Professors increasingly face retribution for voicing contrary opinions on college campuses. Since 2015, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has recorded a staggering 591 instances of retaliation toward college faculty members for expressing their ideas.
In 2020, FIRE recorded 136 instances of punishing or firing professors for airing their views — a fourfold increase over just five years. In 2021, 111 were targeted.
“2020 was the worst year for sanction attempts, but it created a ‘new normal,’” FIRE research fellow Komi Frey told The Post. “Already there have been 35 attempts in 2022. At this rate, 2022 will exceed not only 2021, but 2020 as well.”
But some professors are speaking out against cancel culture. Here are five, of diverse backgrounds and ideologies, who are refusing to bow to the mob.
PETER BOGHOSSIAN: “Complaints came out of nowhere”
In 2010, Peter Boghossian was hired as a philosophy professor specializing in critical thinking at Portland State University in Oregon. By 2012, he began to notice an explosion of identity politics and intolerance for different viewpoints on campus.
“The campus culture changed very, very, very dramatically in a very, very, very short period of time. Markedly so,” he told The Post. “In retrospect, Portland State was a canary in the coal mine.”
He pushed back by inviting ideologically diverse speakers to his classes — including Phil Vischer, the Christian cartoon creator of “VeggieTales,” to his atheism course. But, as Boghossian spoke out against woke campus orthodoxy, he became a target.
Digital vigilantes infiltrated his social media accounts, calling him a “bigot” and a “Nazi” and contacting old friends in search of dirt. By 2016, an allegation from a former student triggered a Title IX investigation into whether Boghossian beat his wife and children, and he was horrified to learn that the university interviewed “witnesses” about the claims.
After several months, Portland State found the charges to be baseless.
“It was just a constant stream of claims that I’m microaggressing people, complaints coming out of nowhere,” Boghossian, 55, recalled. “It was like Chinese water torture.”
In 2017, he took his fight off-campus, teaming up with two other academics to produce satirical hoax papers about race, gender and fat theory and submit them to academic journals to “expose the corruption in scholarly literature.”
The team had seven papers accepted, including an article entitled “The conceptual penis as a social construct,” a feminist rewording of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” and an argument that dog parks in Portland perpetuate rape culture, which received special recognition from the feminist geography journal “Gender, Place, and Culture,” before it was retracted.
After the prank made national headlines, Portland State’s school newspaper slammed Boghossian with a hit piece, signed by an anonymous collective. Swastikas were found scrawled next to his name in his department’s bathroom. A bag of feces was left at his office door. Meanwhile, the university charged him with three counts of research misconduct for submitting hoax papers, including a citation for plagiarizing Hitler’s work.
Boghossian said he accused a dean of stifling his voice, and pointed out that Portland State was ranked by FIRE as one of the worst institutions for academic freedom. The dean replied that it was “a good thing” to be on such a list, he said.
“It was a lightbulb moment for me,” Boghossian said. “This isn’t a bug, this is a feature of the ideology. They’re not hiding it, and they’re very proud of themselves.”
Christina Dyrness Williams, Director of Strategic Communications for Portland State, told The Post, “Portland State has always been and will continue to be a welcoming home for free speech and academic freedom.”
Last September, Boghossian left the university and publicly published his resignation letter. Now, he is joining forces with other prominent intellectuals to found the University of Austin, a new college dedicated to unfettered academic freedom. “Our institutions are irretrievably broken,” he said. “So now I’m trying to build something new.”
SUE BERGIN: “If you have liberal leanings, you have to check yourself”
After 28 years at Brigham Young University, adjunct English professor Sue Bergin said she was fired without explanation. Now, she alleges her views on LGBTQ rights caused the conservative religious school to drop her.
According to Mormon tradition, LGBTQ individuals can not engage in any same-sex relationships while being members of the church. BYU, by extension, prohibits “homosexual expressions” of any kind on campus, even holding hands. Students could face disciplinary measures for honor code violations.
