- House Republicans are asking the U.S. Department of Education to detail its efforts to support academic freedom on college campuses, saying that the agency doesn’t appear to promote a “free exchange of ideas.”
- Lawmakers want the Education Department to set up a briefing to discuss these matters, according to a letter signed last week by two prominent Republicans — Reps. James Comer and Virginia Foxx, ranking members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Committee on Education and Labor, respectively.
- They cited recent “Attacks on Academic Speech and Freedom at U.S. Universities” and wrote that institutions, which receive significant federal funding, should protect speech across the political spectrum.
The Republicans’ missive to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona highlights criticisms conservatives frequently apply to colleges. Those include that college administrators suppress speech that doesn’t align with “political correctness” and that they indoctrinate students with liberal values.
Faith in higher education eroded in recent years, particularly among conservatives, studies have shown. About 60% of Republicans in a 2019 Pew Research Center poll said colleges contribute to a negative direction of the U.S. — up from just 37% four years earlier.
Lawmakers in their letter last week wrote colleges “are stifling free thought and expression.”
They referenced incidents like the University of Pennsylvania faculty senate pursuing sanctions this summer against law professor Amy Wax — who has routinely stirred controversy with what Penn's law dean called "racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic actions and statements" — and University of California, Hastings College of the Law students in March shouting down Ilya Shapiro, a constitutional scholar, at a campus event.
Shapiro also announced in June he quit positions at Georgetown University after being investigated for tweeting that President Joe Biden would nominate a “lesser black woman” to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Unfortunately, these efforts to suppress free speech are working,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. "College students are increasingly concerned about their ability to freely express their opinions and ideas on their campuses."
One survey they cited, Knight Foundation and Ipsos research from January, found that almost 85% of students felt free speech was very important to a democracy. But only about a quarter of Republican students said free speech in the country was secure, compared to more than 60% of Democrats. Nearly half of the respondents overall said speech was secure, down from 73% in 2016.
The lawmakers are asking for a briefing on the Education Department’s moves to uphold free expression on college campuses to be held no later than Wednesday. Their concerns are particularly important given the federal government’s investments in higher ed, including about $76 billion in coronavirus aid benefiting institutions and students, they wrote.
“The proliferation of cancel culture in American higher education threatens the ability of students and faculty to push themselves past their academic limits,” they wrote. “The Department should be signaling to these institutions that academic freedom is paramount for the success of students, faculty, and society, and should help them see that limiting free speech is counter to the intellectual goals of academia.”
The Education Department did not provide a comment by publication time Monday.