Can Academic Freedom Survive Critical Race Theory?

Across the country, from Pre-K to graduate schools, the use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in curriculums is causing conflict. Of course, like any theory, there are differences in the way CRT is defined. It should not be confused with honest discussions about the role of slavery, Jim Crow, or redlining in American history. CRT, however, is not about discussion. It is about converting theory into group-based actions that would erase the constitutional concept that each person is entitled to equal protection of the law.

CRT essentially reduces all important human identities to race. People are not primarily artists or athletes, laborers or entrepreneurs, religious or secular, conservative or progressive. They are white or black or at least a person of color—a BIPOC. Racial distinction determines a person’s classification as an oppressor or oppressed, which according to CRT should drive all public policy. It is not enough to be non-racist. One of CRT’s principal theorists, Ibram X. Kendi, who in addition to his best-selling How to be an Anti-Racist, is publishing children’s books, insists all persons and institutions have to be specifically anti-racist. Race-neutral policies focusing on economic disparities are not sufficient, even if they might disproportionately benefit non-whites. After all, there are still substantial numbers of poor whites in America.

What role, if any, CRT should play in various levels of school curriculums is contentious: When does its official endorsement amount to indoctrination? Which stakeholders should control its infusion into schools? Some parents and teachers in public and private K-12 schools, coast to coast, have begun to push back against CRT ideology, using social media. Other parents have challenged incumbent school board members in local elections over CRT. A new national organization has been formed called Parents Defending Education, whose website includes a state-by-state map of local conflicts. A formal civil rights complaint has been filed in San Diego that includes multiple slide illustrations about curriculum training. One slide cautions school administrators to ignore staff or community members hesitant about CRT with the admonition “What you permit, you promote. Every choice we make either upholds white supremacy or seeks to dismantle it.”

Not surprisingly, the issue of CRT in school curriculums has garnered the attention of several state legislatures. Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Idaho recently enacted legislation banning the use of CRT concepts in their public schools and university campuses, often on party-line votes. Similar bills have been 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 singles out the 1619 Project for sanction. As is often the case with proposed legislation, some language is fuzzy or overbroad, and may not survive judicial requirements of narrow tailoring.

But the legislative initiatives do raise important questions about the conflict between the traditional concept of academic freedom and the new reality of CRT which may require faculty ideological conformity and student indoctrination.

Recently, FIRE, that fierce and successful defender of free speech, has questioned whether these legislative efforts are consistent with its goals and has urged opposition to them. The potential conflict between academic freedom and the potentially hostile learning or employment environment that CRT can foster, however, is also a serious question, and the answers may prove complex.

For K-12 public schools, individual teachers generally have limited power to determine curriculum. Often, state school officials set the goals for what subjects should be taught, what textbooks can be used, and how learning outcomes should be measured. Teachers have discretion in how matters should be discussed and emphasized. If an American history teacher decided to focus exclusively on the anti-colonial stolen-land theory, however, her students would likely not pass standardized tests in that subject and her supervisors and the school board might well have to intervene by insisting on better balance and more coverage. In that case, an issue of academic freedom is unlikely to arise.

The situation is different in private schools, many of which are sponsored by religious organizations that infuse theological perspectives into their curriculums or at least insist that their teachers not contravene those perspectives. All private schools, religious or secular, are tuition-dependent and must be attentive to the markets in which they exist. That gives parents more influence in the curriculum and environment of the schools they choose.

There is nothing wrong with exposing students to CRT and DEI perspectives if they are considered only one alternative among others. But when campuses are loath to debate these theories or other public policies, only the most intimidating voices will be heard.

In higher education, there is a major difference between governance theory and reality. In theory, legislatures have ultimate authority regarding public campuses to make appropriations and other major educational decisions, but that latter power frequently lies dormant. Part-time legislators would be overwhelmed with the number and variety of issues that need to be decided. To make appropriate policy about individual campuses, boards of trustees or regents are appointed or elected. In reality, however, these (usually uncompensated) persons do not meet frequently and have a heavy imperative to display unanimity after their often-secret meetings. So in fact, most campus policy decisions on budget, hiring, and curriculum are made locally by a murky process usually called “shared governance.” As more and more teaching is done by part-timers, tenured faculty have retreated from their share of the governance, however. Responsibility for all campus policy is typically made by top administrators, and in the field of race relations by a new cadre of bureaucrats working within the mantra of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Among DEI staff, CRT has made great inroads and the terms systemic racism, structural racism, and institutional racism are often repeated, but rarely carefully defined. Some DEI initiatives are benign, aimed at creating more sensitivity to the different problems individuals in the campus community face. Other efforts, however, are masks for radical programs like creating proportional representation among identity groups in the faculty and staff in relation to the student body or even state population. DEI officials and their allies often push for “diverse” hiring and mandatory DEI training for all students, faculty, and staff. They also want changes in the curriculum to “decolonize” it and include representation of “marginalized groups” and their “distinctive ways of understanding truth,” even in the hard sciences and mathematics.

Herein lie the problems of public accountability and academic freedom. In higher education, faculty have almost unlimited freedom to choose teaching styles, class reading materials, paper assignments, and student evaluation methods. That makes sense if faculty are selected for their scholarly training and professional accomplishments. But what if CRT and DEI have joined to make faculty hiring and promotion decisions dependent on the acceptance of their ideologies? What if there is no longer a balance of viewpoints on issues related to race in large departments or even whole schools? The metaphor that universities are marketplaces of ideas can quickly become a shibboleth. Once a CRT and DEI beachhead is established, it is likely to expand because opponents can too easily be labeled as defenders of white supremacy.

There is nothing wrong with exposing students to CRT and DEI perspectives if they are considered only one alternative among others. But when campuses are loath to debate these theories or other public policies, only the most intimidating voices will be heard. When a monolithic view of DEI issues is imposed, then the academic freedom and even the survival of dissenting faculty and students on campus may be at stake. In this circumstance, legislatures may have a role to play, if it is not exercised for partisan reasons.

If campuses want to preserve their autonomy in these areas, several steps should be taken. First, they should conduct campus climate surveys regarding free speech as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has done. The results of these surveys should be made public. Second, campuses should carefully define what they mean if they announce commitment to DEI and social justice, making it clear that dissenting faculty and students will be protected. Specifically, they need to state that searching for “anti-racist” diversity does not mean, in reality, race-based discrimination in admissions and employment or in creating a hostile work or educational environment by labeling people as oppressors or oppressed as CRT does. Third, campuses should examine their invitations to outside speakers to be certain they reflect the intellectual diversity they rhetorically espouse and sponsor public policy debates to manifest their commitment to respectful civic dialogue.

Without these measures, it would be hypocritical for a campus to complain about legislative or board interference, for it would mean that campus leadership has not confronted the threats to free speech that it has caused and could control. In short, the best way for campuses to protect academic freedom from legislative meddling is to demonstrate publicly that they have taken steps to monitor and correct internal threats to free speech by their own constituencies.