Defend your college’s academic freedom: Here’s a toolkit to help you do it

Legislation prohibiting school discussion on racism and identity spiked 250% last year. As of publication, PEN America has recorded 300 bills from 44 state legislatures that aim to curb course curricula.

Last year, proposed legislation prohibiting how teachers discuss race, racism and other topics that touch identity spiked 250%, according to PEN America, 39% of which targeted higher education. The First Amendment-defending organization, which has dubbed the legislation “gag orders,” has tracked 44 state legislatures that proposed nearly 300 of such bills. Offending faculty face heavy fines, loss of state funding and more.

With state officials in Florida, Oklahoma and now Texas drawing battle lines against critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion, faculty and school leaders are walking on eggshells to avoid saying the wrong thing to a diverse student body when teaching complex, intersectional topics.

In response, PEN America and the American Council on Education (ACE), the country’s major coordinating body for colleges and universities, released a new guide for presidents, chancellors and other campus leaders on how to uphold academic freedom’s reputation amid nationwide legislation that aggressively aims to curb it.

Making the Case for Academic Freedom in a Challenging Political Environment: A Resource Guide for Campus Leaders provides academic leaders the most effective tools to discuss “divisive topics” with state policymakers, the media and campus stakeholders and cut through the noise of attacks against supposed “woke ideology.”

“As threats of censorship in academic settings grow stronger, we look to university leaders and free expression advocates to defend campus free speech against viewpoint-based legislative incursions and to champion the value of open academic inquiry in our democracy,” said Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America and a co-author of the toolkit.

More from UB: With academic freedom under attack, how does the U.S. stack up vs. other nations?

Here is a summary of the guide:

Playbook with policymakers

When speaking with officials who can dictate laws on how public learning institutions are operated, school leaders must communicate these foundational ideas to keep policymakers on the same page and find common ground.

  • A sign of a healthy democracy is the level of rigor and freedom of debate in higher education institutions.
  • Transparent intellectual inquiry, civil discourse and open debate are the building blocks to examining complex issues, challenges and ideas. Colleges and universities provide that medium.
  • Professors should present views on a topic that are “accurate, nondoctrinaire and consistent with curricular requirements” to properly expose adult college students to controversial and contentious ideas that encourage rigorous discourse. Exposure to different points of view and weighing their merit is the process of becoming a contributing adult in society.
  • To uphold academic freedom and shared governance, faculty are responsible for creating course curricula—not government officials. Instead, they should partner with colleges and universities to best campuses that struggle with cultivating hospitable environments.

Speaking to the media

Leveraging the influence of college and university leaders, higher education institutions can proactively reach out to local media outlets to reflect on the importance of academic freedom and why government interference and legislation can erode the nation’s democracy.

Consulting with a school’s media relations team, understand these things before interacting with the media:

  • What is the focus of the story and the reporter’s angle?
  • What is the focus of the story, and what are three or four points you want to get across? Provide them with relevant data and sources.
  • Repetition can be a powerful tool in an interview to drive home your key message.

Effective ways to communicate with the public at large via media exposure without sitting down for an interview can be providing an op-ed, letters to the editor and social media/blog posts.

Difficult questions you should expect to answer

The guide also provides hypothetical questions college and university leaders should expect to confront and the best language to use to avoid a war of words. Such questions are:

  • Are “divisive concepts” taught on your campus?
  • Do you oppose efforts to ban critical race theory or the teaching of “divisive concepts”?
  • How concerned are you about this push to censor faculty and restrict what’s taught in college, including
    about slavery and racism?
  • Do you worry that teaching about race will actually lead to more division?

Read the full guide for the answers and advice on how to corral support from campus stakeholders to defend academic freedom.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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