United We Stand

An Urgent Call for Leadership

By Ellen-Earle Chaffee    //    Volume 31,  Number 5   //    September/October 2023

  • Freedom of expression, freedom of inquiry, and institutional independence make American higher education possible. Freedom, in turn, depends on a healthy democracy.
  • Political and ideological intrusions on higher education are destroying students’ freedom to learn by mandating censorship and instilling fear. Political control of educational freedom opens the door to indoctrination and authoritarianism.
  • By taking decisive, courageous action now, governing boards and their presidents could create the tipping point that stems the tide of intrusions, preserves educational freedom, and strengthens democracy.

Higher education in a democracy helps people explore information and ideas, debate, create, think for themselves, and apply their learning to benefit themselves and society. But political leaders in multiple states are aiming instead to teach people what to think—depriving them of information and ideas that most people believe are worth thinking about. The intruders are well-funded and gaining steam.

These new political and ideological intrusions warrant, but are not receiving, a proportionate response. This is in part because it is still unclear how to define, assess, or effectively handle the intrusions and likely in part because the potential for backlash is daunting. The hardest-hit institutions are public, where freely discussing sensitive matters while subject to open meetings and open records laws risks miscommunication and personal or institutional retaliation. But this much is clear: As the ultimate authority for a university or college, the governing board has the opportunity and responsibility to provide policy leadership in the best interests of the institution.

Moreover, responding to the ideological and political intrusions that are mounting against freedom in higher education and democracy is a high-stakes opportunity to impact the outcome of history. Boards and executive leaders have options: They can choose among many ways to affirm educational freedom, support democracy, and secure independent institutional governance. Courageous leadership by governing boards and presidents, together with collective energy from all who believe in uncensored education and independent governance, could stop the intrusions before the trend becomes insurmountable.

Freedom Is the Heart of the Matter

American higher education institutions were established in the cradle of New World democracy. Their leaders deliberately separated the governance of churches, schools, and civil government. In authoritarian countries, education is directed by the government in line with the ideological wishes of those who have political power.

Americans also created a new model of fiduciary citizen trusteeship for higher education to secure freedom of inquiry and expression based on expertise, facts, and reasoning rather than ideologies or politics. Subject-matter experts in this country determine the learning experiences of students, free of administrative or governmental control. Higher education depends on academic freedom and independent governing boards.

The current challenge before board members and leaders is to safeguard independence and academic freedom by stopping attempts to control academic institutions for political, ideological, and self-interested purposes.

Damaging New Intrusions on Freedom

Postsecondary institutions have long been subject to the expectations of federal, state, and accreditation authorities who have legitimate public purposes. These accountability, quality, and compliance requirements represent established public policy, not ideology. They focus on standards, processes, and outcomes, but not the academic and managerial decisions that determine how the institution complies with them.

What’s happening now is very different.

In the first few months of 2023, PEN America, the nonprofit organization to protect free expression, identified 25 bills challenging academic freedom in 15 state legislatures, and the Chronicle of Higher Education counted 37 bills to limit diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in 21 states. In Ohio, a single bill still under consideration presents six mandates on DEI, twelve on teaching divisive concepts, three on intellectual diversity, six on China, and others on mission statements, equal opportunity, strikes, post-tenure faculty reviews, faculty workloads, course syllabi, and graduation requirements. With the 2024 election campaign season getting underway, candidates who support such bills are making it clear that they have only just begun.

How soon might the university you govern or lead and the college your family member attends be the scene of episodes like these?

  • A student contends that finishing a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border would solve the immigration crisis. The professor would have to say, “It is illegal to discuss that here. That’s too controversial.”
  • A program with students discussing their cultures and inter-group relationships would have to be held off campus. Faculty and staff members may not risk attending.
  • Sociology professors might delete race from their syllabi, political science professors might delete contentious foreign policy issues, and history professors might resign rather than subvert or delete the post-Mayflower history of Native Americans, slavery, and the Holocaust.
  • Institutional policy might not allow a faculty member to appeal an adverse decision to a higher authority.

Scenarios like these are potential outcomes of the current intrusions. If political officials are free to dictate curriculum, personnel policy, extracurricular opportunities, and other managerial functions, governing boards are superfluous. Politics, opinion, beliefs, short-term thinking, and inexperience would take over from hard-won expertise, long-term vision, and thoughtful fiduciary leadership.

The most pernicious ideological or political intrusions to date fall into four general categories.

1. They prevent a college or university from fulfilling its mission.
Colleges and universities are for exploring oneself, others, and the world; for discovering new interests; and for coming to terms with being wrong or misguided sometimes. Where else can you ask any question, express any belief, challenge an expert, or see your convictions in a new light?

