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Exodus of the Wrongthinkers from American Universities

Colleges used to encourage the exchange of challenging ideas. Now faculty members who challenge students’ beliefs are being forced to leave the profession.

One sentence in a blog post almost ruined Thomas Smith’s career.

“If you believe that the coronavirus did not escape from the lab in Wuhan, you have to at least consider that you are an idiot who is swallowing whole a lot of Chinese cock swaddle,” commented Smith, 65, a law professor at the University of San Diego.

He wrote it back in 2021, in a piece questioning the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic on his personal legal blog, which usually received only a few hundred visitors per day. 

But the backlash was swift. Smith estimates 60 students submitted a formal complaint to the administration and accused him of being racist, using derogatory language, and promoting conspiracy theories with “detrimental consequences.” Smith later updated his post to clarify that his ire was directed at the Chinese government, not its people.

A week later, Robert Schapiro, the dean of San Diego’s law school, announced an investigation into Smith in an email to the student body, stressing that “University policies specifically prohibit harassment, including the use of epithets, derogatory comments, or slurs based on race or national origin.”

So Smith hired an attorney known for defending other “cancelled” professors across the country. The university’s in-house counsel investigated him for two months, and ultimately concluded that the blog post was protected by the school’s academic freedom policies. Smith kept his job, but the ordeal left a sour taste in his mouth. 

“I felt anxious, I felt angry, I felt hurt, and I felt done,” Smith tells me with a nervous laugh. 

He said he loved to teach, but lately he’d been struggling to get published in prominent legal journals due to his traditionally conservative ideas arguing against DEI and ESG policies in corporate America. He also found himself self-censoring in his classes so as not to inadvertently offend his students or colleagues. 

But the attempt to cancel him in 2021 was the last straw. 

To hell with this, he thought. In November 2022, he submitted his formal plans to retire. 

Smith is now one of five right-leaning professors out of the 40 faculty at the University of San Diego School of Law who will retire after the spring of 2025. The others include civil rights and labor law scholar Gail Heriot, constitutional law professors Larry Alexander and Steven Smith, and criminal law expert and former law school dean Kevin Cole. 

The retirees are not necessarily leaving because of old age. Heriot will retire from the university—where she’s taught since 1989—at 67, hardly old in the academic world, where being in your 50s is still considered “mid-career.” 

Heriot told me the decision to retire stemmed from her wanting to dedicate more time to her other responsibilities, including her post in the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Cole, 66, told The Free Press in an email that he chose to retire out of a “desire to have more flexibility to travel and work on other projects.” Smith and Alexander are older, at 75 and 80, respectively. 

But while increasing pressure against conservative faculty at the University of San Diego wasn’t the main reason behind Heriot’s retirement, it also gave her no motivation to stay. 

She recalled sitting in a law school faculty meeting last year when one of her colleagues proclaimed that “bad people” on the staff opposed affirmative action. (Another one of her colleagues corroborated this story to me.) Given that Heriot has written multiple articles and co-edited a book about the negative effects of affirmative action, she knew the comments were directed at her.

“That in itself wouldn’t have been bad enough, but that’s just sort of the general atmosphere,” she said. “And the dean is quite clear that he has sympathy for the notion that the conservatives are a problem.” 

Dean Schapiro, in an email to The Free Press, wrote that the law school currently has 10 faculty on “phased retirement who represent a broad range of viewpoints across the political spectrum.” 

“The ideological diversity of our law faculty has been and will continue to be a signature strength of our school,” he wrote. 

Despite being branded as conservative, Heriot said she still considers herself a classical liberal—someone who believes in free speech and individual liberty, but who finds herself disagreeing with modern progressive thought. 

Her experience isn’t unique among her peers.

After 30 years at UCLA’s law school, Eugene Volokh, 56, will leave his post teaching First Amendment law next July for a new role as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, a right-leaning think tank based at Stanford. 

