The recent wave of educational “gag orders” restricting the teaching of race, gender or other so-called divisive concepts is a dire threat to what makes American higher education unique and sought after. Such legislation is a far greater threat to free speech than any problem it might be trying to solve, and it also risks colleges’ and universities’ accreditation. Institutions must speak out against this kind of government censorship, which is not politics as usual.
These were the major themes that emerged during a Wednesday panel organized by the free expression group PEN America and the American Association of Colleges and Universities. The occasion was the release of a new joint statement from the two groups opposing legislative restrictions on teaching and learning, which notes that 70 such bills affecting higher education have been introduced in 28 states, and passed in seven states, since January of last year. (More states have passed bills affecting K-12 education.)
This isn’t the first time these groups, or others, have publicly opposed educational gag orders (PEN, in particular, has an ongoing legislation tracking project and regularly speaks out). But the joint statement expresses new “alarm” at the advancing trend toward censorship—as did panelists in their comments.
Not all presidents have openly opposed such legislation, however. Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida, for instance, recently told faculty members not to violate a new state law that he said governs “instructional topics and practices.” The law, known as HB 7, is better known among its supporters as the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act, which Republican governor Ron DeSantis introduced in December as a bulwark against the “state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory.” Faculty members were also warned that running afoul of this new law could result in "large financial penalties" for the university, based a separate new law enforcing HB 7
...Addressing how the recent divisive concepts bans are part of an even larger trend toward legislators and other figures interfering in long-held higher education norms, Lynn Pasquerella, president of the AAC&U, said, “There’s certainly a growing sense of urgency around responding to and indeed redressing the overreach on the part of legislators, governors and state governing boards into curricula, hiring, tenure and promotion decisions and accreditation, alongside the monitoring of faculty and student perspectives and viewpoints that threaten to undermine academic freedom and shared governance on college and university campuses.” (Some recent examples: Florida introduced a mandatory survey on the climate for college viewpoint diversity and passed a post-tenure review law, the University System of Georiga made it possible to fire tenured faculty members without clear faculty input, and Mississippi’s Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning changed how faculty members get and maintain tenure in near secrecy.)