College Faculty Are Fighting Back Against State Bills on Critical Race Theory

Nick Anderson and Susan Svrluga / The Washington Post
College Faculty Are Fighting Back Against State Bills on Critical Race Theory Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas. (photo: Jay Janner/Austin American Statesman)

Professors in Texas, Alabama and elsewhere approve resolutions supporting academic freedom

Appalled at efforts to limit what they can teach about race and other sensitive subjects, faculty leaders at prominent public universities around the country have rallied in recent weeks behind resolutions to reaffirm academic freedom and denounce legislation that would undermine it

These declarations show that the heated debate over state regulation of lessons on race, centered so far largely on K-12 public schools, is rapidly expanding onto college campuses. In this case it pits politicians, mainly Republicans, who depict themselves as guardians of objectivity concerning “divisive concepts,” against professors who say the state has no business meddling in the content of lectures, syllabi and seminars.

The latest skirmish has erupted in Texas.

On Monday, the Faculty Council of the University of Texas at Austin approved, on a 41-to-5 vote with three abstentions, a resolution rejecting “any attempts by bodies external to the faculty to restrict or dictate the content of university curriculum on any matter, including matters related to racial and social justice.” The resolution said the council will “stand firm against any and all encroachment” on faculty authority, including by the legislature.

Afterward, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) denounced the resolution. “I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory,” he wrote in a tweet. “We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed.” On Friday, Patrick said he would support ending the job-protection measure known as tenure for professors who teach critical race theory.

UT Austin declined to comment on Patrick’s statements or on the faculty resolution.

Critical race theory is both an academic framework for examining the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism and a catchall term that many GOP politicians have embraced to describe various kinds of lessons about race and racism they find objectionable.

Through laws and directives, several states have taken steps recently to govern teaching and training about race in elementary and secondary schools. A few of the laws, including one in Idaho, also directly affect higher education. More proposals have emerged in legislatures, with an increasing number targeting universities. PEN America, an organization that advocates the freedom to write, is tracking 113 bills across the country that it describes as proposed “educational gag orders.” More than 40 touch on higher education. How many will be enacted is unclear.

Many proposals aim to severely restrict how professors talk about gender, race and American history, said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education for PEN America. “What was once a relatively finite list of things that were being banned is being creatively embellished and expanded in new ways,” he said.

Among the “divisive concepts” targeted in these bills are the idea that an individual is inherently racist or sexist, whether consciously or unconsciously; the idea that “meritocracy” and “hard work ethic” are racist or sexist terms, created to oppress people; and the idea that someone should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.

Collectively, Friedman said, the bills pose a threat to open academic inquiry in schools and universities. “The ratcheting up of these bills is certainly having a chilling effect on how teachers might think or teach or write about these issues, how students learn about them, what people feel comfortable talking about in college classrooms,” he said.

Culture-war politics have propelled the bills. Many Republicans want to emulate the example of Glenn Youngkin (R), who was elected governor of Virginia last fall after a campaign focused in part on attacking critical race theory in schools.

“If you don’t think universities are indoctrinating your kids, everybody needs to wake up,” Alabama state Rep. Ed Oliver (R), sponsor of one such bill, told “The Jeff Poor Show,” on talk radio in Mobile, in June. He said opposing critical race theory was “the way we stand up to woke-ism.”

Many historians and educators are pleading for perspective. “The ability of students to learn American history that is taught with professional integrity is not a partisan issue,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. “No state wants its students to graduate ignorant.”

At a growing number of colleges and universities, faculty are fighting back. The African American Policy Forum, a think tank that advocates for racial justice, gender equality and human rights, counts more than a dozen faculty resolutions that have been approved in recent months in support of academic freedom. The forum has circulated a template for the resolutions, but professors involved in these efforts say faculty usually tailor them to their own campuses or draft them from scratch.

At the University of Alabama, the Faculty Senate approved an academic freedom resolution on Dec. 14 on a 38-to-15 vote.

