Academe needs a tougher, more organized response to the wave of state legislation or governing board policies limiting the teaching of race and other so-called divisive concepts. That’s the thinking behind an effort to get as many faculty senates as possible to adopt a resolution called “Defending Academic Freedom to Teach About Race and Gender Justice and Critical Race Theory.”
More than a dozen faculty senates already have adopted or are considering adopting the template-based resolution, which says that the given senate “resolutely rejects any attempts by bodies external to the faculty to restrict or dictate university curriculum on any matter, including matters related to racial and social justice, and will stand firm against encroachment on faculty authority by the legislature or the Boards of Trustees.”
The template resolution calls on the given institution’s president and provost, by name, to do the same. It also says the given faculty senate stands with K-12 colleagues facing similar challenges with respect to teaching “the truth in U.S. history and civics education.”
Finally, the resolution affirms the “Joint Statement on Efforts to Restrict Education About Racism,” which was published earlier this year by the American Association of University Professors, PEN America, the American Historical Association and the Association of American Colleges & Universities and endorsed by other groups.
The template was written by three professors who are working with the African American Policy Forum, in collaboration with the American Association of University Professors. Co-author Valerie Johnson, Endowed Professor of Urban Diplomacy at DePaul University, said the document’s purpose is “to spread awareness about the right’s stealth encroachment on academic freedom.”
As of right now, she said, “The issue is mainly below the radar at colleges and universities. Those aware of the issue believe that it’s confined to elementary and secondary education.”
While it’s true that much of the public debate about critical race theory in education is playing out at K-12 school board meetings, bans on the teaching of concepts related to race have already impacted the postsecondary curriculum. A faculty-backed update to learning outcomes for a diversity requirement was derailed this year at Iowa State University, for instance, due to that state’s new law against the teaching of divisive concepts. Oklahoma City Community College suspended a fully enrolled summer course on race and ethnicity for respiratory therapy students, and courses in Idaho and Kansas have been under enhanced scrutiny for similar reasons.
“This is an important issue that marks an inflection point in American education—both on the K-12 and postsecondary levels," Johnson said. "Anti-CRT legislation is an all-out attempt to whitewash education by erasing the historical record of racial and gender oppression and its contemporary consequences. This approach undermines efforts toward racial and social justice or diversity, equity and inclusion in American society, particularly at predominantly white institutions. It’s essential to recognize how it’s all connected.”
She added, “If there is no record of oppression, there is no need for restitution or remedy of its effects.”
Jennifer Ruth, a professor of film studies at Portland State University who co-wrote the template with Johnson and Emily Houh, Gustavus Henry Wald Professor of the Law and Contracts at the University of Cincinnati, praised the joint statement on academic freedom cited in the template resolution, along with PEN America’s recent report on “educational gag orders” across different states. But beyond statements and studies, Ruth said, “we need to organize. And we need faculty to pay attention on every campus, so that when stuff starts to happen to their colleagues, they already are informed. They’ve already been talking about it.”
Ruth continued, “We,” as faculty members, “have long-established priority over curriculum. That’s our role. This is about getting faculty to think that through, instead of thinking, ‘I don’t do critical race theory,’ or, ‘I’m busy with my book.’”
Another goal of the template is that it gives the faculty a united voice on these issues, Ruth said—a voice that will ideally bolster university presidents’ support for academic freedom, or, less ideally, speak up for academic freedom when a president does not.
‘We’re Just Not Seeing Enough Pushback’
Both the Faculty Council of the University of Colorado system and the Faculty Assembly at the system’s Boulder campus passed resolutions this fall based on the template. In Colorado, faculty members were reacting in large part to a separate resolution before the system’s Board of Regents that would have prohibited the use of “race, ethnicity or gender as a consideration when hiring faculty or staff or administering academic programs or evaluating programs,” along with a slew of classroom topics. Among those ideas: that an “individual, by virtue of his or her race or gender, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” and that “any individual should be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, ethnicity or gender.”
The Colorado board resolution was proposed by Regent Heidi Ganahl, a Republican who is currently running for governor of Colorado. The board’s University Affairs Committee was split on the resolution, 2 to 2, but the full board rejected it last month, 3 to 6. (Similarly, the University of Nebraska system’s Board of Regents earlier this year voted down an anti–critical race theory proposal written by Regent Jim Pillen, a Republican who is running for governor of Nebraska.)
In discussing the template-based resolution prior to a vote on it, members of the Boulder Faculty Assembly expressed particular concern about the board proposal’s effect on the curriculum, which has long been considered the traditional domain of disciplinary experts: the faculty.
“This undermines faculty control of the curriculum,” Alastair Norcross, associate professor of philosophy at Boulder, said at the time. “All of us should be prepared to die on this hill. This is amazingly important and affirms a basic principle of faculty governance at the university.”
The University Senate at Ohio State University also recently passed a resolution that is similar in spirit to the template, and which incorporates language about Ohio State’s core values. In Ohio, faculty members are facing legislation known as HB 327, which would prohibit teaching, advocating or promoting divisive concepts at public institutions.
Senate member Jared Gardner, Joseph V. Denney Professor of English at Ohio State, said drafting and passing a resolution “was a no-brainer for us.” Defending K-12 colleagues against this legislation was an “urgent matter,” he said, and professors are within their own institutions “duty-bound to defend against censorship and politically motivated attempts to rewrite history to serve ideological agendas.”
Kristina M. Johnson, president of Ohio State, separately wrote to state legislators opposing HB 327, saying academic freedom "already means that belief systems should not be imposed on faculty or students, and this bill infringes upon that foundational principle.” Moreover, she said, the bill will “hamper Ohio’s public higher education institutions in our ability to attract and retain top talent. Concerns about infringement on academic freedom will push faculty towards private institutions not included in this legislation or to states that have not adopted similar statutes."
Ellen Schrecker, a professor emerita of history at Yeshiva University who has called anti–critical race theory legislation and related affronts to academic freedom “the new McCarthyism,” said, “There’s not a lot you can do to stop this tremendous steamroller that is trying to eliminate all real content from American education at all levels, K-12 and higher ed, as well. But the idea of having faculty senate official bodies make a collective statement and address their administrations and boards of trustees explaining what’s wrong, and asking them to mount some resistance, is absolutely one of the few really brilliant ideas that have come up as a way to combat this. We’re just not seeing enough pushback.”