The Freedom to Teach About Racism Has Always Been ThreatenedRoundup
tags: racism, academic freedom
Eddie R. Cole is associate professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the author of The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom (Princeton University Press, 2020).
Last summer, the University of Nebraska president and campus chancellors were forced to defend academic freedom following a state resolution to ban teaching critical race theory. A few months later, the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia issued new guidelines for tenure and post-tenure review policies that sparked a backlash. And similar concerns exist in Oklahoma, Mississippi and other states where recent demands to prohibit teaching about race and the history of racism has widespread public support.
In response, faculty senates and professional associations have issued public statement after statement condemning those political efforts, which they argue weaken academic freedom. For example, the faculty senate at Virginia Tech noted, “As scholars and educators, we are called to affirm that limits on discourse and inquiry are antithetical to intellectual and psychological growth.”
But these attacks are not new and, like today, limitations placed on academic freedom have a history long rooted in racism. Race has been at the center of many of the most aggressive attempts to dismantle academic freedom in the nation’s universities.
In 1940, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued its Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, a document that still guides the association today. The statement’s purpose was “to promote public understanding and support of academic freedom.” It added, “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good. … The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” Professors, the statement read, “are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.”
But academic freedom was not a colorblind concept, nor were the assaults on scholars.
In 1941, for example, Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge dismissed Walter Cocking, dean of the College of Education at the University of Georgia, because he believed the administrator sought to enroll Black students. Scholars later noted that Cocking did not advocate for desegregation, but he was concerned about “the plight of black Americans.” That sympathy was enough for Talmadge to fire Cocking under the ruse of fighting communism. In fact, faculty who expressed views in favor of racial equality were often branded as communists, or un-American, as a way to silence and delegitimize their claims, regardless of their race.
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