Counteracting Censorship: Protecting Academic Freedom through Faculty Senate Resolution Campaigns
A 2022 Washington Week Recap and Reflection
*Slides from this session are provided by Jennifer Ruth, Higher Education Faculty Lead at African American Policy Forum can be found on AACTE Connect360.
COVID-19 has exacerbated a pre-existing education crisis and increased inequalities since its outbreak two years ago. And now, educators around the nation are grappling with yet another challenge. Outside of academia, critics are condemning the fight for intellectual freedom.
In the past couple of months, the attack on academic freedom at K-12 and post-secondary levels have reached new heights. From the fight to remove books affiliated with the history of the United States of America to the “great resignation” being affiliated with teacher shortages directly affecting the sustainability of education. There is a direct assault on education from all areas of social and political streams. For example, some of the significant challenges being faced are critical race theory (CRT) education, academic tenure, educator resources, and the hindering of legislative impediments to the educational curriculum. Below are some of the recent headlines featuring these issues:
- “Academic Freedom Under Attack”
- “UT Austin Council Approves Academic Freedom Statement on CRT”
- “Republican state lawmakers want to punish schools that teach the 1619 Project”
While these issues are prominent at the K1-2 level, the Counteracting Censorship: Protecting Academic Freedom through Faculty Senate Resolution Campaigns focused on the need for activism through governance at the post-secondary level. At Washington Week 2022, the Academic Censorship session with Jennifer Ruth of the African American Policy Forum highlighted how the current assault on higher education is an assault on democracy.
Fight for Modern Day Civil Rights
Black and Brown people in America are being denied a voice, power, and lived experiences due to the virulent anti-CRT movement that has been recently activated. It is profoundly disturbing that politically-motivated efforts have targeted school administrators, faculty, and staff, as well as school board members at the K12 level, to prevent honest discussions about our history. To build an informed nation that can make our democracy work for all Americans, we need an honest and accurate discussion of this country’s history, including its sordid legacy of racism and fear-mongering.
As if the discussion on race in education is not enough, lawmakers are now looking to reevaluate curriculum at the different levels of education. As a result of the COVD-19 pandemic, there has been an unprecedented disruption to education in the world, with severe consequences for education. The study of CRT is generally taught in higher education, and law schools focus on understanding how laws and policies perpetuate racial inequities and disparities. Many state legislatures are attacking CRT to score political points, using misinformation and fear to divide the people of our nation, causing a clear divide between citizens across numerous sectors. Ruth stated, “the whole ideal for civil rights was to make things more equal for all, not say things are over.” She further explained that race has always presented the nation with paradoxes, challenges, and opportunities, never failing to undermine the principle of equality on which it was founded. As a result of the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, equal rights, such as equal education, became America’s top priority. However, civil rights remain a contentious issue.
Ruth explained casualization of academic labor is being seen through exploitative types of jobs. Because the political fight between Republicans and Democrats has infiltrated the academy in more ways than one, the divide has now made its way into the classroom. But the fight is more extensive than red and blue. Since academic freedom is not taught and the definition has expanded over time, protecting academic freedom has become more convoluted. Altbach (2007) explains,
“Academic freedom is a fundamental prerequisite for an effective university, and a core value for academia. The higher education community must place academic freedom at the forefront of concern; just as human rights is an international priority” (p.55).
Unless academic freedom is under threat, often, it is rarely discussed. Because of the current education climate, Dr. Ruth explained the need for stronger governance groups (faculty senate, student senate, etc.) to join together in the fight toward true freedom. For faculty, the ability to govern one’s fundamental beliefs through the privilege of inquiry and teaching is a part of the professoriate foundation. In this, the standard as we see it for academics is competence. On the other hand, Ruth explained that what we see outside of the academy is that, unlike most academics, word of mouth, inconsistencies through news reports, and opinions can be the source of information for individuals that feel the need to impede on academic curriculum; resulting in the tainted progress of education. Thus, Dr. Ruth believes that shared governance must be a form of resistance to the fight against authoritarian practices disrupting academic independence.
The Future of Higher Education
Ruth expressed that as educators at the post-secondary level are tasked to teach frameworks, outside critics and government officials alike are targeting these frameworks as “protection from the truth.” It is not surprising that the challenges associated have escalated because race and anti-racist practices have once again come to the forefront of the fight to reinvent our democracy. For our nation to prosper socially, culturally, and economically, it must have a strong education system, from kindergarten through higher education. It is not clear what type of legislation will transpire from the actions that are being sanctioned and discussed, but what is clear is that the future of higher education is shifting. And if we are not proactive, the future could shift into the wrong hands. At the very least, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a much more robust understanding of the role of higher education. Strong and inclusive educational entities are vital for society’s near- and long-term turnaround.
In a time of such uncertainty, the value of education seems to be in the hands of those who are not in the classroom. So, what happens next? American higher education’s tradition of excellence is underpinned by shared governance. As issues are formulated, and decisions are finalized, meaningful consultation with constituents of one’s college community (administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni, etc.) is crucial in the fight toward systemic justice in the academy. Regrettably, resistance to greater inclusive curricula will continue in the following months. Accordingly, we cannot sit on the sidelines in silence regarding the fight for a new democracy. It’s on us.
Altbach, P. G. (2007). Academic freedom in a global context: 21st century challenges. The NEA 2007 Almanac of Higher Education, 49-56. National Education Association. Retrieved on June 6 from https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.136.6168&rep=rep1&type =pdf
Leslie Ekpe is a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Christian University and a Holmes Scholar.