We live in a time when belief and affirmation seem to have the same value as knowledge and facts, with a widespread aversion to critical thinking, science and evidence-based facts. This is a time when civil discourse and the respectful exchange of diverse ideas have given way to toxic, factless ad hominem attacks.
The health of our American participatory democracy depends on an informed population making knowledge-based 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 precarious at best as higher education is under attack 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, American colleges and universities have played a central role in preparing citizens for participation in civil society, helping students to become independent thinkers, analyze problems and identify creative solutions, and understand that American democracy was built on the importance of a plurality of political philosophies and ideologies.
The ability of higher education to fulfill this essential role depends entirely on two determining 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 within the context of that mission. This independence has been an essential and respected component of higher education since the 1819 Supreme Court decision in Dartmouth College vs. Woodward.
The second determining factor is academic freedom. The “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” by the American Association of University Teachers, identifies the basic principles of academic freedom:
— Higher education institutions are run for the common good and not for the benefit of the individual teacher or the institution as a whole.
— Academic freedom in its pedagogical aspect is fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher and the student to freedom of learning.
— Teachers have the right to freedom in the classroom to discuss their subject, but they must be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial subjects that have no connection with their subject.
Additionally, a 2010 article in Inside Higher Education 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 growing number of increasingly successful attempts by governors and state legislatures to interfere with the historic autonomy of higher education and erode the freedom academic by telling teachers what can and cannot be taught:
In South Dakota, Governor. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemUtah GOP Governor Vetoes Ban on Transgender Sports Noem Signs Bill Rejecting ‘Dividing’ Running Workouts at South Dakota Universities National Park Service Rejects Request from Noem for the 4th of July Fireworks at Mount Rushmore MORE recently signed legislation banning public state universities from offering materials and training that it says could cause racial unrest.
- The Governor of Tennessee has signed a bill banning the teaching of CRT.
- The governor of Florida introduces laws that mandate how civic education is taught from kindergarten to college.
- In Oklahoma, teachers and professors are in class says not to “indoctrinate” students about race or risk losing state aid.
- Republicans in the Arizona Legislature are considering the creation “freedom schools” to introduce more conservative principles into university curricula.
- In South Carolina, the REACH law mandates that students take a course that teaches some aspect of American history.
- In Texas, the lieutenant governor is threatens to revoke tenure in public state institutions, which would end the system’s historical ability to recruit world-class faculty.
Trustees colleges and universities view their responsibility to protect their institutions from outside interference as a sacred duty. But it gets harder and harder, 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 is an attack on the fundamental 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 motivations of tens of thousands of committed teachers and their institutions.
It is no exaggeration to say that the health of our political system depends largely on the independence and autonomy of American colleges and universities, allowing them to produce graduate students with the intellectual skills, abilities and knowledge necessary to participate effectively in American democracy.
David Maxwell is President Emeritus of Drake University and Senior Researcher/Senior Consultant for the Association of Boards of Trustees. 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.