December 5, 2023

Diving Overview:

  • The new handbook aims to help college leaders assert institutional autonomy in cases where lawmakers seek to limit the teaching of certain topics, such as race and gender, in classrooms.
  • A plan is coming from higher education’s top lobby, the American Council on Education and the free speech advocacy group PEN America. It offers tips on how to talk to the media and policymakers about the benefits of open academic inquiry at a time of increasing legislation to curtail the curriculum.
  • Both organizations emphasize that government officials should not decide what can be discussed on college campuses.

Diving Statistics:

ACE and PEN America say that in the past few years, state elected officials have begun to “interfere” in the operation of colleges and the selection of degree programs.

Lawmakers and other state leaders have tried to crack down on topics such as those related to race, gender, and LGBTQ issues with restrictions on K-12 schools and colleges. Republicans often refer to them as “divisive concepts” and say they can sow division — making students feel guilty for historical acts of racism in which they had no role, for example.

This dynamic has been evident in Florida, where the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has made eliminating college diversity, equity and inclusion programs a legislative priority. A recently introduced bill in the Florida Legislature would accomplish much of DeSantis’ wish list, including a ban on these diversity initiatives at public colleges, as well as degrees in gender studies and race-related topics.

ACE and PEN America’s new guide also acknowledges research showing that conservative students feel silenced by their peers on campus. “It emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all members of the campus community feel comfortable airing diverse perspectives across campus and in the classroom,” the two groups said.

They provided talking points for college leaders in the guidance. The organizations said institutions should emphasize to state officials that the role of colleges is to facilitate discussion of controversial ideas and that students “are adults who should be exposed to all topics on campus.”

“In the classroom, this means that professors should present views on a topic that are accurate, non-doctrinaire, and consistent with the requirements of the curriculum,” the groups said in the guide. “It is important to note that under the principles of academic freedom and shared governance, teachers are required to be the main decision-makers in shaping the curriculum and the curriculum.”

The solution to “bad speech” is more speech, not limiting it, the guide said. There are exceptions, such as threats of violence or defamation, the organizations said.

ACE and PEN America advise sharing real stories of students and teachers who have succeeded when academic freedom is allowed to thrive.

They also list questions that college officials are likely to ask, such as whether they support teaching “divisive concepts,” and provide bogus answers.

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