Home » News analysis » State laws threaten to erode academic freedom in U.S. higher education

By Isaac Kamola, the Conversation, published on May 29, 2024

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Over the past few years, Republican state lawmakers have introduced more than 150 bills in 35 states that seek to curb academic freedom on campus. Twenty-one of these bills have been signed into law.


This legislation is detailed in a new white paper published by the Center for the Defense of Academic Freedom, a project established by the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP. Taken together, this legislative onslaught has undermined academic freedom and institutional autonomy in five distinct and overlapping ways.

1. Academic gag orders

As detailed in the report, state legislators introduced 99 academic gag orders during legislative sessions in 2021, 2022 and 2023. All of the 10 gag orders signed into law were done so by Republican governors. These bills assert that teaching about structural racism, gender identity or unvarnished accounts of American history harm students.


These gag orders are widely known as “divisive concept” or “anti-CRT” bills. CRT is an abbreviation for critical race theory, an academic framework that holds racism as deeply embedded in America’s legal and political systems. The partisan activists, such as Christopher Rufo, have used this term to generate a “moral panic” as part of a political response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.


For example, in April 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 7, the “Stop Woke Act.” The law defines a “divisive concept” as any of eight vague claims. They include claims that “Such virtues as merit, excellence, hard work, fairness, neutrality, objectivity, and racial colorblindness are racist or sexist.” 


U.S. District Judge Mark Walker described this law as “positively dystopian.” He noted that the government’s own lawyers admitted that the law would likely make any classroom discussion concerning the merits of affirmative action illegal. The vague wording of these gag orders has a chilling effect, leaving many faculty unsure about what they can and cannot legally discuss in the classroom.

2. Bans on DEI programs

The expansion of diversity, equity and inclusion – or DEI – services on campus was a major outcome of the racial-justice protests in 2020. By 2023, however, the legislative backlash was in full swing. Forty bills restricting DEI efforts were introduced during the 2023 legislative cycle, with seven signed into law.


For example, Texas’ Senate Bill 17 drew directly from model policy language developed by Rufo and published by the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank. SB 17 banned diversity statements and considerations in hiring. It also restricted campus diversity training and defunded campus DEI offices at Texas’ public universities. 


As detailed in the AAUP white paper, only a handful of people testified in favor of SB 17, and almost all had stated or unstated affiliations with right-wing think tanks. In contrast, more than a hundred educators and citizens testified, or registered to testify, against the bill. Since its passage, Texas public universities have seen the closing of DEI programs and reduced campus services for students from minority populations. For example, after the Legislature accused the University of Texas-Austin of violating SB 17, the school was forced to shut down its DEI office. This involved laying off 40 employees.

3. Weakening tenure

Tenure was developed to shield faculty members from external political pressure. The protections of tenure make it possible for faculty to teach, research and speak publicly without fear of losing their jobs because their speech angers those in power. As detailed in the report, however, during the 2021, 2022 and 2023 legislative sessions, 20 bills were introduced, with two bills weakening tenure protections signed into law in Florida and another in Texas.


In Florida, for example, SB 7044 created a system of post-tenure review, empowering administrators to review tenured faculty every five years. The law further empowers administrators to dismiss those whose performance is deemed unsatisfactory. The law also requires that faculty post course content in a public and searchable database. 


The AAUP criticized the law, noting that SB 7044 has “substantially weakened tenure in the Florida State University System and, if fully implemented as written,” would effectively “eliminate tenure protections.” Now even tenured faculty have reason to fear that what they teach might be construed as a “divisive concept,” as CRT, or as promoting DEI. 

4. Mandating content

Lawmakers in several states have also passed legislation mandating viewpoint diversity, establishing new academic programs and centers to teach conservative content and shifting curricular decision-making away from the faculty. 


For example, Florida’s Senate Bill 266 expanded the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida, without faculty input or oversight. The original proposal for the Hamilton Center stated that the center’s goal was to advance “a conservative agenda” within the curriculum.


SB 266 also gave the governing boards overseeing the university and college systems the authority to decide which classes count toward the core curriculum. This power was exercised in November 2023 after Manny Diaz, the education commissioner in Florida, requested that the boards remove an introduction to sociology course. He stated on social media that the discipline had been “hijacked by left-wing activists and no longer serves its intended purpose as a general knowledge course for students.” 

5. Weakening accreditation

The accreditation process is an obscure area of academic governance whereby colleges and universities regularly subject themselves to external peer review. Nonprofit accrediting agencies conduct these institutional performance reviews. 


As detailed in the report, during the 2021-23 legislative cycles, six bills were introduced – three of them were passed into law – weakening the accreditation process, thereby making it easier for political interests to shape university policy.


For example, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, warned the school’s board of trustees that establishing the School of Civic Life and Leadership without faculty oversight and consultation raised serious concerns about institutional independence. The Legislature responded with Senate Bill 680, which would require that North Carolina public universities choose a different accrediting agency each accreditation cycle. Eventually passed as part of the omnibus House Bill 8, this policy allows schools to “shop” for an accrediting agency less likely to object to such political interference in the curriculum. 


These five overlapping and reinforcing attacks on academic freedom and institutional autonomy threaten to radically transform public higher education in ways that serve the partisan interests of those in power.


Isaac Kamola is an associate professor at Trinity College.


The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.


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