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Analysis: ‘Divisive Concepts’ Bills Target Higher Ed in 2022

February 2, 2022

State legislation prohibiting the teaching of so-called divisive concepts is increasingly directed at higher education, not just K-12 schools, according to a new analysis by PEN America. PEN, which tracks what it calls educational “gag order” bills throughout the year, says that just 26 percent of state bills proposed in 2021 explicitly addressed public colleges and universities. Three of the 10 states that passed bills into law addressed higher education. Yet already in 2022, 46 percent of “gag order” bills filed address colleges and universities, according to PEN. As of Jan. 24, there were 38 higher education–focused bills under consideration in 20 states.

PEN’s analysis also flags state legislators’ “bolder and more creative” efforts this year at censorship, “creating all manner of new rules about what can be taught in college classrooms and how such restrictions should be enforced.” Under Mississippi’s proposed HB 437, for instance, professors would be prohibited from teaching or assigning materials that include the idea that “the State of Mississippi is fundamentally, institutionally, or systemically racist” or that “racial equity … should be given preference in education and advocacy over racial equality.”

The time is “now for faculty and higher education advocates to fight back against this wave of educational gag orders,” PEN urges. “These gag orders for higher education—part of a recent coordinated political attack against professors—would have a disastrous effect on the tenets of free inquiry, free expression and critical thinking. If these 38 alarming, unconstitutional bills become law as proposed, they would each as well threaten academic freedom across numerous disciplines.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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