The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The New Threat to Academic Freedom

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As the 2024 Presidential election looms ahead, Republican politicians are stirring up educational policy that calls for our attention. Particularly in the states of Texas and Florida, legislative and executive actions are indicative of a concerning uptick in government-imposed restrictions on academic freedom in higher education.

Recent attacks on academic freedom have come overwhelmingly from conservative groups attempting to mold American education in their image. Alarmed by what they perceive as a liberal stronghold in higher education, right-wing politicians and their supporters are pushing back, aiming to reshape “the narrative” taught in universities and schools across the country.

Indeed, concerns of liberal dominance in higher education are not unfounded. Over 75% of faculty (who responded to the survey) at my college self-identified as liberal. National statistics are harder to come by, but a survey from 2007 aligned with the findings that roughly 10% of university faculty hold conservative views.

While this tilt in political affiliation could arguably influence academic discourse, the sweeping attempts to impose restrictions on academic freedom and intellectual diversity in response risk aggravating rather than addressing this imbalance. Imposing restrictions on literature or banning lesson plans in an attempt to address this imbalance will only further polarize our educational environment and endanger the pursuit of knowledge.

In a move to reshape the educational landscape of Florida, Governor DeSantis, on January 6th, announced six new conservative appointments to the board of trustees for the New College of Florida. Known as a historically progressive institution, the New College now faces a potential ideological shift under its new stewardship. DeSantis, alleging the indoctrination of leftist ideology in education, aims to turn the college into a bastion of conservative thought.

DeSantis’ appointments can be viewed as a strategic maneuver to inject conservatism into the inner workings of the New College, a clear rebuttal to the progressive tendencies traditionally held within its walls. Within a month of the appointments, the newly shaped board of trustees voted to fire New College’s president and replace her with a DeSantis ally. In March, the board voted to abolish the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office, “on principle,” as newly appointed trustee Christopher Rufo put it. DeSantis’ appointees show no end to their crusade against the school.

DeSantis’ complete dismissal of the student body’s protests against the appointments show he is not concerned with the wishes of students, but rather with abusing his gubernatorial power to further his ideological vision. It is representative of not just a battle for control over the curriculum but a larger ideological struggle over the nature and purpose of higher education in America.

As a presidential candidate, DeSantis pledged to abolish the U.S. Department of Education to combat “woke ideology,” in addition to eliminating several other agencies too. Regardless of his campaign’s outcome, DeSantis’ actions demonstrate a persistent drive to advance his ideological mission, undaunted by potential institutional abuses. His unwavering pursuit signals significant challenges ahead for the autonomy and balance of America’s education system.

Meanwhile in Texas, another battle over higher education takes place. The legislature has curtailed academic freedom with the recent passage of Senate Bill 16. This bill prohibits college faculty from “compelling” students to adopt a belief that any race, sex, or ethnicity, or social, political, or religious belief is inherently superior to another.

Introduced by State Senator Bryan Hughes, S.B. 16 aligns with a broader pattern of similar legislation being drafted across the nation. Representing District 1, which spans the northeastern part of Texas, Hughes embodies a far-right Republican ideology. He has spearheaded the party’s shift to the right with expansive, state-imposed prohibitions, ranging from abortion rights to curricula on civil rights movements.

On the surface, S.B. 16 seems to champion a noble cause: promoting impartiality, discouraging bais, and protecting conservative students from the liberal faculty majority in higher academia. Yet, Hughes and his staunch supporters are acutely aware that their ultimate objective — imposing their worldview on the broader populace — might not sit well with moderates. Consequently, they shroud their true intentions in the seemingly palatable rhetoric of impartiality, leading us into a deceptive discourse about the bill’s implications. However, the bill’s ambiguous wording will lead to consequences and suppression of speech on college campuses.

The word “compel” in the bill’s language is left alarmingly open to interpretation. Does the presentation of evidence-based theories or discussing systemic issues constitute compulsion? The bill’s assertion that no “social, political, or religious belief is inherently superior to another,” is also problematic. Does this mean that when teaching the history of World War 2 teachers are not allowed to say that fascism or nazism is wrong?

As educators grapple with these questions, they will end up walking on eggshells, wary of diving into complex, controversial topics. Consequently, this could stunt discussion on critical social, racial, or political issues and restrict academic exploration. The climate of self-censorship and apprehension that such a bill could create is a far cry from the robust debate and intellectual growth that should define our higher educational institutions.

Indeed, the increasing political oversight and threats to academic liberty underscore a need for balance. It’s important to note the broader context: recent data suggests a growing divide in perceptions of higher educational value among Republicans and Democrats.

We need to ask ourselves: Are we fostering environments that encourage exploration and critical thinking, or are we succumbing to politically driven agendas that stifle debate? And perhaps most crucially, where are we headed? As we face politically motivated educational reform, we must actively work to uphold our classrooms as platforms for intellectual growth, critical exploration, and robust debate, ensuring they remain free from partisan shackles.

Tyler Ory is a student at Harvard University and a staff writer at the Harvard Crimson. You can read more of his work here.

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