A Georgia Lawmaker Asked How Colleges Teach ‘Privilege’ and ‘Oppression.’ Here’s How They RespondedBreaking News
tags: Georgia, academic freedom, teaching history, colleges and universities
When a state lawmaker asked the University System of Georgia about how it teaches “oppression” and “privilege,” it set off searches through course catalogues and syllabi, conversations with deans, department chairs, and faculty members — and a 102-page response.
In January, Georgia Rep. Emory Dunahoo, Republican of Gillsville, asked campuses if any classes fell into three categories: Do they teach students that “possessing certain characteristics inherently designates them as either being ‘privileged’ or ‘oppressed’?” Do any classes instruct on “what constitutes ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression’?” Are there classes that characterize white, male, heterosexual, or Christian students as “intrinsically privileged and oppressive, which is defined as ‘malicious or unjust’ and ‘wrong’?”
In their responses, few campus leaders gave much context or explained how such instruction might meet colleges’ missions. Instead, they cited accreditation requirements, denied teaching about “privilege,” or, in one case, promised that discussions of these topics were conducted “in an objective, non-biased manner.” But it was clear that the searches — which resulted in more than 900 listed classes across 26 institutions — required immense effort.
The Georgia system’s wide-reaching response to one lawmaker’s request shows the heavy lift that results when politicians probe how social issues are taught in classrooms, and how college leaders try to thread the needle in their communications with policy makers. It also raises questions about the possible chilling of free inquiry.
Conflicts between state lawmakers and colleges on these issues have popped up like pimples over decades, said Anita Levy, senior program officer in the American Association of University Professors’s academic-freedom, tenure, and governance division. Now, she said, “we’re in for a bad case of acne.”
With Democrats in control of the federal government, and Republicans controlling many state legislatures, she said, “we’ll see many more of these types of eruptions.”
Columbus State University listed several hundred classes in response to Dunahoo’s second question, about whether classes teach what constitutes “privilege” and “oppression.” Brian Schwartz, a biology professor and the president of the campus’s AAUP chapter, said the request was the first time in his teaching career he had to answer questions from the legislature about the content he teaches.
Unlike at some campuses, where officials looked through centralized databases, Schwartz said he was called into a meeting to determine which of his courses qualified. Attendees were asked if any of their courses teach these issues. If a professor said yes, he or she would be asked to list the classes, he recalled.
Schwartz said no. Several days later, however, he said he was called back for another meeting. This time, professors were asked if they planned to teach these materials in the future. Schwartz, who said he plans to teach students about underrepresentation of women and people of color in his discipline, said yes. He planned to connect this historical underrepresentation to current efforts by academic groups to improve diversity.
The source of the questions, their content, and their tone — it all contributed to a sense, to Schwartz, that Dunahoo was seeking professors’ wrongdoing. It felt “threatening,” he said.
And it took a lot of time. “Certain positions were pretty consumed by this for the whole week. This was one member of the legislature who was asking these questions … I kind of marveled at the extent of work that he created.”
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