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Faculty, the media, and advocacy groups have opposed such bills by defending the principle of “academic freedom,” which the American Association of University Professors first outlined in 1915. Today’s AAUP has called the new proposed laws “gag orders” and recently joined PEN America — the esteemed international organization of writers — in deeming the bans dangerous attacks on “freedom of speech.” Major national news outlets are reporting regularly on the question of free expression on campus. Free speech lies at the heart of academic freedom, many rightly argue, protecting both the rights of individual researchers and teachers as well as norms of democratic institutions and society.
Yet a host of disturbing recent events suggest that we must define and defend academic freedom much more expansively. The attacks on free speech constitute only one element of a far larger and tremendously dangerous campaign to undermine the autonomy of university and college governance more broadly. Many state legislators and governors are interested not just in restricting the content of research and teaching, but in preventing colleges and universities and their faculty and staff and students from making decisions about labor protections, academic policies, university structures, and higher education’s relationships to local communities.
This is the real struggle for academic freedom that we are facing — and it’s enormous. Those who focus only on defending free speech without also defending the very structures of higher education that house and govern it, may look up to find that they’ve lost their ability to control academic programs, contribute to faculty governance, and even their jobs.
According to new reporting about DeSantis based on documents obtained through a series of public-records requests, these assaults on freedom of speech were in fact part of what the journalist Jason Garcia calls “a sweeping plan to overhaul higher-education oversight in Florida.” The centerpiece was banning tenure and switching all tenure lines to five-year contracts reviewable and renewable by a board appointed by the governor. It’s clear that DeSantis’s attacks on the content of research and teaching are part and parcel of his plans to eliminate university self-governance, end the labor protection of tenure, and cut the total higher education budget.
Dozens of other states are following this policy playbook exactly. Their gag orders are accompanied by additional proposed rules to limit academic self-governance, eliminate labor protections, and cut budgets. See, for example, some of the bills from the past two years in Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa. In some states, like North Carolina, conservative efforts to dismantle higher education are disguised as “new funding formulas” and “return on investment” studies. But make no mistake, the overall goal is to undermine academic freedom by restricting the ability of those working at public universities to govern themselves.
The right has been using this playbook for decades. During the 1960s, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan inveighed against the student free-speech protests at the University of California at Berkeley. Conservative opposition to universities grew in the 1980s as culture warriors attacked “multiculturalism” and “political correctness” on college campuses. In the 1990s and 2000s, for example, David Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture, rebranded as the David Horowitz Freedom Center, targeted women’s studies and racial- and ethnic-studies programs.
The right has consistently hitched its longstanding campaign against “radical ideas” in academia to the battle for resources and control. And the fight for purse strings and board control may be the more important one. Reagan, after all, not only helped to make anti-university sentiments culturally popular, he also raised tuition and tightened legislative and executive control over the University of California. From the 1980s through the aughts, conservative legislatures around the country followed suit by cutting state funding and raising tuition, claiming that tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy would prove more valuable to state economies than higher education. Starting a decade ago, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin pioneered an even more radical assault on university governance and structure — attacking tenure and labor unions while seizing control of the review of promotion and contracts and the structure and control of the state’s system of satellite campuses. Recently, Republican-appointed boards of public universities such as Emporia State University have moved to abolish tenure even without legislation.
Over time, right-wing attacks on free speech, funding cuts, and efforts to undermine academic governance and structure have become ever more closely intertwined. That’s because the rhetoric surrounding this constellation of proposals is self-reinforcing. Conservatives’ outlandish claims that radical professors must be stopped from brainwashing students with critical race theory serve to discredit institutions of higher education in the public mind, legitimizing the funding cutbacks, the embrace of corporate management practices, and the elimination of labor protections. Academic freedom of all kinds is under assault.
Public universities have been and will continue to be hit much harder than private ones. Since the nation’s 1,625 or so public institutions are governed and funded by state-level elected and appointed officials, they are particularly vulnerable to attempts to restrict teaching, research, and self-governance. Many of the 1,660 private nonprofit institutions, and especially the wealthiest, have a greater degree of autonomy. They might face political pressures to change curricula or reallocate money, but they have their own resources to rely on.
Things are made complex by the totally decentralized nature of American public higher education, in which the states rather than the federal government has most of the power. This means that each and every attack on a public institution’s academic freedom can only be fought at the state level, with little to no input from national legislators. We are seeing how narrow majorities or even minorities of conservative voters can powerfully impinge on not only the freedom to research and teach but also to work, receive a salary, and make policy decisions in higher education. They are succeeding state by state — and their power is growing.
Those most vulnerable to conservative state-level leadership are all the public institutions that are not “flagship” research universities. But even some flagship public universities in places dominated by conservatives — probably over half of all states — are finding it increasingly difficult to serve their students, protect their workers, and fully govern their decisions about policies and labor. Those public institutions located in states with more liberal legislatures may do better.
The nation’s students, especially the neediest, will lose the most. Public institutions educate the overwhelming majority — 75 percent — of American young people, so most students, particularly Black and brown and first-generation students, are attending schools at which academic freedom, broadly conceived, is increasingly under assault. It is precisely the institutions that serve the largest numbers of students that will find themselves least able to provide the best education to the students who need it most.
Instructors must reach out to students, who would most likely be the best resisters to the war on their education if they understood the full impact. Faculty and staff must also find ways to partner with one another across institutions and across state lines. Those in more privileged circumstances, who teach at private institutions or at public institutions in Democratic states, must recognize that while they are currently protected, they will suffer if the rest of higher education is decimated.
The only path to recovering full academic freedom is acknowledging the struggle in its widest context. Rebuilding democratic control over the labor, finance, and the overall governing of higher education will not be easy. But if those of us working in higher education don’t get involved in the fight for our autonomy, who will?