Under threat: Academic freedom gives college students the power to fully understand the world around them. Lawmakers are trying to take that away.

Samantha Greyson, Senior Projects Reporter

On Nov. 3 1944, thousands of students held a “funeral procession for academic freedom,” touting a casket in a march around campus after the Board of Regents fired beloved President Homer Rainey

In 1941, the regents pressured Rainey to fire four non-tenured academic faculty members because they defended labor-laws — he did not comply. In 1944, Rainey defended academic freedom and the teaching of “U.S.A” by John Dos Passos, a novel with socialist undertones, which depicts the lives of Americans around World War I, which the regents were trying to ban. 

“The main issue in the struggle is Nazism and Fascism against democracy,” Blake Smith, the pastor of the University Baptist Church said in front of Gregory Gym the night before the funeral march, in regards to Rainey’s dismissal.

The 1944 incident was not the first nor the last in which Texas politicians and state appointed officials attempted to suppress academic freedom by firing faculty, or through other means. In 1917, Governor James Ferguson vetoed the University’s budget because they refused to fire William Harding Mayes, the founder of UT’s journalism school, after he published unfavorable coverage of Ferguson during his campaign, the governor was later impeached in a defense of academic freedom and the University by state legislature. 

Today, challenges to academic freedom take the form of anti-critical race theory rhetoric, and threats to tenure, one of the most crucial protectors of academic freedom at a University. On February 15, 2022, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick slandered “looney Marxist UT professors” who teach Critical Race Theory at the University and threatened to cut funding for such teaching, in response to a UT Faculty Council meeting where members passed a resolution supporting academic freedom. Three days later, during a press conference, Patrick threatened to end tenure at all public universities.

“Tenured professors must not be able to hide behind the phrase ‘academic freedom,’ and then proceed to poison the minds of our next generation,” Patrick said in a press release following his February 18, 2022 conference. “During the upcoming 88th Legislative Session, one of my priorities will be eliminating tenure at all public universities in Texas.”

Now, the 88th Texas Legislature session is in full-swing, and the attempt to limit academic freedom and stop the teaching of critical race theory at Universities could actually happen. House Bill 1607, which limits higher education teachings on race and gender and how they pertain to society, is one example of proposed limits to academic freedom. There are no current proposed bills relating to the ending of tenure, as Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said he did not agree with Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate. 

In response to Governor Greg Abbott’s order for state agencies to stop considering diversity in hiring, the UT System paused all new DEI initiatives. 

Today, faculty are encouraging students to rally around academic freedom as they did in 1944  as it enables learning, and the work of professors, graduate students, and undergraduate student researchers. Statements in support of academic freedom and tenure, including those from President Jay Hartzell and the faculty council, have emerged amidst recently proposed legislation and comments from state officials.

“To generate transformational ideas, we must preserve academic freedom,” Hartzell said in his 2022 State of the University Address.  

What is academic freedom?

Academic freedom is the “freedom of inquiry” pharmacy professor, Andrea Gore said. It allows professors to teach and conduct research outside of the confines of administration or government. 

Gore, a faculty council member, said academic freedom is imperative to the foundation of a University because it gives professors the opportunity to pursue cutting-edge research, and it allows students to learn from this research. About a year ago, Gore introduced and passed a resolution to the University’s faculty council in support of academic freedom and critical race theory.

“State legislative proposals seeking to limit teaching and discussions of racism and related issues, have been proposed and enacted in several states, including Texas,” the resolution states. “This resolution affirms the fundamental rights of faculty to academic freedom in its broadest sense, inclusive of research and teaching of race and gender theory.”

Without academic freedom, professors can’t do their job, Gore said, it prevents them from being on the “cutting edge” of research, which is one large piece of what makes the University great. Limits to academic freedom also deeply impact students by depriving them of holistic learning experiences, she said.

“The beauty of academic freedom is that it enables the professors and the students to engage in a dialogue and to go in all of the different possible directions, including those that may not be popular,” Gore said. “If you don’t have academic freedom, neither the faculty nor the students are going to be able to really be able to think beyond what is conventional.”

Brian Evans, vice president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said academic freedom is what allows faculty to do innovative research, but this innovative research may be the very reason that policy-makers push back on it. Evans described the challenges to academic freedom as a tension between old knowledge and new knowledge.  Essentially, people who are entrenched in “old knowledge,” may feel threatened by the new stuff.

“Academic freedom lies at the heart of free, independent research,” Evans said. “This freedom empowers us as faculty, but also others that teach, graduate teaching assistants, for example, … (to) bring the latest breakthroughs into the classroom — this is huge for us. It lets us innovate in our research, scholarly work, and creative endeavors — the next great symphony, the next great studio art piece.”

An intrinsic protection of academic freedom is tenure. This gives professors indefinite employment at a University, which allows them to conduct research and teach without fear of being dismissed, unless under extraordinary circumstances, according to AAUP.

“Tenured faculty have the ability to speak out without the fear of losing their job,” Evans said. “If you don’t have tenure … there’s always a concern about being let go or not renewed. But tenure lets you have job security to a point, if you’re teaching, doing your research and school service.”

