Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.
The last few years have been unsettling for many of us in higher education. For college presidents and governing board members, in particular, there is much to keep them up at night—falling enrollments, changing demographics, the shift in student interests away from the liberal arts, and the lingering effects of COVID-19 on student, staff, and faculty mental health. If that weren’t enough, the horrific Mideast events of October 7th and their aftermath are roiling many campuses as tensions increase around demonstrations and counter demonstrations.
But we also realize that two other developments are equally unsettling. The first is an erosion in public support for higher education regarding its perceived value to the nation and its citizens. An increasingly skeptical American public is seriously questioning colleges and universities’ central mission—be it educating students for our economy and democracy, undertaking research and making new discoveries, or providing services to states and communities. This decline in public support is disheartening, to say the least. And it is related to the second unsettling change—the disturbing development of unprecedented political and ideological intrusion into colleges and universities.
Public Confidence in Higher Education Is Declining
As noted in AGB’s recently updated Top Public Policy Issues Facing Governing Boards in 2023–2024, surveys conducted by Gallup and Columbia Teachers College show declining public confidence in higher education and increasing skepticism about its benefits. In the recent Gallup survey, declining confidence—measured against the findings of its surveys of 2015 and 2018—was especially evident among self-identified Republicans. The confidence among self-identified Democrats also declined, although far less (Megan Brenan, “Americans’ Confidence in Higher Education Down Sharply,” news.gallup.com, July 11, 2023).
Despite some overall positive findings regarding the public’s views of the value of higher education in the Teachers College survey, when it comes to those with differing political beliefs, self-identified conservatives were far more skeptical about higher education’s value and contributions. Only 32 percent of conservatives agreed that “public spending on higher education has been an excellent investment,” and only 31 percent agreed with the statement “higher education has contributed significantly to scientific advances that benefit society” (“An Investment that Pays Off for Society, Americans believe in higher education as a public good, a new survey finds,” Teachers College Columbia University, Teachers College Newsroom, July 14, 2023).
It has been reported that distrust has grown across the board for every major American institution, including for our military. But that should give us little comfort. As Terry Hartle, the former vice president of government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education, once astutely observed, colleges and universities are often seen as “wealthy, liberal, and elite.”
Political and Ideological Intrusion Is Rising
Much of the political and ideological intrusion we’re seeing threatens the treasured autonomy of colleges and universities to conduct their affairs and pursue public purposes with a reasonable assurance that neither government nor private interests will unjustifiably interfere. The intrusion threatens the legal and needed independence of governing boards as a pre-condition for their members to set policy and fulfill an institutional self-regulating function unfettered by undue interference. And it threatens the academic freedom necessary for faculty to teach and their students to learn, and for faculty and research scientists to conduct research free from outside interference or fear of upsetting those who might dislike what their findings may reveal. We all know that the majority of unjustifiable, undue, and outside interference (political intrusion) is coming from governors and legislators in conservative states, with Florida proudly the leader.
Many say higher education is caught in the “culture wars.” That term might apply to certain social conflicts in our society, but to me the term seems inadequate to describe what we are witnessing in the academy—in many instances, insidious and dangerous incursions into institutional autonomy—and I want to devote the next several paragraphs to the efforts to impose limits on academic freedom and constrain what happens in the classroom or into academic research. I find these efforts most disturbing.
Interference in the Exercise of Academic Freedom
The low standing in which many Americans hold higher education—most pronounced among conservatives in the Gallup and Teachers College surveys—provides political opportunity to those elected officials who promote divisiveness over unity, and divisiveness over learning, inclusiveness, and the importance of democratic values. It also gives them license to amplify accusations that faculty, especially those in the liberal arts, are indoctrinating and corrupting the minds of youth—the same charge leveled against Socrates in ancient Greece. It’s apparently unpatriotic to teach or discuss American history unsanitized—be it about our attempts to come to grips with the legacy of slavery, the failed promise of Reconstruction, or the injustice of Jim Crow laws. Apparently, it’s also dangerous to expose students to “divisive concepts” that make students uncomfortable. Sadly, race appears to be the common denominator in many of these intrusive efforts into teaching—which those of us opposed to such intrusions may see as further evidence of a regression in America’s march to racial equality, a march in which college and university faculty have often joined with those at the forefront of change.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to teach and research difficult and complicated topics regardless of how controversial they may be, and to expose students “to a broad spectrum of ideas, concepts, theories and beliefs,” as our colleague Jill Derby insightfully wrote last year in Trusteeship (Jill Derby, “Send in the Guardians,” Trusteeship, Jul–Aug 2022). Ellen Chaffee, AGB’s interim president, also recently wrote, “A law that prohibits discussing politically identified concepts undermines an institution’s ability to fulfill its mission” (Ellen-Earle Chaffee, “An Urgent Call for Leadership, United We Stand,” Trusteeship, Sept–Oct 2023).
