Here’s how colleges can preserve academic freedom in the face of educational censorship bills

Dive Brief:

  • A new guide aims to help college leaders argue for institutional autonomy in cases when lawmakers are trying to restrict certain topics, like race and gender, from being taught in classrooms.
  • The blueprint comes from higher education’s top lobby, the American Council on Education, and free speech advocacy group PEN America. It offers tips for talking to the media and policymakers about the benefits of open academic inquiry amid a rise in legislation designed to restrict curricula.
  • The two organizations stress that government officials should not decide what can be discussed on college campuses.

Dive Insight:

For the last few years, state elected officials have begun “intruding” into colleges’ operations and curricula choices, ACE and PEN America argue.

Legislators and other state leaders have attempted to clamp down on subjects such as those related to race, gender and LGBTQ issues with restrictions affecting K-12 schools and colleges. Republicans often label these as “divisive concepts” and say they can sow discord — making students feel culpable for historical racist acts in which they played no part, for example. 

This dynamic has been on clear display in Florida, where the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has made removal of colleges’ diversity, equity and inclusion programs a legislative priority. A bill recently introduced in Florida’s legislature would accomplish much of DeSantis’ higher ed wishlist, including banning these diversity initiatives in public colleges, as well as degrees in gender studies and race-related topics.

ACE’s and PEN America’s new guide also acknowledges research showing conservative students feel silenced on campus by their peers. It “emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all members of the campus community feel comfortable airing varying perspectives across campus and in the classroom,” the two groups said. 

They provided talking points for college leaders in the guidance. The organizations said that institutions should stress to state officials that colleges’ role is to facilitate discussion of controversial ideas and that students “are adults who should be exposed to all topics on campus.”

“In the classroom, this means that professors should present views on a topic that are accurate, nondoctrinaire, and consistent with curricular requirements,” the groups said in the guide. “It is important to note that under the principles of academic freedom and shared governance, faculty are charged with being the main decision-makers shaping syllabi and curricula.”

The solution for “bad speech” is more speech, not restrictions on it, the guide said. There are exceptions to this, like threats of violence or defamation, the organizations said.

ACE and PEN America advise sharing real-world stories of students and faculty succeeding when academic freedom is allowed to thrive.

They also list questions college officials are likely to be asked, like whether they support teaching of “divisive concepts,” and provide mock responses.

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