In Patrick’s press conference last year, he threatened to end tenure for all new University hires in response to frustration over professors teaching critical race theory at the University. Critical race theory was conceived as an attempt to explain why racial bias has persisted in society beyond the Civil Rights Movement, and examines how racial bias is inherent to social and legal structures, according to an article by The Texas Tribune.

This year, in his January inauguration speech, he made the distinction between tenured STEM professors, and those in the humanities.

“Tenure is fine for our research professors and our doctors, but for those professors in the classroom every day, I don’t want them teaching that if you’re white, you’re a racist, and if (you’re) of color, you’re a victim,” Patrick said in the speech. “I don’t want teachers at our colleges saying America is evil and Capitalism is bad and Socialism is better. And if that means that some of those professors who want to teach that don’t come to Texas, I’m okay with that.”

Administration has spoken up in support of faculty and students — in an interview with The Daily Texan, Hartzell defended tenure, as well as academic freedom.

“When we talk about our ability to continue to attract and retain very top faculty, tenure is one of the things we have to have in the competitive environment we face to get great faculty to be here,” Hartzell said in the interview. “I also think it’s important for all top higher education institutions, including ours, to have a campus environment where students and faculty encounter a wide range of ideas.”

In September, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said he opposed Patrick’s proposal to end tenure for all new University professors. Prior to the legislative session, the University of Houston strengthened their tenure review process by creating a new “post-tenure review” according to  the Houston Chronicle.

Though there are currently no proposed bills threatening tenure in this legislative session, faculty like Gore make it clear that tenure and academic freedom are intrinsically linked, as job security allows professors to study topics that may be deemed controversial.

Threatening the status quo

Karma Chavez, chair of the Mexican American Studies Department, said that research done alongside academic freedom may upset power structures, and therefore upset the people in power. She gave her own research as an example — because she studies immigration from the lens of the immigrant, the data she acquires may not look very good for the government.

“Sometimes the implications of research that we do, may not look very good for people in power or it may threaten the status quo,” Chavez said. “Those who benefit from the status quo obviously don’t want it threatened.”

Chavez said her classes may fall under what the state government is deeming “critical race theory.”

“I do teach things that fall under the purview of what the state government is calling critical race theory — even though I don’t identify as a critical race theorist at all — but we fall in there because it’s about race, it’s about whiteness, and existing power structures,” Chavez said. “When I teach that to students, my goal is not that they agree with me, but my goal is so that they’re informed about the world around them, and then they’re able to make principled research based decisions about what they want to do.”

Not only does academic freedom enable professors to do their jobs, Chavez said, but it also enables students to perform research.

“If faculty can’t research what they want to research, then of course, students aren’t going to be able to do that either,” Chavez said. “It limits their ability to expand their minds and to be able to get the education that they deserve.”

For graduate students like Paige-Erin Wheeler, limiting academic freedom may challenge the way they conduct and defend their research. Wheeler, a linguistics graduate student, focuses her research on an Indigenous language of Latin America. While studying the vowels and consonants of this language may not threaten anyone, Wheeler said she believes limiting academic freedom could limit the defense of her research.

“If we start restricting academic freedom, I can easily see there coming a point where I don’t feel that the University values my research,” Wheeler said. “Often when I’m articulating my research and why it’s important … I articulate that the language is in danger, that it’s spoken by a minority group, that I care a lot about (and) the social justice issues that are related to the study of linguistics, and that’s really routine and an important part of my research — beginning to restrict academic freedom restricts our ability to talk about our research in that way.”

As president of the Graduate Student Assembly, Wheeler said that she’s sensed a general fearfulness when it comes to graduate students and their concerns on academic freedom.

“Curtailing academic freedom doesn’t just prevent people who are doing really socially progressive research from doing their socially progressive research,” Wheeler said. “It also prevents anyone from being able to do research that they find to be important. … What we want is for research to be rigorous and useful, and that requires us to be able to do it without worrying about losing our jobs or livelihoods because someone didn’t like it.”

Limiting academic freedoms extends to K-12 education as well. According to a study done by free speech non-profit PEN America, Texas banned the most books from school libraries in 2022 than any other state. The state banned books dealing with race, the LGBTQ+ community, and abortion.

“You really can’t separate K-12 and higher education, when you just start thinking about the educational process more holistically, because when kids go through the K-12 system, many of them will go on and get a university degree,” Gore said. “There’s a connection there, where what they learned in the K-12 years, they’re going to be bringing with them to the University.”

Academic freedom is currently under threat, just as it has been in the past, Evans said. Bills in the legislation threatening to ban teachings on race and gender seek to limit academic freedom, potentially affecting both students and faculty, but Evans said it’s students who are the instrumental force in protecting academic freedom. 

“Students are the ones that are the immediate benefactors of (academic freedom) … they’re the ones that want to be fully informed in the decisions that they make,” Evans said. “As a student, my hope is that you will have benefited from all this diversity (in learning) to further develop your critical thinking skills. It would be great to hear that voice expressed publicly to let people know.”