Politics professor Eric Kaufmann also left his tenured position at Birkbeck, University of London, in July after 20 years to teach a course at University of Buckingham that’s open to the public and called “Woke: the Origins, Dynamics, and Implications of an Elite Ideology.” He also plans to open a new research center at the university called the Centre for Heterodox Social Science. Kaufmann—an outspoken critic of progressive ideology and the target of Twitter mobs and cancellation attempts—told me he’s leaving Birkbeck partly out of a concern that his research could be blocked by members of his university’s ethics committee who dislike him and his views. 

“You have to be a bit more careful. You have to be a little less adventurous, a little more guarded. And it’s suboptimal,” he said of his experience at Birkbeck. “I’m at the point in my career where I thought, hell, I want to just say what I think and research what I want to research.” 

Even faculty who don’t consider themselves conservative are feeling uncomfortable amid a campus climate that demands adherence to the new left-leaning dogma. Carole Hooven, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, was branded “transphobic and harmful” by the director of her department’s diversity and inclusion task force after she appeared on Fox News in 2021 to publicize her book about testosterone and said: “The facts are that there are in fact two sexes—there are male and female—and those sexes are designated by the kind of gametes we produce.”

Afterwards, “the chair of another biology department sent an email around to the entire department, which accused me of transphobia,” Hooven told The Free Press.

The resulting backlash inside Harvard sent Hooven, who wrote T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone That Dominates and Divides Us, into a spiral of “severe depression” and '“suicidal ideation.” 

Speaking later about the episode, she said, “It’s easy to tell people to speak out and tell the truth. But the toll that people pay emotionally in terms of mental health is very high, and in terms of practical consideration if you need an income, it’s hard.”

With all this pressure to conform to a progressive ideology, it’s perhaps unsurprising that university faculty across the country are increasingly becoming left-wing.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) conducted a survey in 2022 of nearly 1,500 faculty members and found that 50 percent identify as liberal, 17 percent as moderate, and 26 percent as conservative. There are even fewer conservative professors in law schools—a 2018 study published in The Journal of Legal Studies found only 15 percent of legal professors called themselves conservative. 

At some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, the disparity is even more dramatic. A July 2022 survey of Harvard faculty conducted by The Harvard Crimson found more than 80 percent of faculty identified as liberal or very liberal, whereas only 1 percent identified as conservative (no respondents said they were very conservative). 

But Princeton politics professor Robert George says this trend isn’t all that new. When he arrived at the New Jersey campus in the fall of 1985 as a budding scholar in constitutional law and political philosophy, he told me he was the only “out of the closet, full-bore conservative” among the entire faculty. The faculty was dominated by classical liberals, George said, who were generally open-minded and tolerant of differing viewpoints. 

In his nearly 40 years at the university, George has been granted tenure, earned Princeton University’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, and currently holds the prestigious McCormick Professorship in Jurisprudence. He said he has enjoyed robust discussion and great friendship with his colleagues, even among those who hold strongly different political beliefs. He’s “the opposite of a victim,” he told me, but he also said he’s seen trends among students and faculty that he finds alarming. 

Just a few weeks ago, George attempted to give a talk at Washington College in Maryland on the importance of free speech but was shouted down by a group of protesters criticizing his views against gay marriage. The university ultimately cancelled the event in the middle of his speech. 

George said the classical liberals he used to work with are “a dying breed” in academia today. Instead, university faculty are skewing even further left. FIRE’s report shows the percentage of faculty identifying as “far-left” has doubled from 6 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 2020, whereas the percentage of those identifying as conservative has dropped from 16 percent to 10 percent. 

“They don’t share the vision that I shared with the old-school liberals,” George said of many of his progressive colleagues, “which is the vision of the university’s mission as one of disinterested truth-seeking, of trying to advance the cause of knowledge quite independently of how the political chips will fall.” 

Heriot said she finds the decreasing tolerance for different views particularly jarring at law schools. 

