State Lawmakers Increasingly Threaten Academic Freedom on Campus

FunhomecoverIn 2014, South Carolina legislators displayed their utter disregard for academic freedom when they attempted to enact punitive budget cuts against two public institutions of higher education that utilized LGBTQ-themed books–including Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home–in voluntary reading programs for students. Sadly this sort of ideological meddling continues to spread in other states, as University of Wisconsin professor Donald P. Moynihan outlined in a recent column for the New York Times.

Moynihan cites three recent examples of Wisconsin lawmakers demanding changes to course content. The one that’s made the most news nationwide is the debate over an upcoming course called “The Problem of Whiteness” which invites students to critically examine “how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced in order to help dismantle white supremacy.” Apparently based on little more than the title of the course, state Rep. Dave Murphy last month issued a not-very-veiled threat: “If UW-Madison stands with this professor, I don’t know how the university can expect the taxpayers to stand with UW-Madison.”

The university is in fact standing by Professor Damon Sajnani, who has assembled a collage of headlines about the reactions on the course description page. In a statement issued last month, UW administration said that the elective course, “which is one of thousands offered at our university, will benefit students who are interested in developing a deeper understanding of race issues. The course is a challenge and response to racism of all kinds.”

As Moynihan notes in his New York Times column, such attacks by lawmakers are much more of a threat to free inquiry than any number of students asking for safe spaces or trigger warnings. In fact, he says, that stereotype of the Millennial psyche largely does not hold true on large public university campuses:

No student has ever demanded that my classes include a trigger warning or asked for a safe space. But my colleagues and I have been given much more reason to worry about the ideological agendas of elected officials and politically appointed governing boards. Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate. One group has much more power than the other.

Another Wisconsin legislator, state Senator Steve Nass, has evinced a talent for condemning supposed “political correctness” on campus while also calling for censorship of course content with which he personally disagrees. When students in a sociology class were assigned to read an essay on gay men’s sexual preferences last July, Nass sent a letter to the Board of Regents and several university administrators warning that the reading selection “could have budget ramifications for the entire UW-System next year.”

This month, Nass again threatened the UW budget over the Men’s Project, “a six-week voluntary discussion program that ‘aims to explore masculinity and the problems accompanied by simplified definitions of it’.” In the senator’s view, the fact that the university is able to offer such a program–which aims in part to reduce sexual violence on campus–is somehow proof that the system is overfunded and needs budget reform.

As Moynihan points out, faculty and administrators who depend on state funding and abide by state regulations increasingly do not have the luxury of simply defying calls to curtail academic freedom:

After having seen tenure protections weakened in the last legislative session, Wisconsin professors now face the prospect that legislators will allow guns in classrooms, something our private peers will not have to contend with as they seek to protect a climate conducive to vigorous debate. Complaints about campus speech that focus on the demand for safe spaces in private settings are not just quaint by comparison; they create a blind spot about more serious threats to free speech. The risk is that legislators and others who see themselves as protectors of free speech on campus come to treat it as an à la carte menu. They lecture students that a higher education experience means listening to challenging perspectives, even as they ignore or actively support the erosion of the structural conditions that allow such speech.

Unfortunately, more and more state legislators seem to have lost sight of public universities’ role in producing well-rounded citizens and human beings, rather than just a well-trained workforce. Check out Moynihan’s full column here.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.