism which superficially seems quite reasonable. We posed a question that asked respondents to put themselves on a four-point political scale (very right, somewhat right, somewhat left, very left). Usher is entirely correct that we didn’t offer a “centre” option and this is a unique choice. But while Usher is keen to criticize us for this choice – and assume the worst intentions – he doesn’t seem to have realized that we had a very specific reason for doing so.
The Liberal Party in Canada has been in the past a centrist party, moving to the left and right over time depending on the election. A number of commentators have suggested that the Liberals have moved leftward in recent years but we wanted to see if this claim matched what voters themselves believed. While Usher takes it for granted that, as he puts it, “the Liberals aren’t particularly leftwing,” we weren’t sure and our four-point scale allowed us to test this idea. We wanted to see where Liberal voters would position themselves – either to the left or the right. If the Liberals were truly a centrist-party we would expect to see a somewhat even distribution between left and right.
What we found is that 95 percent of respondents who voted Liberal in the study also self-identified with the left. So, whether or not Mr. Usher thinks the Liberals are a party of the left, respondents voting Liberal almost unanimously do.
The third main criticism from Mr. Usher relates to the conflation of ideas in some of the questions used in the survey. Two important factors influencing the choice of wording of questions are: comparability with other studies, and parsimony in the number of questions asked. The questions at the centre of Mr. Usher’s criticisms were chosen in part for both these reasons. We chose the questions to be as comparable with previous studies as possible. Also, recognizing the difficulty in obtaining responses from a population like professors, and wanting to maximize the number of responses we received, we traded off granularity of questions with number of questions. We think we made the right trade-off. Perhaps Mr. Usher would have traded-off differently. Perhaps he would have had fewer responses and wider confidence intervals.
Finally, our study sought to find out professors’ opinions on academic freedom and social justice and asked questions about whether professors were willing to sacrifice their commitment to academic freedom because of their social justice beliefs. Usher rather provocatively calls these “ludicrous hypothetical questions” and seems to suggest that the idea that academic freedom could be threatened by appeals to social justice is some fairy-tale scenario that could never exist in real life.
To this, we can only ask, in what world has Usher been living for the last five years? Is he entirely oblivious to the spate of cancellations at universities around the world – including in Canada – that stem from precisely this scenario? One organization has compiled a list of 240 academic cancellations in the US and Canada (as of late August 2022). Did he somehow miss the case of Kathleen Stock who was forced to leave her job at the University of Sussex because of continuous mob harassment last year over her views on gender identity?
Or the case of Université Laval professor Patrick Provost, who was suspended for comments he made at a conference where he expressed the belief that for children the risks of COVID-19 vaccines outweigh the risk from COVID-19 itself? Or how about the even more in-depth study which showed that these high-profile cases are only the tip-of-the-iceberg under which lies a vastly larger climate of political discrimination and self-censorship?
To us, Usher’s tepid support for academic freedom suggests his comments are an alarming shrug about a very real problem that should be of concern to all Canadians, regardless of their political leanings.
Christopher Dummitt is Professor of Canadian history at Trent University. Zachary Patterson is Associate Professor at the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering at Concordia University. They are the authors of the recent MLI study, titled The viewpoint diversity crisis at Canadian universities: Political homogeneity, self-censorship, and threats to academic freedom.