Case Studies in Censorship and Cancellation: A Review of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and the Threat to Academic Freedom

January 2023

Martin Lopez-Corredoira, Tom Todd, Erik J. Olsson, Eds., Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and the Threat to Academic Freedom, Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2022.

This 222-page book is an edited collection of twenty-six short chapters by 25 co-authors hailing from 11 countries across five continents all focused on the negative impacts of diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) on academic freedom. It covers a wide swathe of academia from physics research institutes like CERN to music academia and orchestras. The essays are organized, albeit with some overlap, into five thematic sections: (i) feminism and gender, (ii) race and ethnicity, (iii) DIE programmes, (iv) censorship, deplatforming, and job harassment, and (v) general considerations on suppression of academic freedom.

First, I should clarify that this book is not a data-driven collection of studies attempting to measure the growth of DIE ideology in academia. The main exception is the chapter authored by the UK-based Civitas research team, which measures restrictions on free speech in 137 UK universities from 2017-2020. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this study reveals a correlation between speech restriction and institutional prestige; for example, Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, and Imperial College London were all among the most restrictive UK universities. Data are also used by Jorge Gibert Galassi, a Professor of Sociology at the Universidad de Valparaiso in Chile. Galassi makes the case that commercialization and rapid growth of the Chilean higher education system since the 1990s has lowered quality and led to what he amusingly calls the Wiki-Professorship, “mere repeaters of trivial content that students can learn on their own.” He then presents a table showing that, while PhDs and full-time academics have respectively increased by 111% and 306% between 2011 and 2020, the percentage of full-time academics with PhDs has dropped by 48%, which he considers evidence of a non-competitive academic market. Like the famous Soviet joke about workers, Galassi notes that “academics feign to teach, and students feign to learn.”

Some may be struck by how well-represented scientists are among the authors, and one of the editors is an astrophysicist. As a scientist myself, I have watched the rapid and unchallenged ideological incursion of DIE into my field. Non-scientists sometimes tell me they find this surprising because they see scientists as stuffy empiricists resistant to the many nonsensical and contradictory assertions of DIE. But as this book shows, science and scientists are not immune. In fact, the narrowly focused ‘head-down’ ethic and apolitical nature of science may make for unique vulnerabilities. This idea is examined by Patrick Labelle, a Professor of Physics at Champlain Regional College in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Labelle observes that scientists “can be extremely irrational and easily manipulated when it comes to issues outside of their field of specialization” and suggests two main reasons for this. First, scientists assume that other academics – including proponents of DIE – are similarly rigorous and subject their work to public scrutiny. Such idealization means that other academics are given the benefit of the doubt and their managerial-like recommendations are adopted uncritically. Second, scientists are vulnerable to peer pressure within their small and selective research fields, although I am not sure why this should be unique to scientists. Labelle describes the creation of a full-time position for a DIE bureaucrat in a university science programme. But this diversicrat could not identify a single discriminating practice in the programme, and despite no evidence of systemic discrimination the science professors took no action to have the DIE apparatchik removed. Labelle concludes that science professors either blindly buy into DIE propaganda or they don’t mind wasting taxpayer money and diverting resources from student learning. In a parting shot, Labelle laments that DIE initiatives “promote Divisiveness, Exclusion and Inequality based on immutable traits,” an accurate new twist on the acronym.

American theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss (who grew up in Canada) contributed a chapter focusing on the moral panic over racial equity in science. Krauss describes, without naming him, the case of Tomáš Hudlický of Brock University. Many SAFS members will be familiar with this case, which personally I find particularly unsettling. Hudlický, a distinguished chemist working in a field close to my own, published an opinion essay in the prestigious chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie. In June 2020 I watched in real time as a Twitter mob assembled to denounce the portion of the essay in which Hudlický questioned whether “diversity of workforce” may have stifled research advances in organic synthesis. The swift pile-on included Nobel Laureates and precipitated a mass resignation from the Editorial Advisory Board. The article itself quickly disappeared from the journal website and was openly denounced by leading synthetic organic chemists for its “ill-informed social commentary” having “no place in a scientific journal”. I must admit with shame that I silently applauded this purge (my own awakening to the problems of DIE was months away) because I uncritically accepted that “experts” must have revealed Hudlický to be viciously racist. So, what did Hudlický actually say? He suggested that “each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization” and that hiring practices aiming for equitable outcomes by group identity are “counterproductive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates.” In expressing perfectly reasonable and mainstream views held by most people outside the academy (and probably a silent majority within it), Hudlický dangerously sided with liberalism in, as described by Eric Kaufmann, a cultural cold war in which culturally socialist values like equity currently have the upper hand. While prominent chemists still argue that Hudlický’s liberal opinions have no place in the scientific literature, they themselves may freely espouse cultural socialism in chemistry journals and insist that Hudlický was not cancelled but simply experienced “consequences culture”. They favour communities enforcing social norms over individuals expressing opinions.

