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Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick spoke during the Conservative Political Action Conference last July. Patrick recently proposed ending tenure in Texas over the teaching of critical race theory.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images News/Getty Images

“Some faculty are revising their courses to sanitize them, while others have said they will purposefully try to violate the law. Neither of those responses is good.”—Brian Behnken, associate professor of history and Latino/a studies at Iowa State University

For many in higher education, the dangerous tide of legislation nationwide that aims to exercise ideological control over education has likely felt like a distant worry, since the force of promised interference has been largely directed at K-12 teachers and curricula. But that is now changing dramatically as Republican lawmakers take it upon themselves to intrude into higher education with proposed bans and prohibitions on accepted ideas and concepts that have stood in curricula for many decades.

McCarthyism has been resuscitated in a new form. Goodbye, Red scare, hello, “ed scare.”

Today’s “dangerous ideas” are explicitly focused on race and racism or sexual orientation and gender identity, with critical race theory emerging as the latest boogeyman and, along with it, anxieties over LGBTQ identity. In the name of protecting schoolchildren and college students from a phantom menace, legislators and school boards across the country have attempted to ban specific viewpoints and concepts from the classroom.

Local campaigns to remove books about racism, sex and LGBTQ identities from K-12 schools are having wild success. In the past few months alone, we’ve seen censorship proposals that previously were considered too radical to be seriously entertained: to remove all books about LGBTQ issues from libraries and curricula in Oklahoma; to ban all sex education to minors in public schools in South Carolina; to install cameras in classrooms or livestream class discussions in Florida, Iowa and Mississippi; to invite any taxpayer to sit in on any class “at any time” in Indiana; to install new forms of teacher surveillance, where teachers would be made to account in public databases for every resource, book, textbook, webpage, assignment, poem, song lyric, painting, etc., distributed in every class, every day, for politicians and the public to inspect, track and monitor.

Websites with right-wing support like Campus Reform have been facilitating harassment and intimidation of professors for years, and there have been many incidents that show politics driving policies and laws pertaining to higher education. These include the recent move to muzzle professors from testifying against state policies at the University of Florida and the passage last year of HB 233 in Florida, which mandated surveys of professors’ political leanings and gave students the right to record classroom teaching they wish to complain about.

So, what makes this moment different?

The simple answer is: the scale of the effort. What began in 2021 as a set of bills targeting “divisive concepts” and the teaching of “The 1619 Project”—a project from The New York Times that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative"—has since expanded into a multipronged effort to exert ideological control over the entire educational sector. At PEN America, we’ve tracked 156 educational gag order bills introduced in 39 states since January 2021, and this campaign continues to expand. There are at least 49 different bills active in 25 states in the current legislative session that explicitly target colleges and universities. And this is only in the first two months of 2022.

The bills introduced this year also increasingly stray into new territory in terms of what they seek to ban and prohibit, and they couple those prohibitions with harsh penalties. Some of these prohibitions fly in the face of documented history, critical thinking and even logic. For example, teaching history students in Mississippi that the state functioned as a racist institution during the slavery and Jim Crow periods could result in the loss of state funding for a college, even at a private historically Black college. Teaching students about gender or racial equality in any class that’s a core requirement for a degree program at a public higher education institution would break a proposed law in Oklahoma. Teach something in South Carolina that a member of the public thinks “omits relevant and important context,” and they could report you to the state attorney general for investigation.

Bills under consideration in six states (Alaska, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma and South Carolina) would ban “The 1619 Project” from college classrooms, even when paired with contrasting viewpoints. Seven states would effectively prohibit classroom discussion of affirmative action or reparations for the descendants of enslaved Black people, even when professors do not advocate for such policies.

The educational gag orders that have become law are already having an impact, in ways both overt and covert. Laws in Iowa and Oklahoma passed last year that did not explicitly apply to college classes have nonetheless been interpreted that way, as some colleges and universities have tried to avoid the risk that their teachings may cross a line. Iowa State University issued guidance about applicability of a law related to mandatory racism and sexism trainings at governmental entities, including public postsecondary institutions, with a litany of reasons why professors may need to change teachings or readings in mandatory classes in order to comply. After Oklahoma passed its educational gag order, Oklahoma City Community College scrapped a course on race and ethnicity. The University of Texas at Austin bowed to an outside complaint and temporarily halted a research study on antiracist education.

And if anyone still thought this movement was just about protecting students from racism or “divisive concepts,” that rhetoric is increasingly being replaced by direct pronouncements about banning critical race theory and punishing professors. Texas’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, has made no secret of his intent to enforce such a ban on public higher education institutions soon, by threatening to take away tenure.

The effects of the ed scare are already chilling teaching.

Brian Behnken, an associate professor of history and Latino/a studies at Iowa State University, told me that in response to the new law, “Some faculty are revising their courses to sanitize them, while others have said they will purposefully try to violate the law. Neither of those responses is good.”

Behnken, who spoke as an individual and not on behalf of his university, added another concern that some colleagues had expressed to him—that university officials, in attempting to ensure conformity with the law and its vague provisions, will be transformed into censors. “Some faculty worry that it will be the university that would punish us, or perhaps not defend us, or not defend us strongly if we were to be challenged or attacked under this law,” he said. “That fear of what the punishment may be is also motivating people to restrict their speech or to simply feel lost or unsure about what is acceptable.”

Despite the daunting landscape, there are things higher ed administrators can do to help. Now is the time for colleges to mobilize opposition. A recent report by education researchers Mica Pollock and John Rogers emphasized that “clear messaging“ and leaders’ explicit support for racial equity work helped some schools to “stay the course” in the face of threats to impose bans and gag orders. Such full-throated support for faculty from university administrators would be similarly helpful in minimizing the chilling effect of educational gag orders at the college level.

Beyond this, colleges should act to mobilize opposition to the ed scare. University presidents have a powerful voice when they speak collectively; they should use it. Administrations should work to oppose these proposals in state legislatures. Faculty, regardless of any intellectual debates about the disciplines under attack, must recognize their common cause and support resolutions affirming academic freedom. Campus voices must be mobilized. Call your state legislators. Testify at legislative hearings. Write an op-ed or a letter to the editor in your local newspaper. The time to speak out is now.

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