Those of us who work in academia understand that academic freedom represents the cornerstone of successful colleges and universities. It epitomizes the right of freedom to teach, discuss, engage in research and freely publish your findings. It also means the ability to dictate one’s own teaching and scholarship agenda, the security of academic positions and shared governance to ensure independence.
Despite such facts, the mission of academic freedom is under severe attack from varied quarters, resulting in ominous and potentially dangerous threats for both students and professors.
The last few years have witnessed a number of disturbing and blunt challenges to academic freedom. Right-wing state legislators began sponsoring legislation to ban what they deemed “divisive concepts” in education curriculum and abolished administrative offices and practices dedicated to racial-pluralism and other forms of diversity. For a sizable segment of the Republican party, so-called “divisive concepts” represent the belief by historians that the institutions of the United States were established to maintain racial and gender hierarchies in addition to maintaining the supremacy of White Americans. Regardless of their beliefs, it’s the indisputable true.
Academic freedom was established by the founders of the American Association of University Professors following the firing of Darwinists by autocratic college presidents in the 1880s and 1890s, coupled with the dismissal of social reformers and activists by conservative boards disproportionately dominated by businessmen in the early 1900s. Flash forward more than a century later, and the fiery pace of legislation introduced over the past few years is broader and potentially more consequential than the few initial incidents that spawned the principle of academic freedom as it was articulated in 1915.
While it has not rivaled the damage to academic freedom that occurred during the McCarthy/Red Scare era of the mid-20th century, when approximately 100 professors were fired and hundreds more were harassed and silenced, it is certainly moving in such a direction. The horrific events of September 11, 2001, provided proponents of such censorship the opportunity to flex their regressive, reactionary muscles to attack academic institutions.
To be sure, there are cases where left-wing activists have aggressively imposed their ideologically imposed beliefs in ways that have intruded upon academic freedom. But the reality is the overwhelming amount of hostility toward academic freedom is flourishing from the right. Republican lawmakers around the country are moving quickly to remake higher education in their conservative vision. Passage of bills in states including Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Ohio have alarmed proponents of academic freedom, who say that the efforts to limit or mandate certain courses or the teaching of certain topics, restrict or end faculty tenure, and defund and ban diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs will damage higher education.
Academic freedom has been a vital ingredient and component of higher education in this nation for most of its history. It resulted from the notion that colleges and universities were autonomous institutions with the freedom to teach without interference from external forces and their political or ideological agendas.
It’s vital that faculty and students in higher education are afforded the liberty to teach, research and discuss gender, race, racism, science, legal theory and other topics of larger public interest. These are stories and discussions that acknowledge and respect the diversity and pluralism of all of our students and the nation at large.
Academic freedom and free speech in general are crucial to our democracy. Either you have it, or you don’t. It is important to remember that when you attempt to curtail the civil rights of others, it may very well only be a matter of time before your own beliefs are stifled, if not outright canceled. Denying others the right to voice their opinions is a misguided and dangerous activity that can result in dramatic and disastrous consequences for us all.
Copyright 2023 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate
Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.