The organization PEN America regularly documents the attacks and proposed and enacted limits on college teaching and academic freedom that are occurring in several states. PEN America calls these limits educational “gag orders.” Its reports and searing commentary and analysis are required reading (Jeremy C. Young and Jonathan Friedman, “Educational Gag Orders,” Liberal Education, AAC&U, Spring 2023). A recent national poll commissioned by the Chronicle of Higher Education and summarized in an online issue in September reports that, “Americans from both major political parties tend to oppose substantial government influence over what’s taught in college classrooms,” and that “only 37 percent of respondents say that state governments should have a great deal or a good amount of sway” (https://www.chronicle.com/article/who-should-shape-what-colleges-teach). I’m sorry. I take no comfort in that finding. I find 37 percent an alarming statistic; a percentage much too high and one that corresponds to those expressing skepticism and a loss of confidence in higher education found in the surveys by Gallup and Columbia Teachers College.
Erosion of Public Support for Faculty Tenure and Academic Freedom
Support for academic freedom is waning among conservatives. Writer Jonathan Chait made an astute observation in a recent New York magazine piece, noting, “Academic freedom is no longer the solution. It is now the problem.” That is, academic freedom is no longer seen as protection for conservative faculty whose views are often in the minority of a liberal faculty, but is now seen as a bigger threat in that it protects liberal faculty who espouse radical views and theories (Jonathan Chait, “The Republican Takeover of American Education,” New York magazine, May 8, 2023 (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/article/desantis-florida-trump-education-politics.html).
What does political and ideological intrusion mean for research faculty investigating existential topics such as COVID-19 and future pandemics or climate change, issues that have unfortunately become partisan and controversial? Where is it coming from? It isn’t just politicians in the states where academic researchers might be looking over their shoulders—as Penn State faculty member Michael Mann, a prominent climate research scientist, experienced several years ago when the Virginia attorney general threatened him with subpoenas and false charges of research fraud (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attorney_General_of_Virginia%27s_climate_science_investigation). It’s also coming from members of Congress. As reported by the Washington Post, an investigation by a Select Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee into university research centers that work diligently to uncover misinformation on the web and social media—such as efforts to discredit vaccination programs, foreign interference in our domestic affairs, lies about our elections, and other disinformation that polarizes our society—has led to intimidation, harassment, and online threats to the safety of research center faculty at Stanford and the University of Washington (Naomi Nix, Cat Zakrzewski, and Joseph Menn, “Misinformation research is buckling under GOP legal attacks,” Washington Post, September 25, 2023).
The attacks on academic freedom are often coupled with attacks to rollback or eliminate tenure, the faculty’s best protection for the exercise of academic freedom. Attacks on academic freedom are often coupled with attacks on tenure and vice versa. As reported in the updated Top Public Policy Issues Facing Governing Boards 2023–2024, despite discussion, changes to tenure by and large were not enacted in the states or in boardrooms in 2023, although there were some changes to toughen post-tenure review. However, we’ll see what 2024 holds. In any case, it is untenured, contingent, and adjunct faculty who may be particularly vulnerable. The chair of the University of Florida’s history department spoke to this when speaking about his dismay over Florida’s recent laws that intend to limit what is taught in college classrooms, and his worries that untenured faculty will fear retribution for veering into forbidden topics when teaching introductory core courses in the humanities. “Untenured and grad faculty are on the front lines,” he told the New York Times. “They’re unprotected” (Michael Sokolove, “Intro to Political Science,” The New York Times Magazine, September 10, 2023 (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/07/magazine/ben-sasse-university-florida.html).
