Legislators across the country have ramped up efforts to influence what students learn in classrooms. While much of the attention focuses on K-12, there are high stakes in higher education that ripple on campuses and beyond.
Since January 2021, legislators have introduced 191 bills in 41 states to limit discussion of certain topics at both the K-12 and postsecondary level, according to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free expression.
The organization dubs these bills “educational gag orders” that target so-called “divisive” subjects, such as race, racism, gender and American history. Opponents of these bills argue they can impede the free exchange of ideas and limit institutions’ abilities to support a civically engaged and informed populace.
“It’s a scary time, and what we’re going to see coming in the future, unfortunately, seems to be more of the same,” Jeremy Young, PEN America’s senior manager of free expression and education, said.
Reporters navigating this ongoing issue can look beyond the legislation itself to ask questions about the root causes of efforts to influence higher education, the relationships between institutions and the public, and how academics can protect their academic freedom.
Ask About the Root Causes and Legislation
While Republicans are writing higher education bills today, it’s important to remember that academic freedom and campus free speech face pressure from multiple sources.
A few years ago, PEN America’s focus wasn’t on legislation, Young said. The organization was speaking and writing against efforts – mainly led by students – to remove or silence faculty and speakers who had shared views that were contrary to the beliefs of most people on campus.
Young cited Samuel Abrams, a former faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College, who received backlash after writing an op-ed for The New York Times about an “ideological imbalance” toward liberal and progressive values on college campuses. PEN America issued a statement saying Sarah Lawrence needed to do more to defend Abrams’ academic freedom and right to speak on controversial topics.
Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, said the recent bills are a backlash to efforts like the one against Abrams. The center she leads is a conservative nonprofit dedicated to improving higher education.
There’s a distinction between individual expression and the speech of an institution, Robinson said: Institutions should maintain neutrality because taking a stance “quells inquiry on campus, quells dissent on campus. It sends a message to those who do not agree with the institution’s position that their inquiry, their scholarship, their ideas are unwelcome.”
Legislators wouldn’t be overstepping to limit those types of statements or prevent institutions from asking faculty or students to make a statement or sign one with which they may not agree, Robinson argued.
Young said the reasons behind some of the higher education bills remain a mystery to him because legislators aren’t explaining their votes. He implored journalists to ask legislators about their votes, particularly if they go against their party.
Explore Political Polarization on Campuses and What College Leaders Are Doing
Disagreement on a college campus serves a core mission of higher education, according to Ronald Crutcher, president emeritus at the University of Richmond.
“I think we’re at a time in our country right now where we’re so polarized that not only are we not having conversations across political or racial differences, but we’re vilifying people who happen to be in those other bubbles,” he said. “At colleges and universities, I feel very strongly that we have an obligation from the very beginning of the freshman student’s year to help them learn how to have those kinds of conversations.”
He acknowledged public sentiment toward higher education has trended down and said institutions should demonstrate their public value by emphasizing how the classroom can bring people together to create greater understanding.
Meera Sitharam, a professor at the University of Florida, referenced education philosopher John Dewey’s assertion that educating critically thinking citizens is key to a democratic society.
Higher education should teach people how to think rather than what to think, Sitharam said. That teaching is a public service and an exercise of academic freedom, she added.
Dive Into Faculty Tenure Issues, the Role of Unions
One of the high-profile subjects of recent higher education bills has been faculty tenure. Sitharam is dealing with this firsthand as a leader in her union, the University of Florida chapter of the United Faculty of Florida.
A union is a strong tool for defending faculty’s academic freedom, Sitharam said. Her union contract contains an article dedicated to the subject with specific language about shared governance with administration and protection against retaliation.
She said tenure is a necessary condition for academic freedom, but it’s not sufficient on its own.
The panelists asked reporters to examine other faculty- and tenure-related issues:
Consider who’s being left out: Young noted that the tenure discussion leaves out untenured faculty and students, people who are entitled to academic freedoms.
Explore how tenure-track faculty are affected: Robinson said tenure on its own is inadequate for protecting academic freedom. For tenure-track faculty, the pursuit of tenure itself may even do the reverse by compelling them to self-censor “heterodox views” out of fear of upsetting the board deciding their future, she said. Increasingly, economic pressures have made achieving tenure impossible, regardless of merit, so higher education must find alternative protections for academic work, she added.Beyond academic freedom, Crutcher said he suggested limiting tenure to age 70, and then professors would work under shorter contracts. The idea hasn’t been popular, but he argued the current system severely limits opportunities for younger employees.
Track legislation and its impacts: Young said he’d like to read reporting and review data about the effects recent education legislation has on hiring and retention. “It stands to reason that … in states that have these laws, it might be hard to retain faculty even at the K-12 level, but we don’t have a lot of great evidence for this.”