The book is well-edited but lacks an index and suffers from occasional repetition as exemplified by another case from the world of science. The CERN physicist Alessandro Strumia is mentioned in at least three chapters, including one written by Strumia himself. In his chapter, Strumia opens with some fascinating “inside baseball” to the world of high-energy physics at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). He describes the LHC as a very expensive gamble that new physics would be discovered, but instead the discovery of the long-predicted Higgs boson represented – for reasons unclear to me – a “nightmare scenario” that essentially ended the discovery potential of the LHC. Strumia links this failure to a renewed vision for a massively expanded 100-km collider, with a bureaucracy expanded to include a diversity office. CERN then imposed gender quotas for conferences and in 2018 organized a workshop on “high energy theory and gender,” which alleged that physics discriminates against women. Strumia had data countering this prevailing narrative and wanted to present these facts to the institute. But considering recent cancellations like that of Google engineer James Damore – who attempted to tactfully explore non-discriminatory reasons for the paucity of female engineers – Strumia knew that “either I self-censor or I am the next on the list” of cancellations. Indeed, Strumia presented his data to a receptive and naïve audience, and then packed up his things and left. As expected, he was suspended and CERN launched a months-long investigation of his 30-minute talk. His colleagues did not rally to support him, a fact made all the more discouraging and bizarre given that two years earlier his academic community had rallied to support a physicist convicted of plotting a terrorist attack.

Although Strumia’s chapter appeared in the censorship and job harassment section, it obviously overlapped with feminism and gender. Among the most memorable essays in the latter section was that penned by SAFS board member Janice Fiamengo. Provocatively titled “Let’s imitate Hungary and make a bonfire of Women’s and Gender Studies,” the essay praises the Hungarian government’s 2018 announcement to defund state-funded gender studies programmes. Fiamengo argues that these programmes are ideologically motivated and unscientific because their basic assertions are unfalsifiable. To support her claim she describes in detail some of the assigned reading material from a course at UBC described as an introduction to “intersectional feminist scholarship and debate”. Particularly singled out is the textbook Language and Gender by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet. Fiamengo provides fascinating insight into the absurdities of gender performativity being taught to students in these programs. For example, they assign social conditioning to “the very definition of the biological categories male and female” and that “labelling someone a man or a woman is a social decision.” Even more absurd is the claim that heterosexual desire is socially constructed and not at all natural, with Fiamengo astutely noting that the authors imply “something potentially nefarious about this process, and that girls might be better off learning a different way of being.” The closing paragraph pulls no punches: “Students emerge from such programmes misinformed about the world and filled with a revolutionary zeal as baseless as it is dangerous. Gender and Women’s Studies are about as academic or scientific as Tooth Fairy Studies or Yogic Flying or Voodoo Studies. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund these Mickey Mouse courses and students should flee from these fake disciplines like the prophet Elijah fled from the wicked queen Jezebel.”

As pointed out to me by a colleague, missing from the book is any discussion of the unique discrimination encountered by Christians in the academy. However, Jordan Peterson tangentially touches on this issue in his essay describing how Cambridge University’s Faculty of Divinity rescinded his fellowship. As anybody who has lately walked past a church decorated with progress pride flags will understand, ancient theological traditions are no match for DIE ideology. As Peterson does so well, he makes a case that the ancient stories provided in a theological education deeply matter because “We are becoming unmoored, because we no longer share the structure these stories undergird. This is psychologically destabilizing. It’s producing a pathological and desperate nihilism that is increasingly common and, at the same time, a pronounced proclivity for the ideological certainty that mimics but cannot replace true religious belief. Both consequences are bound to be, as the evidence certainly indicates, divisive and truly dangerous.”

Notable too are the signs of resistance and hope for intellectual pluralism that pop up in surprising ways. These ‘green shoots’ typically appear outside the North American context and underscore one of the key strengths of the book – perspectives from different countries, cultures, and disciplines. For example, classical pianist Martin Malmgren at the Sibelius Academy in Finland documents DIE incursion into orchestras. Regarding problems created by gender quotas, a source tells the author that concert house managers “are aware of the problem, but also have political directives to relate to. Although the subject is a bit complex, no one I have spoken to seemed personally happy about the quota zeal [emphasis mine].” This is consistent with surveys showing DIE values are not popular, and depend upon crushing dissent to maintain influence. A chapter by Norman Goldstuck offered the surprising insight that the South African government has imposed racial quotas in sports but not academia; just as water circles the drain in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere, it seems DIE infects different sectors of northern societies in reverse order! A memorable chapter by Étienne Forest and Tomonori Agoh, both physicists in Japan, explores Asian versus Western cultural values to predict that Asia will largely resist DIE. (This chapter also includes a delightfully puzzling statement about Japanese ATM machines that is left to the reader to decipher – I have yet to do so!)

In summary, Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and the Threat to Academic Freedom is primarily a collection of case studies in DIE and DIE’s consequences in the academy – documentary evidence for those still in denial that academic freedom is under siege. Notably, in contrast to EDI (Canada/UK) or DEI (US), DIE is the favoured acronym for dissidents hopeful that the ideology will die when enough people awaken to its toxicity. But I suspect it may begin to fail from within as subsequent waves of ever more radical revolutionaries turn on their more moderate predecessors, just as many early revolutionaries don’t themselves survive their own revolutions. Perhaps then the acronym IED might conjure a more fitting metaphor, an improvised explosive device threatening to detonate unexpectedly.