Paying tuition is like buying a ticket to access professors’ expertise and skills, even if students may not see it that way. The core operational function of colleges and universities as institutions is to provide such access for instruction, research, and service. Censoring or directing academic content for ideological or political purposes destroys the value of the ticket and decommissions the institution.

Ideological or political intrusions prevent students from expanding their minds and skills through informed discussion and debate. Professors avoid controversy, and students do not have access to information or opportunities to disagree. Colleges and universities are not allowed to do what they were created to do.

2. They prevent institutional governing boards from doing their fiduciary duty.
Accreditors require every higher education institution to be independent, with an independent governing board whose members are fiduciaries. As fiduciaries, members are to hold the university or college in trust on behalf of society. The board is expected to oversee and govern all aspects of the institution in pursuit of its best interests. As fiduciaries, trustees must care for the institution and prioritize its well-being over personal interests, loyalty to others, or undue influence. In addition, they must adhere to the institution’s founding documents and the law. The board hires, evaluates, and supervises the president, who also acts as a fiduciary.

Ideological or political intrusions that prevent or discourage governing boards and presidents from doing their job include co-opting the decision to select or dismiss a president, limiting access to educational materials, requiring the use of government-selected educational materials, prescribing how people may or may not interact with each other, prohibiting discussion of controversial topics, and tampering with personnel policies.

In many cases, the new intrusions also violate the governing board’s authority. Although board authority varies among institutions, the assumption here is that the board’s legal authority matches its prescribed duties. Every board must ensure that it has the necessary authority to fulfill its duties and challenge any external attempts to impose decisions that fall within its legal jurisdiction.

Governing boards face a dilemma when unacceptable requirements are imposed through laws. Obedience to the law is a fiduciary duty, but it can conflict with the duties of care and loyalty to the institution. For example, a law that prohibits discussing politically identified concepts undermines an institution’s ability to fulfill its mission. Is there a way for the board to exercise its legal authority and its fiduciary duties of care and loyalty without breaking the law? This and many other knotty questions await the board’s attention, ideally before they arise for their institution.

3. They use higher education institutions for inappropriate or contrary purposes without regard for the institutional consequences.
Intrusions that harm an institution for self-interested or ideological purposes are not entirely new, but they are becoming more blatant, numerous, and destructive. For some, criticizing and exerting control over higher education is primarily a political strategy. For others, it may reflect an anti-democracy ideology or a culture of misinformation. The intrusions come from individuals who have no knowledge of or concern for how colleges and universities operate, making them particularly damaging. Their goal is not to improve higher education, but to control minds, exert power, and gain political advantage.

4. They undermine colleges and universities by making false allegations about them.
Unfounded claims about colleges and universities allege that professors impose their ideas on students. These claims are false. Professors encourage critical thinking, discussion, questioning, and explanation to improve learning. Their job descriptions, performance evaluations, and institutional policies clearly outline these expectations and ensure accountability. In contrast, the goal of external intrusions is not to improve learning, but to undermine and control educational institutions.

In summary, the present wave of ideological or political activism is in a class by itself. If left unchecked, it will undermine the freedoms that American higher education requires and the freedoms that define democracy in America. Moreover, it diverts valuable time, attention, and financial resources away from addressing students’ educational needs and meeting society’s expectations.

Potential Tipping Point for Freedom

The roots of this attack on higher education are deep, as are the pockets of its supporters. Neither higher education nor democracy is at its peak strength today. Although legislators rejected many of the 2023 proposals, the numbers, positions, networks, and resources of people who promote them are staggering. They will undoubtedly return.

However, many quiet Americans are ready for positive change. This is not how citizens do business. These efforts to destroy freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry do not reflect the values and hopes of most Americans. With leadership, partnership, and courage, perhaps history will record that the anti-freedom movement spurred a unifying challenge that changed the course of history.

The State of Democracy. The best safeguard for freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry in colleges and universities is a healthy democracy. American democracy, however, has been on a steep decline for over a decade.

The U.S. government’s international standing on three democracy-related indicators has fallen considerably. Our rank on democracy dropped from number 26 to number 30 in a single year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, which downgraded the United States to “flawed democracy” status. According to Transparency International, which ranks nations on a corruption perception index based on input from experts and businesspeople, the United States scored number 24 on perceived corruption, down five more countries since 2015. And according to the Freedom Index, the United States is less free than 72 other nations.

