Academic freedom is under assault — we have a sacred duty to protect it

We are living in a period in which belief and assertion seem to have the same currency as knowledge and fact, with a widespread aversion to critical thinking and science and evidence-based fact. It is an age in which civil discourse and the respectful exchange of diverse ideas has given way to toxic, fact-free ad hominem attacks.

The health of our American participatory democracy depends on an informed citizenry making knowledge-driven choices, thinking critically, analyzing information and determining what is true and relevant in our world.

But we see today in the political arena and in public discourse that health is tenuous at best as higher education comes under assault in many states. At least 16 states are considering or have already signed into law bills that punish teachers for discussing critical race theory (CRT) or similar topics.

For centuries, America’s colleges and universities have played a central role in preparing citizens for participation in civil society, helping students become independent thinkers, analyze problems and identify creative solutions, and to understand that American democracy was built on the importance of a plurality of political philosophies and ideologies. 

Higher education’s ability to fulfill this critical role is entirely dependent on two defining factors. The first is the independence and autonomy of colleges and universities to set their own course, to determine their own mission and the ways in which that mission is fulfilled, and to determine what is taught in the context of that mission. This independence has been a critical and respected component of higher education since the 1819 Supreme Court Ruling in Dartmouth College vs. Woodward.

The second defining factor is academic freedom. The “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” by the American Association of University Professors, identifies the basic tenets of academic freedom:

— Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole.  

— Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher and of the student to freedom in learning.  

— Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. 

In addition, a 2010 article in Inside Higher Ed noted, “Academic Freedom means that the political, religious, or philosophical beliefs of politicians, administrators, and members of the public cannot be imposed on students or faculty.”

Given these principles, it is alarming to see the rising number of attempts, increasingly successful, by governors and state legislatures to interfere in the historical autonomy of higher education, and to erode academic freedom by dictating to faculty what can and cannot be taught:

In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem recently signed legislation banning state public universities from offering materials and training that she says could cause racially based discomfort. 

  • Tennessee’s governor signed a bill to ban teaching CRT.
  • Florida governor is introducing laws that mandate how civics is taught from kindergarten through college.
  • In Oklahoma, teachers and professors are being told not to “indoctrinate” students on race or risk losing state aid. 
  • Republicans in the Arizona legislature are considering the creation of “freedom schools” to introduce more conservative principles into university curricula.
  • In South Carolina, the REACH Act mandates that students take a course that teaches certain aspects of American history.
  • In Texas, the lieutenant governor is threatening to eliminate tenure at the state’s public institutions, which would end the systems historic ability to recruit world-class faculty.

Trustees of colleges and universities see their responsibility to protect their institutions from outside interference as a sacred duty. But it is becoming increasingly difficult, and in a few cases they themselves have become the problem, as in the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure case at the University of North Carolina.

This kind of political interference constitutes an assault on the core attributes of higher education in America – autonomy and academic freedom – that make ours the best higher education system in the world. Politicians have far more important things to do than question the expertise and motives of tens of thousands of committed faculty and their institutions.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the health of our political system is, in great part, contingent upon the independence and autonomy of America’s colleges and universities, enabling them to graduate students with the intellectual skills, abilities and knowledge to be effective participants in American democracy. 

David Maxwell is president emeritus of Drake University and a senior fellow/senior consultant for the Association of Governing Boards. Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of practice at The Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and former under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Tags Academic freedom American Association of University Professors Critical race theory Education Higher education Kristi Noem Ron DeSantis

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