Suggestions for What Boards Could Do to Confront or Preclude Undue Political Intrusion
What might governing boards do if facing the most difficult of situations, not only regarding academic freedom, but also institutional autonomy and board independence?
- In the face of outside interference, hold fast to sound governance principles and defend the board’s own independence—its legal authority to determine policy for the college or university, when encroachment is especially threatening. Make clear that outside input is both necessary and wise, but at the end of the day decisions are the board’s and its alone. Once surrendered, a board’s policy independence may be hard to recapture. Relatedly, ensure that all policies related to the authority of the board and its fiduciary responsibilities are clear, consistent, and free of ambiguity vis-a-vis state law or regulation, state constitution, or charter.
- Even when one’s institution is not facing issues of political intrusion, voice your support (or have the president do so) for those that are—whether or not they are institutions within your own state, and regardless of whether they are public or private. On a national level, accept that you are guardians for higher education as a whole and that your voice for all colleges and universities on this issue is critically important.
- Remain committed to and defend academic freedom, not just in the abstract, but when individual faculty come under attack, the curriculum is under threat of being undermined, or when academic research programs are attacked. This should apply equally to adjunct or contingent faculty. Seek good rapport with the faculty; be united and supportive on issues of academic freedom and intrusion.
- It’s incumbent on the board and academic administrators to ensure an up-to-date faculty handbook and consistency among department policies and practices to preclude problems, misunderstandings, or unwarranted attacks on faculty, particularly when it comes to funded grants and contracts, outside consulting, or when faculty exercise their right to act or speak outside the confines of the university. This may be more of an issue in larger universities, where academic departments can be somewhat autonomous and self-governing.
- Reaffirm the board’s and institution’s commitment to campus free speech and civil discourse, while being clear about speech that crosses a line to harassment or incitement of violence. Insist that students and all members of the campus community understand and support free speech, in and outside the classroom, and at events with guest speakers. Insist that student orientation programs for all new students cover issues of free speech and civil discourse. As we are finding, free speech protections are especially challenging, given recent pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrations amid national and social media coverage. (Congressional Republicans spoke openly during recent House hearings of penalizing colleges and universities if their leaders do not take action to contain recent violent rhetoric or intimidation, particularly against Jewish students.) Longer term, a curriculum that embraces civic education could help educate students, and reinforce to them, the importance of free speech and civil discourse.
- Strongly consider civic education and civic participation as a major component of the undergraduate curriculum. Indeed, many colleges and universities are moving in this direction, realizing they have to do a better job of preparing graduates to understand the basics of our democratic form of government and to become responsible and active participants in it. If outside funding is sought for civic education projects, ensure that the funders—be they legislators or private donors—will not interfere with the faculty or the curriculum. Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, gives an impassioned plea for civic education in his excellent book, What Higher Education Owes Democracy, and Jonathan Alger, president of James Madison University, provided Trusteeship readers with fine examples of civic education and civic participation at JMU (Jonathan R. Alger, “Focus on the Presidency: How Presidents and Boards Can Work Together to Advance Civil Education,” Trusteeship, Mar-Apr, 2022).
- Public board members have a foot in two camps, one in the university (or university system) and one in the state. Even though they are fiduciaries of the university, they have significant responsibilities to the citizens of the state for addressing state economic and social needs consistent with the institution or system’s mission and for ensuring accountability for the expenditure of public dollars.
- If the board’s culture is at risk of being radically changed when able/responsible members are about to rotate off the board, seek viable strategies by which current members, ideally the board’s leaders, can have input into the board-selection process. This can happen informally with governors, appointment secretaries, and members of the legislature. Ensure that new-member orientation covers the many benefits the university or system has historically provided and continues to provide to all its stakeholders, as well as the importance of institutional autonomy, board independence and fiduciary responsibilities, and academic freedom and free speech.
When this unsettling and challenging period we are now witnessing passes, it will not be too soon. Until then, it is incumbent on governing boards to be proactive advocates for the necessity of institutional autonomy, the preservation of boards’ independent authority, and the protection of academic freedom. To not do so risks opening the door to more opportunistic efforts to erode the fundamental hallmarks of American higher education.
Richard Novak is an AGB senior fellow and an AGB senior consultant. During his 21-year career on the AGB staff, he served as the senior vice president for programs and research and of the Ingram Center for Public Trusteeship and Governance.