But as a Mormon with two gay brothers, Bergin wore a rainbow flag pin in solidarity with her family, and added her name to a list of “affirming faculty members” compiled by an LGBTQ student organization not officially recognized by the school. When asked, she said she shared her stance on gay marriage, but made sure to say she “respectfully disagrees” with the church’s position. “I was always careful to tell my students this is my personal opinion and that they should come to their own conclusions,” she said.
She said students often came to her privately to express their gratitude. “It’s so important for these queer Mormon kids to be affirmed,” she said. “It breaks their hearts. They love their religion. It’s how they were raised. It’s their heritage, but they can’t be a full part of the community unless they give up their natural urges.”
This semester, Bergin, 64, was slated for a promotion at the business school’s writing center. Although she secured approval from her supervisor, department chair, dean, and bishop, she said a December call from her supervisor left her unemployed without warning after a higher-up at the school reportedly disapproved of her appointment.
“My performance was more than satisfactory to the point that they wanted to move me to this position that was a peach of a job,” she said.
She said the university has still not given her a reason for her termination. But she suspects her support for the LGBTQ community got her the boot. “There’s no other reason I can possibly think of,” Bergin said.
Adjunct faculty members’ “semester-long contracts are renewed or not renewed for many different reasons,” a BYU spokesperson told The Post. “BYU does not comment on specific reasons for renewal or non-renewal of adjunct faculty contracts.”
“It just doesn’t seem right to me to limit discussion around certain religious principles in order to protect people’s faith,” she said. “To me, it doesn’t protect their faith, it just cages it and makes doubts go underground instead of being aired. Every religious principle needs to be freely chosen, and it can’t be if there’s no open discussion of questions and differences of opinion.”
J. ANGELO CORLETT: “My rights were violated”
After a quarter of a century teaching at San Diego State University in California, philosophy professor J. Angelo Corlett said he has been barred from his courses with no due process because he verbalized racial epithets in a class about racism.
In March 2022, the university received complaints that Corlett had verbalized slurs, including “b–ch” and the N-word, in a lecture about offensive language. Corlett said a central lesson in his curriculum is the “use-mention distinction” — a philosophical theory that racist language requires racist intent on the part of the speaker.
“It’s a very simple point, but not everybody seems to want to accept the linguistic science of it,” Corlett told The Post. “Apparently they think just the mere appearance or saying of racial epithets makes me racist.”
Although he’d taught that exact lesson for over 20 years with no pushback from the university, Corlett said he was suddenly barred from teaching his two courses on racism and critical thinking by a dean who cited student complaints. Corlett said the school refused him due process or the chance to refute accusations before removing him from the classes.
San Diego State told The Post: “The university holds in highest regards all protections for academic freedom. After reviewing multiple complaints from students, the university considered the severity of the situation and the support needed for our students, and reassigned the professor.”
Meanwhile, defamatory social media posts accused Corlett, 63, of being racist and of using the N-word 60 times in a lecture (which he vehemently refutes as “blatantly false hearsay”), while the student government publicly demanded the administration fire him.
Since then, over 150 professors have signed an open letter to the university, urging it to reinstate Corlett into his courses, stating: “We worry that failure to [reinstate Dr. Corlett] will have a prolonged chilling effect on faculty expression and send the signal to your faculty that they teach difficult and controversial material at their own risk.”
As of now, Corlett is still barred teaching from his two of his three courses, and he has filed a grievance against San Diego State.
“People at the university are abusing their power and violating peoples’ rights,” Corlett said. “It’s time that they’re held to account for that.”
SOPHIA NELSON: “They wouldn’t let me speak”
After only one year as a professor of legal writing at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, Sophia Nelson was promoted to the prestigious position of scholar-in-residence. She had grand plans to help establish a Women, Race, Gender, and Politics Center on campus, but it all came crashing down after an October tweet landed her in hot water.
