Cancel culture at US universities
Which US universities have the most cancel culture? One way of answering this question is to peruse the College Free Speech Rankings, assembled each year by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. They would tell you that in the latest year, the five worst offenders are: Columbia, Pennsylvania, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Georgetown and Skidmore.
FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings are an excellent resource, but they’re not ideal for gauging which universities have the most cancel culture.
First, the Rankings are based on several different indicators, including student surveys, speech codes and scholar sanctions. This means they take into account both perceptions of cancel culture (via student surveys) and the institutional response to cancel culture (via speech codes and scholar sanctions).
Of course, you’d expect these two things to be correlated, since universities generally cater to student demands. Yet it’s theoretically possible to have a university where cancel culture is rife, but the administration has strict policies in place to safeguard free speech – where many cancellations are attempted, but none ever succeeds. You can also imagine a university where the administration does nothing in particular to protect free speech, but the students just aren’t that into cancel culture.
To find out where cancellation attempts are going on the most, you don’t want to measure things like speech codes and administrative support for free speech. You want to measure what the students are actually doing or saying. Are they writing petitions? Are they holding protests? Are they physically assaulting people?
Second, the Rankings are annual, meaning they only take into account information from the most recent year. This matters because things like speaker disinvitations (which do go into the Rankings) are comparatively rare events – meaning the number recorded at an individual university may fluctuate substantially from year to year. When instances of what you’re trying to measure aren’t that common, it’s preferable to utilise several years worth of data, rather than just a single year.
Aside from the College Free Speech Rankings, FIRE offers two other useful resources: the Disinivtations Database and the Scholars Under Fire Database. Since these don’t suffer from the limitations outlined above, they provide much better measures of cancel culture.
The Disinvitations Database catalogues incidents in which students and/or faculty attempted to prevent an invited speaker from giving a talk on campus. Both successful and unsuccessful disinvitation attempts are included. The database lists 530 cases from 1998 to 2022.
The Scholars Under Fire Database catalogues incidents in which a student or faculty member faced an attempt at being professionally sanctioned (e.g., investigated, suspended or fired). Once again, both successful and unsuccessful attempts are included. The database lists 784 cases from 2015 to 2022.
To gauge which universities have the most cancel culture, I began by matching the two databases. This required manually recoding the names of several dozen universities, since some were not the same in both. For example, it said “St. Joseph's University” in one database and “Saint Joseph's University” in the other. After recoding, there were 156 matches. An additional 340 universities appeared in just one of the databases.
I then looked at whether universities that had more disinvitation attempts also had more scholars under fire incidents. A scatterplot is shown below. As you can see, there is a relatively strong positive correlation between the two variables (r = .57, p < .001). Universities that had more disinvitation attempts did have more scholars under fire incidents. (The correlation is basically the same if you log both variables.)
You might say this isn’t surprising. But what it suggests is that disinvitation attempts and scholars under fire incidents do pick up meaningful differences in cancel culture across universities – that cancellation attempts are going on more at some schools than at others. If by contrast, the two variables were completely uncorrelated, that would suggest cancellation attempts happen more or less at random.
Now, it’s possible the correlation is driven by factors like university size or notoriety, the latter being a proxy for media interest. Perhaps larger universities have more cancellation attempts? Or perhaps cancellation attempts do happen more or less at random, but those at “big name” schools are more likely to be picked up by the media and hence recorded?
We can dispense with the first hypothesis – that the correlation is driven purely by university size – quite easily. None of the schools depicted in the upper-right part of the chart is among the largest by student enrolment. For example, Stanford has about 17,000 students, whereas the country’s largest schools have upwards of 70,000. Having said that, it would be interesting to calculate the number of incidents per capita.
The second hypothesis – that the correlation is driven purely by media interest – is somewhat harder to evaluate. Yet there are two reasons to believe it’s not the whole story.
First, the compilers of the databases appear to have done a very thorough job; they found numerous incidents at schools I’d never even heard of. What’s more, both databases include a portal where you can submit incidents. So even if one hadn’t received any media coverage, the people involved might still have brought it to the compilers’ attention.
