American higher education is facing an existential threat. State legislatures, governors, and governing boards across the country are seeking to impose restrictions on teaching and learning. Most of the efforts have focused on concepts related to race, gender, LGBTQ+ identities, and American history in K–12 classrooms. Increasingly these restrictions are targeting higher education in ways that violate the principle of academic freedom and will constrain the freedom of inquiry and expression that are essential to liberal education.
Curricular intrusion is of special concern for a higher education system designed to be independent of direct government control and undue political influence. In contrast to the frameworks of other countries, American higher education comprises a diverse array of educational missions and institutional types, which operate according to the principle of shared governance. Under this tenet, authority is distributed to faculty and administrations. Moreover, colleges and universities are also subject to regular review by independent accrediting bodies, which provides public accountability and standards of academic quality.
Academic freedom matters individually and collectively, inside and beyond the academy. Ideally, students should engage in an education that exposes them to diversity of thought, identities, and experiences that train them in the evaluation of evidence and empower them to form independent judgments. Academic freedom is also critical to fulfilling our nation’s mission to prepare students for citizenship in our democracy. Centered on the liberal arts and sciences, this distinctively American form of undergraduate education exposes students to ideas that may challenge or unsettle their understanding of themselves or the world around them—including ideas that some may regard as “divisive.”
Academic freedom has proved essential to teachers’ ability to engage students in these challenging questions, diverse perspectives, and often controversial subjects without fear of retribution. This independence preserves the freedom of inquiry and expression necessary to pursue truth wherever it may lead, to increase knowledge, and to drive innovation, ultimately benefiting all Americans. In turn, American colleges and universities then drive economic growth regionally and nationally, serve as a top destination for international students, and shape civic and cultural life in communities.
Most Americans recognize how essential academic freedom is for higher education to serve our society. Recent public opinion research conducted by the American Council on Education and PEN America indicates widespread agreement among registered Democrats, Republicans, and independents around the need to keep elected officials from shaping the higher education curriculum and on the importance of academic freedom and free speech on college and university campuses. Majorities of those surveyed indicated their belief that all topics should be open for discussion on college campuses if they are presented in a fair and unbiased manner. Though some thought restrictions may be permissible in K-12, there was broad support for the exposure of college students to a vast range of topics and viewpoints as essential to a college education and learning to think critically.
The survey also found strong opposition to federal and state policymakers determining what can or cannot be taught or discussed on college campuses. These findings are consistent with an AAC&U survey, done in collaboration with Morning Consult, showing that 78 percent of adults believe that higher education is important for a healthy democracy because it exposes people to different points of view. In fact, academic freedom is necessary not just so faculty members can conduct their individual research and teach their own courses, but also as a prerequisite for students being able to form independent judgments, essential to taking their place in a functioning democracy.
Thus, the flurry of proposals aimed at limiting the free exchange of ideas on college and university campuses ostensibly runs counter to public sentiment. Similarly, the public also disapproves of other forms of overreach, ranging from attacks on tenure, abuses of the power to appoint governing board members, attempts to intervene in faculty hiring and review, and the usurping of accreditation. Ironically, the ultimate effect of these proposals may be to undermine the coherence and integrity of the public institutions they claim to be helping.
One of the most significant strengths of American higher education is the diversity of institutional types, both public and private. Public universities—which essayist Marilynne Robinson defends as “America’s best idea”—are a crowning achievement of our democracy and were founded on the recognition that higher education is a public good. We all lose if the quality and integrity of public institutions vary from state to state, subject to the vagaries of partisan politics. Academic freedom is our greatest guarantor of America’s “best idea” and of the ability of our colleges and universities to continue to produce America’s best ideas.