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It’s easy to rally people behind you when you feed them propaganda.
UT-Austin’s resolution is one of over 20 that have passed at institutions across the country in response to the laws and pending bills censoring what and how we teach in the classroom. Seven of these were passed by public flagships. Many of these resolutions, including the one passed in Texas, are drawn from a template provided by the African American Policy Forum while others, such as the one passed at the University of Alabama, were drafted from scratch. The resolutions affirm the long-established prerogative of faculty, as the experts in their fields, to determine curriculum. “We must collectively demonstrate that the faculty are organized on our own campuses across the country to fight back,” the UCLA law professors Kimberlé Crenshaw and Devon Carbado and three others wrote in an open letter encouraging faculty to bring resolutions to their senate floors.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Patrick does have a high degree of popular support among the general public in Texas. It’s easy to rally people behind you when you feed them propaganda. It’s easy to work people up by suggesting that their (white) college-aged offspring are routinely denounced by their (Black) professors for being inherently racist. Politicians don’t need evidence for their claims; they just need one or two opportunistic activists spreading misinformation through social media. They then simply gesture at the debris floating at the top of the mediasphere in lieu of real evidence.
This feedback loop is familiar: Consider how the partisan activist Christopher F. Rufo’s prolific falsehoods became evidence in a formal opinion by Montana’s attorney general. In Texas, the loop took all of two days after the resolution passed. A finance professor who came to the council meeting only for the period during which the resolution was on the floor gave a prepared speech chock-full of basic misunderstandings about both critical race theory and the role of faculty resolutions. He then tweeted a clip of himself, thus disregarding the faculty member who patiently explained his misunderstandings. (A Washington Post article brought that context back to the foreground.) Claiming that the finance professor’s tweet had gone viral, Fox News called further attention to it. Dan Patrick now had all the evidence he apparently felt he needed.
In his news conference, Patrick lauded the finance professor and blamed a “small minority” for the resolution. In fact, it was proposed with the full support of the academic-freedom committee, and with the endorsement of three other standing committees. Each committee had held its own discussion of the proposal weeks and, in some cases, months earlier. When council members voted, the tally was 41 in favor and 5 against, with three abstentions. Patrick also trotted out that time-honored McCarthyite trick of intentionally conflating issues involving race with communism by claiming that the faculty in favor of the resolution were “looney” (sic) Marxists. In fact, they are neuroscientists, biologists, historians, art historians, and so forth. The available evidence suggests that they are not loony nor, for that matter, Marxist.
Academic freedom is not free speech. Politicians can make demonstrably wrong, irresponsible, and race-baiting claims; responsible professors cannot. Academics also have First Amendment rights in other aspects of our lives, but we are held to the standards of our profession when we make claims in peer-reviewed journals or submit our work to promotion and tenure committees. Through these processes, society comes into possession of a body of work that has been vetted by experts and that cannot be reduced to mere opinion or hearsay. They provide a democratic society with what the law professor and former Yale Law dean Robert Post calls “democratic competence.” And this — academic freedom — is what distinguishes universities in democratic states from those in authoritarian and totalitarian states where one political group has the ability to control knowledge. Despite all its old Cold War fear-mongering and all its empty talk of freedom, the Republican Party now harbors a sizable contingent of politicians who are increasingly willing to use authoritarian tactics to get what they want.
Democratic societies build in protections for university faculty so that we are not at the whims of whichever party is currently in power. When Patrick threatens tenure, he threatens those protections. With tenure, if we research climate change, we can do this throughout our careers, not in fits and starts every other four years. If we study the history of this country, we can produce and disseminate our findings even if a powerful politician considers them insufficiently patriotic. But now powerful politicians are taking direct aim at academic freedom. Losing it would mean the partisan political control of knowledge — which is precisely what partisans like Patrick are after.