The recent wave of educational “gag orders” restricting education to race, gender, or other so-called divisive concepts poses a serious threat to American higher education being unique and sought-after. Such laws pose a greater threat to freedom of speech than any attempt to solve them, and it also jeopardizes the recognition of colleges and universities. Institutions must speak out against such government censorship, which is not politics at all.
These were the main themes that emerged during a Wednesday panel by the free expression group PEN America and the American Association of Colleges and Universities. The occasion was the release of a new joint statement by the two groups opposing legal restrictions on teaching and learning, which noted that 70 bills affecting higher education had been introduced in 28 states and passed in seven states since January last year. (More states have passed bills affecting K-12 education.)
The joint statement said, “These legal restrictions violate freedom of speech and academic freedom, preventing important social discourse from pressing questions about American history, society and culture.” “Legal restrictions on freedom of inquiry and expression violate the institutional autonomy on which the quality and integrity of our higher education system depends. In the United States, the content of what is taught and discussed in higher education classrooms is protected from direct government control. “
This is not the first time that these groups, or others, have publicly opposed the educational gag order (Penn, in particular, has an ongoing law tracking project and speaks regularly). However, the joint statement expressed new “fears” about the trend towards censorship – as the panelists commented on.
Suzanne Knoll, CEO of PEN, says her organization has been working year after year to “explain how we believe that a more equitable and inclusive campus and drive for society cannot come at the expense of strong protection for freedom of speech.” And academic freedom. And what we’ve seen and changed over the last year is this startling and frightening reaction, which is seen as a kind of orthodoxy emanating from the left.
Knossel and others on the panel agree that higher education must be compatible with the discourse environment that has been called the “liberalism” or more reprehensibly “snowflake” problem on campus. However, all panelists agreed that legislation is not the answer to what can and cannot be discussed on college campuses.
“As a free speech defense organization, we recognize that not all threats to freedom of speech are created equally,” Knoll said. If you are going to make a classification that should be the most, these are the ones that directly protect against our First Amendment, which is the intrusion and impediment to freedom of speech arising from the government. “
Regarding the critical race theory, gender and other concepts that the law targets, Nossell said, “This is a very specific perspective that is being said and outlawed. It is an open discourse, an insult to the values we stand for as an organization. For me personally, as an American, I find this to be something I have never seen or witnessed in my own country. And I think it’s very important to note that it’s not just part of the culture war. It’s not just a fight between the right and the left. This is a real turning point for our governors and legislatures to deviate from the basic constitutional principles. “
‘A clear, unambiguous voice’
Panelist Eduardo Ochoa, president of California State University, Monterey Bay, said: As my colleagues have noted, this is one of the fundamental strengths of American higher education — in fact, American democracy. The ability to express your views is important to the strength and resilience of this nation, whether they are popular or they meet the orthodoxy of established power. “
Among college and university leaders, Ochoa said “this is an issue that is a real easy problem for presidents to have angels on their side.”
However, not all presidents have publicly opposed the law. Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida, for example, recently told faculty members not to violate a new state law that he said governs “educational subjects and practices.” The law, known as HB 7, is better known among its supporters as the Stop the Run to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act, which was introduced in December by Republican Governor Ron Desantis as “a barrier against state-sanctioned racism that is critical. Ethnic theory.” Faculty members were also warned that going against the new law could result in “huge financial penalties” for the university, based on a separate new law enforcing HB7.
Emeritus, president of panelist Ronald Kutcher, both of Richmond University and Whitton College in Massachusetts, says some politically motivated actors, including the media, “try to place universities as places where professors are trying to poison the minds of young people.” Leaders must “use students ‘real stories and students’ voices that represent a broader perspective to help people understand what is actually happening on our campus.”
Jeremy Young, PEN’s senior manager of free speech and education, says these divisive notions do not reflect widespread opinion, citing a 2020 survey by the American Historical Association that found that 77 percent of Americans (and 74 percent) of Republicans say something. Teaching about the damage done is acceptable, even if the content causes students discomfort. And while some bills and laws do not explicitly involve college education, he said, in some states their influence has made administrators cold to change curricula.
The specificity of these laws varies, but threatening speeches range from historical content about racism and slavery to student organizations that represent gender or ethnic identity, Young added.
U.S. higher ad devaluation
As part of a broader trend towards legislators and other personalities interfering with long-standing higher education rules, the recent divisive concept bans are part of a growing sense of urgency and empathy, says Lincoln Pascarella, president of AAC&U. To remedy excesses in recruitment, tenure and promotion decisions and recognition, as well as to observe the views and attitudes of faculty and students that threaten to undermine academic independence and the shared governance of colleges and universities. ” (Some recent examples: Florida College has introduced a mandatory survey on climate for diversity perspectives and passed an out-of-date review law, the Georgia University system has made it possible to dismiss term faculty members without explicit faculty input, and key Mississippi board of trustees. Faculty members have changed the way they get and maintain their term with near confidentiality.)
The joint statement, which Pasquerela added, highlights the “uniqueness of the American higher education system, which derives its strength directly from independence from government control, and shows the ways in which higher education is self-governing and recognized in America’s world-leading colleges and universities.” Self-regulated through processes designed to ensure academic quality and integrity, as well as freedom from unwanted political influence. “
According to Pasquerella’s point, the statement states that colleges and universities are “self-governing and self-regulated in accordance with widely recognized principles protected by a well-established network of seven regional accreditation bodies.”
Without naming names, however, another new law is being enacted in Florida requiring colleges and universities to change accreditors and sue accreditors they do not like to oversee, the statement said. Observing that colleges and universities with freedom from unwanted political influence “and those colleges and universities” forced to comply with political orders governing curriculum and classroom discussions may lose their eligibility for recognition, a drastic consequence that could compromise students’ eligibility for federal financial aid. And can set up organizations on their own.
The Educational Gag Order disrupts shared governance, the statement added, “imposing political restrictions on college and university curricula and unreasonably restricting the privileges of these faculties, replacing ideologically motivated government directives for subject matter and dismantling academic enterprises.”
Regarding academic freedom, the statement said that “in education and learning, like scholarship and research, the freedom to engage in intellectual debate and to share ideas and raise questions without fear of retaliation or censorship, expands the boundaries of knowledge and drives innovation.”
Attempts to prevent this process therefore “weaken the democratic future of our society.”
The Way Forward
Asked how colleges and universities could address outstanding concerns about liberalism in their own classroom discourse environments during the event, Ochoa said they could “promote” versus effective education with critical thinking. Kutcher suggested a free-speech “roadmap” report on the campus of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which he helped write. “Divided America” contains a separate report by Penn on free speech in the classroom.
The University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement offers resources, including a newly published paper by Lynn Commella, one of her fellows on best practices for navigating campus debates. Michelle Ditchman, center director, was not involved in the new joint statement or panel, but said Wednesday that “there are many things universities can do and some of them need to go back to the basics – education for students, staff and faculty about First Amendment; Discuss the value of defending offensive and vulgar speech; formal guidelines for graduate teacher assistants on how to facilitate challenging conversations in the classroom; and training on the differences between academic freedom and freedom of speech and why it is important Essential for those who maintain open speech and free inquiry. “
Deutchman agrees with the “absolutely” new joint statement itself.
“Legal restrictions on university autonomy are one of the biggest threats to freedom of expression and academic freedom,” he said. “When the government tries to determine what can and should be taught in our country’s classrooms, it undermines the principles on which higher education depends – the boundless pursuit of knowledge and the uninterrupted exchange of ideas. It shakes the foundations of our democracy.”