- PEN America and the American Association of Colleges and Universities released a public statement Wednesday defending higher ed against efforts by lawmakers to dictate what can and cannot be taught on college campuses.
- Since January 2021, a total of 70 bills have been introduced across 28 states that seek to restrict teaching on college campuses, with the bulk focused on topics related to race, racism or gender, according to the statement. PEN America is a free speech advocacy organization, and AAC&U is a group representing more than 1,000 colleges that promotes higher ed as a democratic institution.
- The legislative restrictions violate freedom of speech and academic freedom, the statement says. It also argues that they prevent discourse on important topics about history, culture and society in the U.S., undermining its future as a democracy.
The statement comes as Republican state lawmakers across the country have introduced or passed bills framed as preventing schools from teaching divisive concepts or ensuring parental rights in education. They have often focused on K-12 education, but some have touched higher ed as well.
PEN America calls such steps educational gag orders. Of 70 bills the organization tracked across 28 states since the start of 2021, 80% were introduced this year, it said. Seven became law — in Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee.
"Legislative restrictions on freedom of inquiry and expression violate the institutional autonomy on which the quality and integrity of our system of higher education depends," the joint statement says. "In the United States, the content of what is taught and discussed in higher education classrooms is shielded from direct governmental control."
But it is not only legislation that threatens educational discourse, according to PEN America.
The organization warns of a chilling effect from politicians using the bully pulpit to bash certain subjects. For example, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, earlier this year pledged to end faculty tenure at public colleges in the state after the University of Texas at Austin's faculty council passed a resolution affirming the right to teach topics related to race and social justice.
Wednesday's statement also defends the system of accreditation — self regulation through a series of established agencies that work to preserve the academic quality and independence of colleges in the U.S.
Accreditation has become a key issue in the battles over free speech on campus after Florida Republicans passed a law this year requiring the state's public colleges to change accreditors every cycle and giving them the ability to sue accreditors that take negative actions against them. That law came after the regional accreditor covering Florida, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said it would investigate reports of political interference in the state's universities.
The new joint statement calls accreditation a linchpin of the nation's prominent global presence in higher ed.
"The accreditors monitor institutions’ adherence to a series of self-governance principles, including freedom from undue political influence," it says. "Colleges and universities forced to comply with political edicts governing curricula and classroom discussions may forfeit their eligibility for accreditation, a drastic result that could compromise students’ eligibility for federal financial aid and place the institutions themselves in jeopardy."
PEN America and AAC&U released the statement about a year after another joint statement from more than 100 organizations criticized bills seeking to restrict teaching about racism and related topics. Both PEN America and AAC&U signed that statement.
But more needed to be done to address state officials overstepping their authority and becoming involved in curricula, hiring and tenure decisions, said speakers in a video call Wednesday held to discuss the new joint statement.
"There's certainly a growing sense of urgency around responding to and indeed redressing the overreach," said Lynn Pasquerella, AAC&U president.
Eduardo Ochoa, president of California State University, Monterey Bay and an AAC&U board member, said college presidents can take on the issue publicly.
"This is something that's a real easy issue for presidents to be on the side of the angels about," Ochoa said. "We allow free expression of views, but we also subject them to very critical inquiry and inspection."
PEN America's CEO, Suzanne Nossel, acknowledged conservative arguments that colleges lean left, are places where students can feel uncomfortable voicing dissenting views and have been home to speakers being shouted down. Colleges should grapple with the fact that they are not perfect, but the answer to a censorious environment is not government censorship, she said.
The statement makes the argument that lawmakers hurt students and democracy when they push restrictions on speech.
"Any legislative effort to circumscribe freedom of inquiry and expression in order to hew to political directives and agendas denies students essential opportunities for intellectual growth and development," it says. "In doing so, such an effort undermines our society’s democratic future."