The Three-Front War on Academic Freedom
The return of repressive state laws undoubtedly poses a grave threat to academic freedom at institutions of higher education across the United States. But the excessive influence of private donors, along with a tuition model that has turned students into customers, can be just as insidious.
CHICAGO – It has been a tough week for academic freedom in the United States. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis packed the board of a liberal arts college with allies determined to transform it into a conservative ideological bastion. Kenneth Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch, was denied a fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School, allegedly over HRW’s criticism of Israel’s human-rights record. And Hamline University in Minnesota came under fire after an adjunct professor was dismissed for showing a centuries-old image of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class.
To advance their core mission of generating and transmitting knowledge, institutions of higher education rely on funds from three main sources: the state, the market, and their students and alumni. The key is to maintain a balance among all three; depending on any of them too heavily poses a distinct threat to academic inquiry.
Start with the state, which has a long history of constraining academic freedom. During the US Red Scares that followed both world wars, faculty were driven out of institutions solely for their ideological beliefs. While the explicit targeting of faculty is rare today, continued dependence on government funding means that universities – especially public institutions – remain vulnerable to efforts by politicians to influence budgets, curricula, personnel decisions, and much else.
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