The resolution did not mention race. But it declared that “any pending legislation in the Alabama legislature that infringes on academic freedom and expression is anathema” to the ideal of academic freedom. The resolution also said the Faculty Senate “expects” the university president to “acknowledge that The University of Alabama opposes proposed and future legislation that undermines academic freedom and, therefore, the historic purpose of higher education, and expects the Board of Trustees to maintain its stated commitment to academic freedom.”

Asked about the resolution, the university said in a statement: “Academic freedom is fundamental to higher education. The University of Alabama … offers varied and numerous perspectives in the classroom and aspires for students to be exposed to a multitude of views while forming their own opinions and beliefs. Academic freedom allows faculty to research and teach the topics in which they have expertise and allows students to learn about those topics — even if they disagree. The University of Alabama System advocacy team is providing state leaders with input and feedback from the campus community.”

It is not yet clear what the Republican-led legislature in Alabama might approve. Among other proposals, one bill would bar public institutions of higher education from requiring students to assent to certain “divisive” concepts about race, sex or religion. One example of a divisive concept, according to the bill: “That with respect to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”

Sara McDaniel, a professor of special education at Alabama who supported the faculty resolution, said many faculty members are nervous about speaking out, especially those with limited or no job protections. “I think we are in a hyper-politicized environment,” she said. “It’s a balancing act. All of us will be careful with what we say and share.” But McDaniel said it was important to “lay down a marker” for the principle of academic freedom. “I don’t think any of us want to just stand aside and hope for the best and be quiet about it,” she said.

At Ohio State University, faculty leaders obtained approval Dec. 2 from the University Senate, on a 95-to-5 vote, for a resolution that denounced in explicit terms efforts to restrict how race is taught. “There are no ‘two sides’ to racism,” the resolution said, “any more than there are two sides to the Holocaust or the roundness of the earth; there are only truths that must be taught well so that we might ensure better futures for all citizens.”

Caroline Clark, a professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State, helped draft the resolution. Clark said faculty must speak out for academic freedom, not only at universities, but also in K-12 schools. “Silence is a choice, right?” she said. “It’s not neutral. It is a stance in and of itself.”

Another academic freedom resolution cleared the Faculty Senate of Pennsylvania State University on Jan. 25, on a vote of 117 to 23. The resolution denounced efforts to control academic content by labeling certain teaching approaches as “divisive,” and it rejected efforts by outsiders “to restrict or dictate university curriculum on any matter.”

Such votes can also illuminate divisions among faculty.

A transcript of the Penn State senate meeting shows that some faculty members raised concerns about the way the resolution was drafted. One professor warned that there’s a perception that people in academia tend to misrepresent the views of their critics, “hiding behind principles” in a bid to protect their own power. “I don’t think that’s true here,” the professor said. “But we’re playing right into that narrative.”

At UT Austin, a video recording of the Faculty Council meeting showed Richard Lowery, an associate professor of finance, objecting to the action taken Monday. He called the resolution “stunningly hypocritical” and said it failed to take an evenhanded approach to free-speech questions. “This is entirely one-sided,” he said. “You’re promoting the idea that academic freedom is the collective right of the faculty to decide which ideas are allowed on campus, not the individual right of faculty to express their own ideas.” He said faculty shouldn’t be allowed to turn the university into a “social justice indoctrination camp.”

Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor of human development and family sciences, replied: “What you’re missing is that this is not a prescriptive resolution. This is not saying that you personally need to say anything about this. But it is giving others permission to do so.”

Faculty across the country are paying attention. Jennifer Ruth, a professor of film at Portland State University, has been active in a campaign to promote academic freedom resolutions nationally. One such measure was approved at her university in Oregon. She said many professors are realizing that they have a stake in the debate even if history or race is not their field.

“One thing that the resolution has seemed to accomplish on almost every campus is that individual faculty members who vote for it move from, ‘I don’t have a dog in this fight’ if they don’t do critical race theory, to ‘Oh, right, we all have a dog in this fight because it’s critical race theory this time but it will be climate change or x or y next time, and I do climate research,’” Ruth said in an email.

Solidarity matters, she said. “Faculty need to stand together.”

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