Can Academic Freedom Survive Critical Racial Theory?
Across the country, from pre-K to graduate schools, the use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in curricula creates conflict. Of course, as with any theory, there are differences in the definition of CRT. It should not be confused with honest discussions about the role of slavery, Jim Crow, or redlining in American history. However, the CRT is not about discussion. It is about converting theories into group-based actions that would obliterate the constitutional concept that everyone is entitled to equal legal protection.
CRT essentially reduces all major human identities to race. People are not primarily artists or athletes, workers or entrepreneurs, religious or secular, conservative or progressive. You are white or black, or at least a colored person – a BIPOC. Racial differences determine a person’s classification as an oppressor or oppressor, which, according to the CRT, should govern all public order. It is not enough not to be racist. One of CRT’s most important theorists, Ibram X. Kendi, who publishes children’s books in addition to his bestseller How to be an Anti-Racist, insists that all people and institutions must be explicitly anti-racist. Racially neutral policies that focus on economic inequalities are not enough, even if they could disproportionately benefit non-whites. After all, there are still significant numbers of poor whites in America.
What role, if any, CRT should play at different levels of curriculum is debatable: When does its official endorsement equate to indoctrination? Which actors should control the introduction into schools? Some parents and teachers in coast-to-coast K-12 public and private schools have started using social media to fight back against the CRT ideology. Other parents have challenged incumbent school board members in local elections over CRT. A new national organization called Parents Defending Education has been formed and their website has a map of local conflicts by state. A formal civil rights complaint has been filed in San Diego that includes multiple curriculum education slide images. A slide warns school administrators not to ignore staff or community members who hesitate to speak to CRT with the admonition, “What you allow, promote. Every decision we make either confirms white supremacy or tries to dismantle it. “
Not surprisingly, the CRT issue has drawn the attention of several legislatures in school curricula. Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Idaho recently passed laws banning the use of CRT concepts in their public schools and universities, often on a party basis. Similar bills were introduced in Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia. Some of the bills tie compliance to future funding, and the Missouri bill highlights the 1619 project for sanctioning. As is often the case with legislative proposals, some wordings are blurry or too broad and may not stand up to the legal requirements of tight tailoring.
However, the legislative initiatives raise important questions about the conflict between the traditional concept of academic freedom and the new reality of the CRT, which may require faculty ideological alignment and student indoctrination.
Recently, FIRE, this passionate and successful defender of free expression, has questioned the compatibility of these legislative efforts with its goals and has urged opposition. However, the potential conflict between academic freedom and the potentially hostile learning or work environment that CRT can promote is also a serious question, and the answers can prove to be complex.
In K-12 public schools, individual teachers generally have limited powers to set the curriculum. Often times, government school officials set the goals of what subjects to teach, what textbooks to use, and how to measure learning outcomes. It is at the discretion of the teachers how topics should be discussed and highlighted. However, if an American history teacher focused solely on the anti-colonial theory of stolen land, her students would likely not pass standardized tests in the subject, and their supervisors and school board might have to step in by insisting on better balance and more coverage. In this case, a question of academic freedom is unlikely.
The situation is different in private schools, many of which are supported by religious organizations that incorporate theological perspectives into their curricula or at least insist that their teachers do not violate these perspectives. All private schools, whether religious or secular, are fee-paying and must be mindful of the markets in which they exist. This gives parents more control over the curriculum and environment of the schools they choose.
There is nothing wrong with exposing students to CRT and DEI perspectives if they are only viewed as one alternative among others. But when universities are reluctant to debate these theories or other public policies, only the most intimidating voices are heard.
In higher education, there is a big difference between governance theory and reality. In theory, the legislatures have ultimate authority over public colleges to make appropriations and other important educational decisions, but this latter power often rests. Part-time legislators would be overwhelmed with the number and variety of issues to be decided. In order to make an appropriate policy for individual campuses, boards of trustees or regents are appointed or elected. In reality, however, these (usually not compensated) people do not meet often and have a strong need to show unanimity after their often secret meetings. In fact, most campus policy decisions about budget, hiring, and curriculum are made locally through an opaque process commonly referred to as shared governance. However, with more and more part-time teachers teaching, permanent teachers have withdrawn from their share of management. Responsibility for all campus policy is typically assumed by top administrators and, in the area of racial relations, by a new cadre of bureaucrats working under the mantra of Diversity, Justice and Inclusion (DEI).
CRT has made great strides among DEI staff and the terms systemic racism, structural racism and institutional racism are often repeated but seldom carefully defined. Some DEI initiatives are benign and aim to be more sensitive to the various problems that individuals in the campus community face. Other efforts, however, are masks for radical programs such as creating proportional representation of identity groups in faculty and staff in relation to the student body or even the national population. DEI officials and their allies often push for “diverse” attitudes and mandatory DEI training for all students, faculty and staff. They also want changes to the curriculum to “decolonize” it and include the representation of “marginalized groups” and their “characteristic ways of understanding truth” even in hard science and mathematics.
This is where the problems of public accountability and academic freedom lie. In higher education, faculties have almost unlimited freedom in the choice of teaching style, materials, homework, and student assessment methods. This makes sense when lecturers are selected based on their academic training and professional performance. But what if the CRT and DEI have come together to make teacher recruitment and promotion decisions based on the acceptance of their ideologies? What if large departments or even entire schools run out of balanced positions on racial issues? The metaphor that universities are marketplaces for ideas can quickly become a buzzword. Once a CRT and DEI beachhead is in place, it will likely expand, as opponents can too easily be called defenders of white supremacy.
There is nothing wrong with exposing students to CRT and DEI perspectives if they are only viewed as one alternative among others. But when universities are reluctant to debate these theories or other public policies, only the most intimidating voices are heard. When a monolithic view of DEI issues is imposed, academic freedom and even the survival of dissenting faculty and students on campus can be at stake. In this case the legislature can play a role if it is not exercised for partisan reasons.
If campuses want to maintain their autonomy in these areas, several steps should be taken. First, they should conduct campus climate surveys on freedom of expression, like the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill did. The results of these surveys should be published. Second, universities should carefully define what they mean when they advocate DEI and social justice, and make it clear that dissenting teachers and students are protected. In particular, they must note that the search for “anti-racist” diversity does not, in reality, mean racial discrimination in admission and employment, or the creation of a hostile work or educational environment by labeling people as oppressors or oppressed, as is the case with CRT is. Third, universities should review their invitations to external speakers to ensure that they reflect the intellectual diversity they rhetorically represent and encourage public policy debates to demonstrate their commitment to respectful citizen dialogue.
Without these measures, it would be hypocritical for a campus to complain about interference from lawmakers or bodies, as it would mean that campus management has not addressed the threats to freedom of expression that it caused and could control. In short, the best way for universities to protect academic freedom from legislative interference is to publicly demonstrate that they have taken steps to monitor and correct internal threats to freedom of expression by their own constituents.