Bad week for academic freedom
Gaslighting about academic indoctrination
This was on my blog over at Science.
Academic freedom in the US has had a rough few weeks. Colleges in Florida and North Carolina, where faculty are accused of politically indoctrinating students, have been in the crosshairs. And an advanced high school curriculum on African American studies was targeted as indoctrination and subsequently watered down—also a slap in the face to the nation’s recognition of February as “Black History Month.” Although these events do not touch science directly, this is only a temporary state because the characterization of academics as devious indoctrinators is a threat to nearly all scientific matters.
At the New College of Florida, trustees appointed by conservative Governor Ron DeSantis to “change the culture” of the small, liberal arts college fired the university president after she refused to state at a board meeting that her faculty were indoctrinating students. When she started to tell them she would resign, they cut her off and immediately passed a resolution to terminate her. Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) voted to establish an entire new school (School of Civic Life and Leadership) with 20 faculty (to include a substantial number of Republicans) and its own dean without informing the faculty or administration. Before telling anyone on campus about the decision, the board chair bragged to conservative outlets that the school would be a “remedy” to academic indoctrination. And at the College Board—a nonprofit organization that oversees precollege courses and college admissions testing—the curriculum for Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies was weakened after DeSantis denounced crucial material developed by university scholars as indoctrination.
The goal of college coursework is to give students an opportunity to encounter new ideas and challenging material in a forum where they can be discussed freely and where assessments are used to determine learning. That is the job description of a professor. In my decades as a university professor and administrator, I encountered countless colleagues who were completely dedicated to the success of their students, regardless of their ideology. Getting students to confront rigorous scholarly material and discuss it openly is not indoctrination. When teaching conflicts with particular religions or ideologies, cries of indoctrination by conservatives can ensue even when the material in question has stood up to scrutiny and is based on evidence. These individual accusations are then presented as evidence of systemic indoctrination. This translates to statements that professors are generally incompetent.
In his media victory lap, the UNC board chair didn’t dispute the framing of events as the imminent establishment of a conservative school. Further, he told Fox News that the new school would hire Republican professors as a solution to the imbalance of ideologies on campus. If there’s a remedy, there has to be a problem—which is apparently that liberal professors indoctrinate their students. He also said that UNC had a “world-class faculty.” Would such faculty be lousy professors who do a poor job of teaching? Will the new Republican professors be more competent and not indoctrinate students? Evidently, he thinks so—how else could the new hires “remedy” the problem? In response to this devious move, the chancellor of UNC, Kevin Guskiewicz, released a statement clarifying that the university’s policies require faculty to propose courses and curricula. Sadly, he did not give a full-throated challenge to board chair’s accusations.
The matter related to AP African American Studies is even worse. In the US, AP courses are offered to high school students and are accompanied by a standardized exam that translates to college credit. They are the equivalent of college courses. The College Board developed a course in African American studies by relying on excellent university scholars to prepare the material. The initial draft of the course was piloted in several states and was headed toward final approval. Governor DeSantis denounced it as indoctrination because it includes queer theory and intersectionality. These are critical concepts for understanding Black scholarship and leadership because many important figures (James Baldwin, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Lorraine Hansberry, and Pauli Murray) have identities that are marginalized in multiple ways. In response to DeSantis, the College Board removed decades of modern Black scholarship from the course almost completely, from the early 1970s to present time. The diluted curricula now point to less controversial figures such as Mae Jemison, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama. College Board President David Coleman’s response was to gaslight America by saying that the deleted material was made optional according to their common practices, but somehow the material that DeSantis approved of was left in. It would have been better to say that the College Board was caving in to political pressure and on balance, the final version of the AP course was the best it could do.
This matters a lot for science. If politicians can paint academics as master indoctrinators around Black history and political rhetoric, then they can do the same thing with issues such as climate change, evolution, and public health topics spanning COVID-19 to gender-affirming care, abortion, and gun control. The political tactics used in Florida and North Carolina are the same as those driving science denial. Indeed, we are way beyond the point of trying to back the camel’s nose out of the tent—the whole camel has made its way in. The gutting of outstanding modern scholarship from AP African American Studies is devastating, and the fact that this course was initiated with the goal of enhancing Black studies makes its dismantling part of the continuing marginalization of the field by liberals and conservatives alike. It also sets the stage for attacking similarly rigorous material from any course. Imagine if the same logic applied to AP African American Studies was applied to AP Environmental Science, slicing out everything from the early 1970s onward. That would essentially remove the issue of climate change from a college-level environmental course taught to hundreds of thousands of students each year. Professors who teach about climate change are not indoctrinating anyone—they are simply imparting decades of meticulous research that has been revised according to the self-correcting rules of science and has stood the test of time.
When trustees demanded that President Patricia Okker of the New College of Florida declare that her faculty were indoctrinating students, she put her job on the line instead. That’s the kind of courage that academic leaders are going to need to get political agendas out of education and push that camel out of the tent.