The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The intellectual freedom that made public colleges great is under threat

Across the country, state legislators are trying to control what happens in classrooms — and who gets hired and fired

Students on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville on Sept. 1. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)

Faculty members at public universities are under fire in numerous states: They face a serious and growing threat to the academic freedom that lets them choose their research topics and determine what happens in their classrooms without politicians looking over their shoulders.

Across the nation, state legislatures are proposing laws to limit the teaching of certain viewpoints on campus, curb the tenure system or otherwise blur the already thin line between higher education and state politics. If states continue down this path, they will undercut the excellence of their own institutions of higher education, some of which currently can be counted among the best universities in the world. They could send these institutions into a downward spiral, as the gap expands between the intellectual freedom secured at private universities and what is on offer at public universities.

Scholars and teachers at universities across the country — at both public and private universities — already have too many reasons to shy away from controversial topics. Offend the wrong on-campus constituency, and university administrators will soon be lobbied to have the offending scholar banished from campus. All too often, administrators yield to such lobbying efforts, and even when they don’t, everyone gets the message to tread carefully.

But state legislatures and boards of regents are now getting into the game — at a much greater scale. One bill in Rhode Island would prevent the teaching of “divisive concepts,” including any argument that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist. Another bill in Iowa threatened funding to community colleges and universities if they taught the 1619 Project, a collection of essays about slavery and its influence first edited by the New York Times magazine. Similarly censorious legislation has been proposed in Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, West Virginia and New Hampshire, among other states.

Banning ‘critical race theory’ would be bad for conservatives, too

Recent events at the University of Florida show what can happen when public universities understand themselves to simply be extensions of the state government. The university administration required professors to ask permission before undertaking any outside activities; it then denied such permission to three political scientists who wanted to serve as expert witnesses in a suit challenging new restrictions in Florida on voting — calling such testimony a “conflict of interest.” After a national outcry, the leadership of the University of Florida lifted the gag order, but this is a disturbing harbinger of things to come. (The professors have sued, alleging a violation of their First Amendment rights, but the university trustees have made clear they feel the original decision was the correct one.)

Tenure — a guarantee of employment, barring significant misconduct, after a review by scholarly peers — has long been a crucial bulwark for protecting professors from reprisals for expressing controversial and unpopular opinions. Yet tenure, too, is under assault at state universities. Boards of regents have traditionally had a pro forma role in finalizing recommendations approved by the university faculty for professors promoted from within or hired into tenured positions from the outside. Politicized boards, however, are dissatisfied with that approach and are starting to press for a more active role in evaluating the qualifications of members of the faculty. Unsurprisingly, the “qualifications” that are most of interest to nonexpert board members have little to do with scholarly excellence.

A trustee at Florida Atlantic University, for instance, claimed to speak for Gov. Ron DeSantis (R.) in demanding more information about professors coming up for tenure. The “short bio” that trustees currently receive, she said, is insufficient because it omits a professor’s “viewpoints, his research, his political affiliations or potential donations” — information she wanted to consider before voting for or against promotion. In a widely publicized case, the board of the University of North Carolina held up the proposed appointment to a journalism school professorship of Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led the 1619 Project, after conservatives objected. (She ultimately spurned UNC for Howard University.)

Indeed, legislatures in multiple states are now debating sweeping changes to the tenure system. The regents of the University System of Georgia ignored the outcry of faculty to adopt a policy that empowers university presidents to fire professors without any of the traditional procedural protections (including peer review) that protect controversial professors from political retaliation. Other states are poised to follow suit with their own tenure “reforms.” The most dramatic example is the bill recently introduced in the South Carolina legislature titled “Cancelling Professor Tenure Act.” Such reforms might introduce more flexibility into university management. But such “efficiency” would come at significant cost, making it far simpler to fire instructors and researchers who happen to offend students, alumni or politicians.

The 1619 Project started as history. Now it’s also a political program.

At various times in their history, American public universities have struggled to establish themselves as independent of state politics and not beholden to any partisan faction. State universities in the South have had a particularly hard time. Infamously, several state universities in Mississippi lost their accreditation in 1930 after Gov. Theodore Bilbo embarked on a purge of faculty. That state universities have largely achieved such independence helps to explain why so many public institutions are respected today as centers of higher learning and reliable scholarly expertise. Their independence is now in grave danger of being eroded; if that happens, the quality of those institutions, and the esteem in which they are held, will crumble as well.

There are, of course, debates to be had on the merits of various academic theories, including critical race theory (worries about which have inspired some of the new legislation). But for those debates to be centered in state legislatures and boards of trustees is hardly a recipe for advancing human knowledge. In the long run, interference by lawmakers and trustees will undermine the standing of public universities and encourage the flight of intellectual talent away from them.

The United States has been a global leader in higher education, and robust protections for freedom of thought have been crucial to that success. State legislatures and public university trustees are turning their backs on that inheritance, and the consequences for American higher education could be dire.