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Republicans Cancel Critical Race Theory on College Campuses

Protests that swept the country, including Athens, after George Floyd’s murder by police helped spark a conservative backlash. Credit: Adria Carpenter / file

Professors say the Republican crusade to root out “critical race theory” is taking a toll on college campuses around the nation—places where academic freedom is supposed to encourage thought, discussion and analysis.

Much of the “critical race theory” uproar to date has centered on teaching in K-12 schools. But several high-profile incidents, combined with new laws with unexpected effects, are raising worries about political interference in higher education. Some of it may play out this fall as students return to classes and professors sort out what they can and cannot teach.

The attempts by lawmakers to influence college curriculums undermine one of the principles that makes U.S. higher education so widely regarded across the globe: encouraging students to reach their own conclusions about the subjects they study. “We haven’t seen this level of intrusion since McCarthyism,” Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told States Newsroom in an interview. The group says it’s tracked legislative proposals that have taken shape in 20 states. “The consequences are the upending of the American system of higher education,” Pasquerella said.

Georgia’s 2021 legislative session ended in early spring before the wave of critical race theory angst rippled across the country, and no bills addressing the subject were filed.

But Rep. Emory Dunahoo (R-Gillsville) raised the subject in January when he sent a letter to University System of Georgia administrators asking a series of questions, including whether students are taught about the concepts of privilege and oppression, that some races are inherently privileged, or that white, male, heterosexual Christians are intrinsically oppressive.

In response, then-Chancellor Steve Wrigley said the university system strives to balance their cause of expanding students’ minds and ensuring they are free from harassment and indoctrination. “It is a constant balancing effort, and I am certain we do not always get the balance right,” he wrote. “I believe the vast majority of the time we do, and work hard to do so. Part of our purpose is to challenge students to deepen their thinking, hone their research and sharpen their skills so they can analyze and then explain their views. These are abilities essential for success in life, as you know, and basic to fostering innovation.”

All 26 University System of Georgia institutions responded as well. None said they teach that any group is inherently bad. Many said concepts of privilege and oppression come up in classes including sociology, history, anthropology and literature. 

“It is impossible to talk about the American Revolution, civil rights movements, women’s suffrage or World War II without discussing oppression, and thereby privilege,” the College of Coastal Georgia’s response reads in part. “When teaching courses about philosophy of education or community health, we discuss how socio-economic status and race impact the outcomes in those areas [to] prepare students to tackle challenges they will face in their chosen fields.”

Meanwhile, as the USG searches for a new chancellor to replace Wrigley, who retired in May, Republican former Gov. Sonny Perdue is lobbying for the position by saying he will uphold conservative values. “There are challenging times here, not only with the pandemic, but with the culture revolution that we’re seeing as well,” Perdue told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month. “And there needs to be some stability there to help guide the state’s values and policies through higher education.”

The 1619 Project and More

Many Republican officials have used the misnomer of “critical race theory” to criticize a wide variety of activities examining the role of racism in American society. The term describes a narrower field of study among legal scholars. Still, colleges and universities are being targeted.

The University of North Carolina has been at the center of the controversy. The school’s administration came under fire for denying tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times journalist who led the “1619 Project” that examined the role slavery played in shaping American history and society through the present day.

Despite credentials including a Pulitzer Prize and a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Hannah-Jones was initially offered a five-year appointment instead of the standard permanent tenured position, as was first reported by NC Policy Watch. After a national outcry, the UNC Board of Trustees recently voted 9-4 to offer Hannah-Jones full tenure after all, but she declined the appointment and accepted a tenured position at Howard University.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis hinted that budget cuts to state universities could come if surveys required by a new state law showed that instructors were “indoctrinating” students.

In Idaho, lawmakers cut funding to Boise State University, because of concerns about its diversity programs (some of which turned out to be unfounded).

And in Iowa, legislators passed a law this spring taking aim at schools or government entities that promoted ideas about racism and sexism that GOP lawmakers deemed “divisive.” Notably, the law only appeared to apply to mandatory diversity training at institutions of higher education—though at Iowa State University it’s had a broader effect.

The attempts by Republicans to monitor classrooms threaten the principle that higher education is intended to help students think on their own, academic leaders said.

That approach helps them become better citizens, Pasquerella argued. “If we start regulating what can be taught and how it can be taught in the academy, by people who are not experts in the field, then we’re eroding not only higher education, but democracy itself.”

Pasquerella’s group and dozens of others that focus on higher education or history signed a statement in mid-June decrying the “spate” of attempts to interfere with college coursework. Many of those proposals would prevent college instructors from discussing “divisive concepts” about racism and sexism in American history.

“Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history,” the groups wrote. “It can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration. Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced and frank delivery of history so that they can learn, grow and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology.”

A year of Protests, Calls for Action

The growing concern on the right about race-related instruction follows massive protests and calls for action last year, in the wake of Minneapolis police killing George Floyd and the killing of other Black residents by police in other cities.

Higher education is not the only target for Republican officials who have lashed out in recent months at various efforts to discuss systemic racism and white supremacy. They have attacked government diversity training programs, the military and K-12 schools. But colleges and universities do enjoy more legal protections about the material they teach than K-12 schools do.

The U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly provided protections for academic freedom for colleges and universities. It ruled in 1967, for example, that colleges could not require faculty to take loyalty oaths. That came after Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1957 laid out four key freedoms of universities that are still cited today: “to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”

“In the absence of policy changes,” Pasquerella predicted, “there will be lawsuits that look at whether it’s constitutional for state universities to infringe on academic freedom in this way.”

Many faculty members also worry about how political interference will affect their universities’ communities and reputations. At UNC, faculty members criticized the Board of Trustees for not immediately granting tenure to Hannah-Jones, a Black woman and a UNC graduate. Deborah Stroman, a professor in UNC’s school of public health and a former president of the UNC Black Faculty and Staff Caucus, said the board decision to offer tenure to Hannah-Jones offered hope to people on campus. But the controversy, she said, has already hurt the UNC community.

The school’s initial decision not to grant Hannah-Jones tenure has already dissuaded faculty from coming to the flagship university, and Stroman thinks that is likely to continue. When recruiting Black faculty for departments that have few Black professors already, it’s important to be able to show them that they will be welcome in the larger community, she said.

The stress over the situation with Hannah-Jones disproportionately affects people of color—both students and faculty—at the university, Stroman said. It may take a year or two before the extent of the damage is known, she said.

“We are a prestigious university,” Stroman said. “When you make it to this level, that means you have choices. So we all have choices, and many people are being recruited right now.”

Even before the 1619 Project or the George Floyd protests, though, teachers at the University of Georgia had been subjected to political pressure on racial issues. For example, Irami Osei-Frimpong, a graduate instructor in philosophy, was accused of violating the university’s code of conduct after a right-wing website reported that he had said on social media, “Some white people may have to die for black communities to be whole in this struggle to advance freedom,” which he explained as a reference to white people who died fighting for the Union during the Civil War or protesting for civil rights, but others took as a call for a race war. A disciplinary board cleared Osei-Frimpong of wrongdoing in 2019. Around the same time, a Faculty Senate report accused administrators of trying to intimidate professors who were critical of the way UGA handled the discovery of the remains of enslaved individuals discovered during a Baldwin Hall construction project.

Ross Williams of the Georgia Recorder and Flagpole news editor Blake Aued contributed to this article, which originally appeared at georgiarecorder.com.

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