Professors say the Republican crusade to root out “critical race theory” is taking a toll on college campuses around the nation—places where academic freedom is supposed to encourage thought, discussion and analysis.
Much of the “critical race theory” uproar to date has centered on teaching in K-12 schools. But several high-profile incidents, combined with new laws with unexpected effects, are raising worries about political interference in higher education. Some of it may play out this fall as students return to classes and professors sort out what they can and cannot teach.
The attempts by lawmakers to influence college curriculums undermine one of the principles that makes U.S. higher education so widely regarded across the globe: encouraging students to reach their own conclusions about the subjects they study.
“We haven’t seen this level of intrusion since McCarthyism,” Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told States Newsroom in an interview. The group says it’s tracked legislative proposals that have taken shape in 20 states.
“The consequences are the upending of the American system of higher education,” Pasquerella said.
The 1619 Project and more
Many Republican officials have used the misnomer of “critical race theory” to criticize a wide variety of activities examining the role of racism in American society. The term describes a narrower field of study among legal scholars.
Still, colleges and universities are being targeted.
The University of North Carolina has been at the center of the controversy. The school’s administration came under fire for denying tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times journalist who led the “1619 Project” that examined the role slavery played in shaping American history and society through the present day.
Despite credentials including a Pulitzer Prize and a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Hannah-Jones was initially offered a five-year appointment instead of the standard permanent tenured position, as was first reported by NC Policy Watch. After a national outcry, the UNC Board of Trustees voted 9-4 on Wednesday to offer Hannah-Jones full tenure after all.
In Idaho, lawmakers cut funding to Boise State University, because of concerns about its diversity programs (some of which turned out to be unfounded).
The Kansas Board of Regents upset some faculty members when regents tried to determine how widely critical race theory was taught at public universities in response to a state legislator’s request. (Both the board and the senator told States Newsroom in emails that they did not act on the information that was collected.)
And in Iowa, legislators passed a law this spring taking aim at schools or government entities that promoted ideas about racism and sexism that GOP lawmakers deemed “divisive.” Notably, the law only appeared to apply to mandatory diversity trainings at institutions of higher education—though at Iowa State University it’s had a broader effect.
The attempts by Republicans to monitor classrooms threaten the principle that higher education is intended to help students think on their own, academic leaders say.
That approach helps them become better citizens, Pasquerella argues. “If we start regulating what can be taught and how it can be taught in the academy, by people who are not experts in the field, then we’re eroding, not only higher education but democracy itself.”
Pasquerella’s group and dozens of others that focus on higher education or history signed a statement in mid-June decrying the “spate” of attempts to interfere with college coursework. Many of those proposals would prevent college instructors from discussing “divisive concepts” about racism and sexism in American history.
“Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history,” the groups wrote. “It can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration. Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced and frank delivery of history so that they can learn, grow and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology.”
A year of protests, calls for action
The growing concern on the right about race-related instruction follows massive protests and calls for action last year, in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and the killing of other Black residents by police in other cities.
Higher education is not the only target for Republican officials who have lashed out in recent months at various efforts to discuss systemic racism and white supremacy. They have attacked government diversity training programs, the military, and K-12 schools.
But colleges and universities do enjoy more legal protections about the material they teach than K-12 schools do.
The U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly provided protections for academic freedom for colleges and universities. It ruled in 1967, for example, that colleges could not require faculty to take loyalty oaths.
That came after Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1957 laid out four key freedoms of universities that are still cited today: “to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”
“In the absence of policy changes,” Pasquerella predicts, “there will be lawsuits that look at whether it’s constitutional for state universities to infringe on academic freedom in this way.”
Many faculty members also worry about how political interference will affect their universities’ communities and reputations.
Deborah Stroman, a professor in UNC’s school of public health and a former president of the UNC Black Faculty and Staff Caucus, says the board decision to offer tenure to Hannah-Jones offered hope to people on campus. But the controversy, she says, has already hurt the UNC community.
“At a major university like UNC, we’re all connected,” Stroman says. “We get to push out our chests with excitement when the basketball team wins, when somebody wins a Pulitzer, when someone gets a million-dollar grant… At the same time, when we have something like this, it is an embarrassment. It’s disappointing.”
The school’s initial decision not to grant Hannah-Jones tenure has already dissuaded faculty from coming to the flagship university, and Stroman thinks that is likely to continue. When recruiting Black faculty for departments that have few Black professors already, it’s important to be able to show them that they will be welcome in the larger community, she says.
The stress over the situation with Hannah-Smith disproportionately affects people of color—both students and faculty—at the university, Stroman says. It may take a year or two before the extent of the damage is known, she says.
“We are a prestigious university,” Stroman says. “When you make it to this level, that means you have choices. So we all have choices, and many people are being recruited right now.”
‘Divisive concepts’ in Iowa
Meanwhile, professors at Iowa State University thought they would largely be excluded from the state’s recent Republican bill targeting the teaching of “divisive concepts” because it only applied to mandatory diversity trainings at institutions of higher education.
But that’s not how campus administrators see it.
Josh Lehman, a spokesperson for the Iowa Board of Regents, says the three large universities under its control have all reviewed their mandatory staff and student trainings to ensure they comply with the new law.
But the provost at Iowa State took it a step further.
Provost Jonathan Wickert interpreted the law as applying to any course that is required for students to graduate, which could potentially affect classes in any degree program, according to an FAQ written by the provost’s office. On top of that, Wickert blocked faculty-approved updates to the campus’ 1990s-era requirement that students take a course on U.S. diversity, citing the new law.
“The environment created by laws like this makes people worried that if they have something in their syllabus, say a section on race and racism, or if they say something that a student does not like in class, or if they have a slide in a lecture that happens to offend someone, that a student or even a colleague will call up someone in the state government and report them for violating this law,” says Brian Behnken, an Iowa State history professor. Behnken added that he speaks as an individual, not a representative of Iowa State.
Already, Behnken says, professors are reworking their courses to steer clear of the divisive concepts listed in the law. “Some people simply don’t want to find out what the consequences are,” he says.
Rob Schweers, a spokesperson for the provost’s office, says that the faculty group recommending changes to the diversity requirement did not have time to see how it would be affected by the state’s new divisive concepts law.
“Given the passage of HF 802, the risk of the proposal being viewed as violating either the letter or the intent of the new law, and open questions about implementation, Provost Wickert made the decision not to approve the recommendation at this time,” Schweers said in an emailed statement. “Not approving the revision at this time should not be taken as a rejection of the Faculty Senate’s important work.”
Schweers said the provost’s office is taking a cautious approach overall with the new law.
“Because HF 802 is a new law, many of the terms and provisions contained in the legislation are currently being interpreted. As a public university supported by the state and its taxpayers, Iowa State University has an absolute responsibility to comply with both the letter and spirit of the law,” he said.
The provost’s office said it will be meeting with faculty over how that law will affect their classrooms.
But David Peterson, an Iowa State political science professor, says the provost’s policies leave faculty members with plenty of unanswered questions as they come back to campus and prepare for in-person instruction this fall.
“They don’t tell us what happens if we are found in violation. I don’t know if we have to get pre-clearance. If we don’t get pre-clearance and are found in violation, what are the rules? I know if we violate state law, we can get fired for that. But is there a process? I have no idea,” he says.
“I have a book called ‘Ignored Racism’ about how Anglos’ negative attitudes about Latinos shaped Anglos’ use of politics. The starting point of the book is that there have been centuries of systemic racism targeted at Latinos in America,” Peterson adds. “According to this law, I cannot claim that there is systemic racism in class. So, I cannot teach my book.”
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