The nation’s culture wars are front and center in policies impacting our nation’s colleges and universities. While Florida’s governor is the poster child of attacks on his state’s public colleges and universities, elected leaders in more than 30 states have been attempting to undermine higher education’s core value of education autonomy.
Determining (and limiting) academic program content, terminating college and university DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) policies, limiting campus gender policies and programs, and controlling campus free speech are more about gaining political points and control than meaningfully improving higher education.
It is time for higher education leadership in Florida and across the country to defend the core values of academic freedom. Politically charged legislation, which exacerbates today’s culture wars by limiting teaching and inquiry, puts our collective future at risk. And it’s time for those who serve on the governing boards of our nation’s higher education institutions (including those who are selected and appointed by state elected leaders) to recognize that among their responsibilities is protecting the autonomy of the institutions they hold in trust.
Protecting higher education’s core values shouldn’t be a stretch for volunteer governing board members even if taking bold stands may put them at odds with those who have appointed them to their board service. Board members are selected with the expectation that they will defend their own independent judgment. A recent statement issued by the board of The Ohio State University, in response to political overreach, serves as a reminder to boards in Florida and beyond of their obligation to protect academic freedom and higher education independence from external and political intrusion.
There is something almost Orwellian in the effort of some state elected leaders to control higher education by focusing more on what shall not be taught or discussed on public institution campuses, and supporting policies that restrict rather than encourage freedom of thought. Denying access to knowledge and controversial content doesn’t make our society smarter, freer or more able to compete in a world where knowledge and curiosity are the coin of the realm.
Too many of today’s state leaders have mistakenly determined that it is good politics to determine who can learn, who can teach and more specifically what can and cannot be taught. It’s one thing to stand for election and to offer a vision for the future; it is an arrogance of power when state officeholders claim authority to reshape an education system that stands among the world’s most respected to advance personal and controlling agendas.
There remain other stakeholders whose voices might embolden institution leadership and governing boards to stand up for institution values. Alumni and institution donors, many of whom are influential community leaders, may not be comfortable with the very real changes in academic policy on the campus they remember and support. And, students — current and prospective students — might rethink their academic plans if the academic mission of their institution becomes inconsistent with what they are shopping for in their education experience.
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Additionally, faculty members, who define an institution’s values and quality, are already speaking out about protecting academic freedom, values and autonomy; attracting new outstanding faculty members could be a challenge. Perhaps the most influential voice on how effectively institution boards protect their independence in making difficult policy decisions are the accrediting agencies that periodically review institution academic programs, financial sustainability and governance effectiveness. Accrediting agencies, which control access to federal student financial assistance are not shy about institution autonomy and board independence from external influence.
History is a great teacher; it is littered with autocratic leaders who have attempted to control their citizens by controlling higher education — banning ideas that are inconsistent with their own political and personal agendas. We are at risk of history repeating itself in this country. We need to be wary of the potential consequences.
Limiting thought and learning puts democracy in the crosshairs of dissolution. Discouraging academic curiosity on our campuses comes with great risk — it compromises the core of the Constitution’s First Amendment. It needs to be aggressively countered. Are we willing to sacrifice our essential freedom of thought and curiosity?
Elected leaders who attempt to expand their authority by limiting the role of higher education are failing the citizens they’ve been hired to serve. Current and former college and university chief executives need to stand up on behalf of the central values of higher education. However, they can’t win this fight alone. Governing board members, as we’ve seen in Columbus, Ohio, need to assert their influential authority. Board service means little if our volunteers keep their collective heads down when it matters most. Board members should not stand idly by. They need to join the debate.
Richard D. Legon has served on three higher education institution governing boards. He served as the president and chief executive officer of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) from 2006-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.