She commented on the news that Superman’s tween son would come out as bisexual in future comic books, saying: “I don’t get why this is necessary. I don’t! What if Christian parents of children reading comic books don’t want their kids exposed to bi-sexual characters? This is being pushed on kids.”
A fellow professor, who is bisexual herself, e-mailed the university president and fellow faculty members to complain about Nelson, alleging that her Christian faith was a cover for her homophobia. After that, students and faculty rallied against her, smearing her on social media, organizing protests and circulating a petition for her termination with around 500 signatures.
“They called me a racist and a homophobe,” Nelson said. “But my whole life as a black woman has been a journey towards helping to create more diverse environments. It’s very hard to have people defame you.”
In response, Nelson, 55, deleted her tweet and twice expressed regret for causing offense — on Twitter and via an open letter.
Nelson also asked to join open forums hosted by the student government to discuss the issue, but said her requests were denied because students felt they would be unable to speak freely in her presence. She said the school newspaper also declined to publish her open letter, citing concerns over its length.
Finally, Nelson was told she could speak at a campus forum on Nov. 9. But, in the days leading up to the event, she said CHU’s Dean of Students openly expressed concerns for her safety in a meeting, so she prioritized her personal safety and decided not to attend.
“In the end this is about the First Amendment,” Nelson said. “This is about whether they had the right to bring my private tweet — my protected speech — into the workplace and create a hostile environment.”
Kelley McGee, director of public relations at Christopher Newport University, told The Post: “Ms. Nelson’s allegations of discrimination and retaliation are without merit. We provided her with an opportunity to engage in dialogue on campus, but she chose not to avail herself of that and we respect her choice.”
The university did not renew Nelson’s contract, and she said cancel culture has officially squeezed her out of academia. Now, she worries about where our campuses are headed.
“What are we teaching our young people as far as life skills go if everything we do offends them, and every time they’re offended they protest and get their way?” she said.
DORIAN ABBOT: “The goal was to silence me“
University of Chicago geophysics professor Dorian Abbot was thrilled when MIT invited him to deliver their prestigious annual John Carlson Lecture last September. Although he planned to speak about planets orbiting stars, it was ultimately his views on affirmative action that prompted MIT to call off the event.
After his invitation was announced, outraged MIT students took to Twitter to circulate an op-ed Abbot coauthored last summer, in which he argued that admissions policies should be based on merit, not immutable characteristics.
“At first I thought, ‘Oh, this is just silly. There are just a dozen students misbehaving on Twitter, who cares,’” Abbot told The Post.
But pressure to cancel the lecture exploded on social media, and within a week MIT had caved to the mob.
Abbot, 40, said he received a call from MIT’s department chair, Robert van der Hilst, to tell him the lecture had been called off, citing his article as the reason.
“The goal was to silence me, to force me to retract my views, and to intimidate everyone else from sharing any views like that,” Abbot said. “Just because you disagree with me doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be able to participate in science.”
An MIT spokesperson directed The Post to van der Hilst’s statement from last fall, which stated: “We felt that with the current distractions we would not be in a position to hold an effective outreach event. I made this decision at my discretion, after consulting with faculty and students in the department.”
Since the controversy, Abbot said fellow professors have removed their names from papers they worked on with him. He said he was even removed from a grant proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation after other scholars refused to participate if he was part of the team.
But his rebuke also sparked national outrage and an outpouring of support. Professor Robert George, who serves as head of the James Madison Program at Princeton, invited Abbot to give his lecture there instead, where he attracted a virtual audience of 3,000. And, thanks to his tenure, Abbot has not lost his full-time position at the University of Chicago.
“Sometimes you can say what you want and get by,” Abbot said. “But that requires that you’re a tenured person at the right place, and most people aren’t. They’ll just get crushed if they try to express a heterodox opinion.”
Rikki Schlott is a student, journalist, activist and fellow at FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.