No ‘Social Justice’ in the Classroom: Statehouses Renew Scrutiny of Speech at Public CollegesBreaking News
tags: higher education, culture war, teaching history, colleges and universities
Blocking professors from teaching social-justice issues. Asking universities how they talk about privilege. Analyzing students’ freedom of expression through regular reports. Meet the new campus-speech issues emerging in Republican-led statehouses across the country, indicating potential new frontiers for politicians to shape campus affairs.
This flurry of activity, in states like Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Iowa, shows lawmakers’ intense focus on campus culture wars amid broader national clashes over how America’s history is taught and remembered.
“We’re really seeing a direct intrusion into the classroom with some of these proposals, in a way that the prior wave of these student-speech laws did not,” said Neal Hutchens, chair of the University of Mississippi’s department of higher education, who specializes in legal issues.
It all comes at a difficult moment. America’s political parties are divided on how they perceive higher education. Public colleges are not only regulated by legislatures but funded by state appropriations, which risk being threatened by the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying recession. Campus leaders may be torn between standing up for their institutional values and placating lawmakers, Hutchens said. “This represents a legitimate challenge. Institutional leaders, I have some sympathy for them. It’s going to be difficult to navigate.”
Bills in Arkansas and Florida point to new possible areas of legislative focus.
In Arkansas, House Bill 1218 bars public colleges from allowing classes, activities, or events that promote “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” any race, gender, political affiliation, or social class. No events or activities should group students based on ethnicity, race, religion, gender, or social class.
Run afoul of the law and risk a 10-percent state-funding cut, according to the bill. The proposed rule would have certain exceptions, including for classes about the Holocaust, Black history, and “historical oppression.” History of an “ethnic group” that is “accurate” is also allowed. The bill has 10 Republican sponsors and co-sponsors and was filed in January.
Rep. Mark Lowery, the lead sponsor of the legislation, did not respond to an email from The Chronicle seeking comment on Wednesday. He told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the bill aims to stop “indoctrination” in teaching. Activities that prompt discussion of students’ backgrounds, he said, could embarrass white students, who “may not feel that they have the right to push back on accusations that they have privilege.”
Such a posture touches a cultural nerve. In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement and other conversations about diversity have argued that the experiences of people of color and historically marginalized groups deserve focus and attention. It’s prompted backlash both within higher education — with white-supremacist fliers plastered around colleges — and outside of it. The Trump White House, for example, pushed for “patriotic education,” implying that the current state of American education fell short of that.
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