“Right now we have a conservative Supreme Court. And the idea that a law firm would not want to have lawyers who can make arguments that are persuasive to that court, that is just bizarre to me,” she said.

Heriot said pushing students to think more deeply about difficult and controversial topics should be the norm, not the exception. 

“I hope all law professors are at least a little bit controversial,” she said. “I mean, we are supposed to be causing students to think about things in ways they haven’t thought about before, and the only way to do that is to needle them a little bit with some ideas they may not have considered or may have thought of as incorrect.” 

Schapiro, the dean of USD’s law school, told The Free Press, “All our faculty, regardless of their political affiliation, prepare students to make effective arguments on all sides of a legal issue.”

But Heriot said she worries the student body is no longer receptive to this type of teaching. 

“I guess what I’ve noticed is that law students are less likely to engage now than they were 20, 30 years ago,” she said. 

Now, more than ever, universities are penalizing faculty members for going against the grain.

FIRE’s Scholars Under Fire database shows that colleges tried to sanction four professors in 2000 for speech deemed offensive or inappropriate, compared to 213 in 2021 and 145 in 2022. 

A 2023 FIRE report of faculty found more than half were worried about losing their jobs or reputations because of something they may have said. This number grows to 72 percent for faculty who identify as conservative, compared to just 40 percent of those who say they are liberal.

While many conservative professors hold their tongues or quietly retire, others have faced career-ending consequences for speaking their minds.

There’s the example of Joshua Katz at Princeton University—the tenured classics professor who penned an op-ed in Quillette in the summer of 2020, calling the campus’s Black Justice League “a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.” The university ultimately revoked his tenure in May 2022, ostensibly for a relationship he had with a student 15 years earlier, for which he had already been punished with a one-year suspension without pay. 

But many conservative professors, including Katz himself, believe the investigation into his past relationship was just an excuse to punish him for his controversial statements. 

And then there’s the story of Ilya Shapiro, the Georgetown law professor who came under fire and nearly lost his job at the university for a tweet he posted in January 2022 implying that Biden’s Supreme Court pick would be a “lesser black woman.” After a five-month investigation and suspension, Shapiro resigned from Georgetown less than a week after being reinstated. In an email to The Free Press, he said he didn’t feel the university would uphold its commitment to free expression. 

“Someone would inevitably claim offense to something I said or wrote, inside or outside the law school, and I’d be back in the inquisition,” he wrote. “It was an untenable situation, so I made a noisy departure and have been using the platform the incident gave me to shine a light on the rot in academia.” 

Stephen Porter, a tenured statistics professor at North Carolina State University, criticized his department’s DEI policies—first internally in 2016, and then in a public blog post in 2018. The department accused him of “bullying” and ultimately removed him from his post in the PhD program in July 2019, but kept him on staff. 

Porter sued, alleging the department violated his First Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s dismissal this past July, arguing that Porter displayed a “lack of collegiality” not protected by the Constitution. FIRE called the decision “a hit to academic freedom.” 

Porter’s lawyer, Samantha Harris, said she’s now trying to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. She told me she’s defended over 30 faculty since she started her practice in March 2021—including Princeton’s Joshua Katz and University of San Diego’s Thomas Smith.

Joshua Kleinfeld is an up-and-coming conservative legal scholar and philosopher at Northwestern University. The 45-year-old tenured professor told me navigating academic society today is like carefully avoiding a bomb on the battlefield. 

In order to survive, he says, scholars like him need to build skills beyond research, writing, and teaching. They need to develop a special type of judgment—knowing when to pick their battles, when to self-censor, and when to steer clear of a trigger that could potentially explode their entire career. 

“People who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy have to make a very painful choice,” he said. “They can speak their mind and accept the fact that their professional life will be a war zone. Or they can hold their tongue and avoid that controversy, accusation, and battle, but at the cost of a part of their soul.” 

Francesca Block is a writer for The Free Press. Read her last piece about “Stanford’s War Against Its Own Students.” Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, @FrancescaABlock.

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