Across the Country, Faculty Fight to Defend Academic Freedom

Across the Country, Faculty Fight to Defend Academic Freedom

Across the Country, Faculty Fight to Defend Academic Freedom

Displaying an unprecedented solidarity, the academic community is mobilizing to confront an existential assault on its professional work and values.


Will the truth disappear from American colleges? Not if Jennifer Ruth, Valerie Johnson, and Kimberlé Crenshaw can help it. Ruth, a professor of film studies at Portland State University, Johnson, a political scientist at DePaul University, and Crenshaw, a pioneering scholar who teaches at Columbia University and University of California–Los Angeles law schools, have been organizing faculties to fight back against the proposals now coursing through dozens of state legislatures that would prevent teachers from dealing with racism and other politically charged subjects.

Worse than McCarthyism, which only targeted individual dissenters, today’s repressive measures invade the curriculum and the classroom and threaten to deprive students of the rigorous examination of real-world problems that citizens of a democratic society need. While these educational gag orders originally focused on K-12 education, colleges and universities have also come under attack. And professors are fighting back as never before.

Displaying an unprecedented solidarity, the academic community is mobilizing to confront what its members rightly perceive as an existential assault on their professional work and values. Faculty organizations, learned societies, even student groups are forming new coalitions and strengthening old ones as they engage in collective action to stem the tide of repressive legislation—and stiffen the spines of university administrators.

Because it turns out faculty power can work. In several incidents within the past year, professors managed to prevent their institutions from violating their colleagues’ rights. One such victory occurred at the University of Texas, where pressure from on- and off-campus groups forced the administration to reverse its cancellation of a research project studying the effectiveness of anti-racism training for white children after a retired economist affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute disingenuously complained that the study discriminated against Black kids. In an even more egregious case, the University of Florida’s attempt to bar three political scientists from testifying against a bill restricting voting rights was reversed after a massive local protest spurred a tsunami of outrage from individual professors throughout the United States.

National organizations concerned with free speech and higher education are also pitching in. A group of staff members from PEN America, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the American Historical Association drafted a “Joint Statement on Efforts to Restrict Education about Race” that was then endorsed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities representing more than 500 public and private institutions. By the time the document was released on June 16, 2021, it had been signed by 70 (now 145) scholarly organizations and attracted widespread media attention.

The academic community’s most promising current effort to combat the gag orders is a national drive for faculty senates and similar bodies to pass resolutions against them—and then invite their administrations to approve those statements. Launched under the aegis of the African American Policy Forum—a think tank headed by Crenshaw—this campaign not only amplifies the higher education community’s near-unanimous opposition to the repressive legislation but also warns university authorities against responding to political pressures with repressive actions that might trigger the kind of massive faculty pushback that occurred at the University of Florida.

The AAPF launched the project last summer by convening a group to draft a statement for faculty senates and other official bodies to use as a template for their resolutions. Once the semester began, Jennifer Ruth, a professor of film studies at Portland State University and AAUP activist who had originally conceived of the campaign, contacted faculty leaders at the nation’s flagship public universities. “Making cold calls to all these places was a shot in the dark,” she told me. She got a few responses, sent out follow-up emails, got a few more nibbles, “and then it just took off from there.”

Defending Autonomy, Opposing Racism

The resolutions highlighted both the threat to academic freedom and the importance of teaching about racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. For one of the template’s authors, DePaul University political scientist and AAPF activist Valerie Johnson, invoking academic freedom was “a no-brainer.” Even professors who opposed involvement with K-12 teachers or disliked their campuses’ diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives could not stomach outside politicians meddling with their teaching and research. “We wanted to lay down a marker,” Sara McDaniel, the University of Alabama professor of education leading the resolution campaign at the Tuscaloosa campus, explained. “Legislators should not be telling teachers what to teach.”

Some faculty members have voiced hesitations about defending the substance of the anti-racist education under attack. Though many of the resolutions’ backers recognized that politicians who pushed the gag orders were pandering to a white supremacist constituency, convincing timid colleagues to confront that issue head-on could be difficult. Sometimes merely using the term “critical race theory” (CRT) was problematic. The resolution’s sponsors at the University of Minnesota did keep the term in the title of their resolution. But just before the chair of the University Senate Faculty Council at Ohio State submitted his colleagues’ resolution on “Teaching the Truth About Racism” to the full senate, he pulled the word “truth” from the title.

While professors from many fields pushed the resolutions, those in schools of education, Black, LGBTQ, and ethnic studies departments as well as faculty members involved with their institutions’ diversity, equity, and inclusion programs were understandably prominent in the campaign. For educators who, like Ohio State’s Caroline Clark, worked directly with student teachers, the gag rules’ expected chill had already materialized. “It’s heartbreaking to hear the fear I hear from my K-12 colleagues…my students self-silencing because they fear their mentoring teachers might be supporting the legislation.”

It’s unclear how many of the professors Jennifer Ruth contacted opposed the AAPF’s campaign or were simply afraid to promote it, like the faculty senators at the University of Tennessee who tabled the measure after one of their colleagues claimed that its adoption would be like “poking a stick in the eye of the legislature.” Delays were common. Faculty senates are notorious for quibbling over commas, and in some cases it took months to bring the resolutions to a vote. But once they reached the floor in the spring semester of 2022, they passed by huge margins, often unanimously and with little or no debate.

As of this writing, 39 institutions have adopted the resolutions. They range from Big Ten universities like Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison to such red-state universities as those of Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. There are also a few historically black colleges and universities and other public and private institutions. The AAPF’s website tracks the action, but things are happening so fast it’s hard to keep count.

What Next?

It’s unlikely that faculty senate resolutions alone will deter opportunistic and racist politicians from passing outrageous laws against nonexistent threats. The ultimate remedy to such tactics will come at the polls. Still, the anti-gag-rule campaign can send a powerful message that the academic community is capable of mobilizing for collective action. And the resolutions may well be reaching their intended audience—the trustees and administrators who control the nation’s colleges and universities.

When a group of faculty activists at the University of Colorado learned that a member of the Board of Regents was about to propose a ban on teaching about CRT, they rushed into action. Using the AAPF’s template, they quickly produced an academic freedom resolution that sped through the Faculty Council just days before the regents met and voted down the threatened gag rule. That the resolution had strong support from other faculty groups within the university as well as from top administrators certainly helped block the regent’s initiative.

In Texas, where Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick responded to U-T’s faculty senate resolution by threatening to destroy tenure, his bombast stimulated the adoption of additional resolutions by concerned groups and individuals within the state. The Executive Committee of the Texas Council of Faculty Senates issued a statement denouncing Patrick for “waging a war against thinking.” So, too, in a more measured response, did the university’s president.

Whatever happens in Texas, one thing is certain. If higher education is to retain its intellectual integrity, its presidents, provosts, and trustees will have to cooperate with their faculties. Many administrators met the current crisis with reassuring language about academic freedom, but, as Gopalan Nadathur of the University of Minnesota recently told me, “whether they will manifest themselves in action is the real question.” So far, their predominant response has been to negotiate with legislators to exempt colleges and universities from the proposed gag rules or else clean up their proposals’ objectionable language.

That won’t be enough. University authorities must push back—and they can do so by asserting that their faculty senates’ resolutions will not let them impose any kind of censorship. Or they can, as they all too often have, surrender to political pressure, and undermine the values they claim to support. Higher education is at stake, as is our democratic polity. The events of the past few months have shown that when they act collectively, professors have the power to protect academic freedom and the desire to teach the truth. Let us hope they also have the will.

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