Second, most of the schools depicted in the upper-right part of the chart appear near the bottom of the College Free Speech Rankings. Columbia is last; Pennsylvania is second from last; and Georgetown is fourth from last. Since the Rankings take into account things other than speaker disinvitations and scholar sanctions, this suggests the correlation above isn’t purely an artefact of media interest in “big name” schools.
In any case, adding together the number of disinvitation attempts and the number of scholars under fire incidents yields the total number of cancellation attempts at each university. Here’s a list of those that had more than 12, given in ascending order:
University of Michigan
George Washington University
University of Chicago
University of Pennsylvania
New York University
University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, Berkeley
Notice any pattern? With the exception of DePaul University (a Catholic school that isn’t particularly high-ranked), they’re all elite universities located in blue states. Four are Ivy League Schools, and several others are in the same tier or just below. Harvard, which had the most cancellation attempts of all (32), is often considered the most elite school in the country.
This finding is consistent with an earlier analysis of the Disinvitation Database by Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias. After crunching the numbers, they found that “schools where students have attempted disinvite speakers are substantially wealthier and more expensive than average”. Reeves and Halikias produced this chart, which nicely illustrates their result:
Another thing to notice about the list above is that the University of Chicago is on it. This is noteworthy insofar as that school appears top of the College Free Speech Rankings – in part thanks to its implementation of the famous Chicago principles. Evidently, the presence of cancel culture and the institutional response to cancel culture are not just theoretically distinct, but empirically distinct too.
Why, then, do elite blue-state universities have the most cancel culture? The obvious explanation is these schools have the wokest students – the ones most concerned with punishing speech they consider “harmful”.
If we use “liberal” ideology as a proxy for woke beliefs and consult FIRE’s student survey, we see that elite blue-state universities are indeed woker than average – particularly Columbia and NYU. Interestingly, though, they’re not the wokest schools. Ranking schools by the share of liberal students, the top places are dominated by small liberal arts colleges. Penn is only ranked 66, and Princeton 82.
So there doesn’t seem to be a one-to-one relationship between cancellation attempts and student beliefs. If there were, we’d see more liberal arts colleges in the list above. Although their absence could be a function of their small size.
On the other hand, the survey on which the share of liberal students is based only sampled undergraduates, so it may understate the prevalence of woke beliefs at universities with large graduate schools. Since most elite blue-state universities do have large graduate schools, their students may be woker than FIRE’s student survey suggests. If so, then the relationship between cancellation attempts and student beliefs might be straightforward after all.
I would add that elite blue-state universities tend to admit more students through affirmative action, particularly the ones that offer liberal arts degrees. (Indeed, the highest ranked “Tech” university by total number of cancellation attempts is MIT at 52; Cal Tech didn’t appear in either database.) For several reasons, students admitted through affirmative action tend to be particularly woke and hence more likely to be involved in cancellation attempts.
Another explanation for all the cancellation attempts going on at elite blue-state universities is: elite competition. Woke beliefs are overrepresented in the student body, but there are still a decent number of conservatives around, which means there are plenty of targets for cancellation on both sides. And owing to their backgrounds and elite aspirations, the students simply care more about ideology. (Those at lower-tier schools take more interest in “Greek life”.)
In fact, the two databases specify whether each cancellation attempt was “from the left” of the target or “from the right” of the target. On average, about a third of cancellation attempts were “from the right” – which is more than you might expect. Though remember that conservatives are underrepresented at universities, particularly among faculty, so the per-capita rate at which they face cancellation attempts is much higher.
Elite competition points to another reason why the wokest schools are absent from the list above: there aren’t many targets for cancellation, because everyone’s woke. Charles Murray’s invitation and subsequent cancellation at Middlebury College may constitute a rare exception to this rule.
Which US universities have the most cancel culture? Data compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education suggests the answer is: elite blue-state universities. While this pattern may be partly driven by university size or notoriety, it appears to reflect something about the people who work and study there. A plausible explanation is elite competition. Students at elite blue-state universities are highly ideological but not uniformly woke, so they have both the will and the opportunity to go after their opponents.
Image: Daderot, Massachusetts Hall, Harvard University, 2007
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