The State of Higher Education. In recent years, the public image of college has shifted from learning as an intrinsically worthy investment to a transactional commodity. Public attention and policy have increasingly spotlighted the importance of economic impact, cost, and measurable outcomes of higher education while losing interest in the social sciences, humanities, personal growth, and societal outcomes. Trust and confidence in higher education are low, weakening the sector’s ability to reclaim its position without strong leadership from its allies and champions.

The tide of ideological or political intrusion on higher education could prompt a tipping point for higher education and the country.

The Opportunity. All higher education governing boards and presidents have an opportunity to help restore reason, truth, and America’s democratic republic by defending against intrusion and working for institutional independence, academic freedom, and democracy. Sooner or later, these intrusions could threaten the foundation of every college and university. A common threat can be a common bond that inspires energetic local, regional, and national response, supported by most Americans in every sector who share the values that are in jeopardy.

Consequential Leadership for Freedom

While private and elite institutions may feel safe for the time being, some public institutions are already dealing with threats and many others, both public and private, can see it coming. Besides, no educational institution is safe; if early encroachments succeed, restricting educational freedom will gain traction, expand, and become normalized. Freedom of expression and inquiry will be lost, as well as independent fiduciary governance.

Given the extensive resources and momentum behind ideological and political intrusion, preventing disaster requires all hands on deck. The odds of success increase if those with immediate threats respond effectively and others support their efforts. Extensive networking, coordination, strategic initiatives, and mutual assistance across higher education and with other stakeholders and threatened sectors are required.

Identifying and Dealing with Intrusion. Intrusion involves an expectation for change that is difficult or impossible to resist even though its legitimacy is questionable. New state laws or other actions that invoke trustees’ fiduciary duty of obedience are the focus here, but they are not the only source of intrusion. A wealthy donor might offer to fund endowed professorships that focus on a school of thought already over-represented at the university, or a powerful legislator might demand the firing of a chancellor.

Intrusion also involves disharmony with the best interests of the institution. Healthy governing boards interact routinely with constituents who bring proposals to them, typically with good intentions. To determine whether they are facing an ideological or political intrusion, executives and board members can ask themselves questions such as the following:

  • Does this proposal or requirement interfere with the institution’s ability to carry out its stated mission?
  • Does it violate or compromise the governing board’s authority? Does it infringe on institutional autonomy?
  • Does it limit academic or educational freedom, including opportunities to freely study, research, and express diverse ideas?
  • Does it threaten or violate American Constitutional freedoms?
  • Does it threaten the institution’s ability to maintain and improve success for all students?
  • Does it violate accreditation requirements?
  • Does it impose financial, reputational, or other burdens?

Preventive and nonconfrontational options such as education, evasion, and negotiation can be effective even for serious threats. However, board members should also be aware of more forceful options, including outright noncompliance, injunction, or lawsuit. They need to think about what lines, if crossed, would justify invoking an escalating series of opposing actions. Under what conditions would the board seek an injunction? Is suing an intruding entity ever warranted? Although it may be difficult to consider such adverse actions, some ideas currently being discussed publicly pose a mortal threat to an institution’s existence. Fiduciary trustees can fight hard, close it, or let it suffer away.

Operationally, a governing board and president should prepare in the following ways:

  • Clearly understand the extent of the board’s duties and authority and that of other entities that can advance or harm the institution, such as the legislature, governor, sponsoring church, or foundation board. Clarifying roles, duties, and authority, as well as establishing agreements on dispute resolution processes, can help prevent or resolve intrusion issues.
  • Foster a strong and candid relationship between the board and the president, with explicit agreements on roles and expectations in the event of ideological or political intrusion. Plan ways to help maintain mutual understanding and agreement.
  • Develop contingency plans such as a small task force with a clearly defined, board-approved charge and carefully selected members. A robust internal and external communication plan should be in place, and tabletop exercises can be conducted to practice response strategies.
  • Stay informed about relevant incidents elsewhere and maintain connections with state, regional, and national sources of information, support, and inspiration.

Furthermore, governing boards of public institutions with sunshine laws should address the fact that thoughtful and candid discussions almost always lead to better decisions than votes based on undisclosed, untested, and less-informed opinions. The risk of being candid in engaged public discussion is often far less than the risk of failing to halt a threatening intrusion.

Rebuilding Trust and Democracy. Leaders of all colleges and universities—even if they are not currently threatened by intrusions—have important, mission-related roles to play in securing educational freedom, independent governance, and democracy. The country needs that leadership: it can help bridge and heal divides, it is essential for mission-fulfillment in higher education, and its foreseeable loss warrants giving it first-tier status on institutional agendas.

It is concerning that one-fourth of American adults cannot name any of the five freedoms in the First Amendment, and less than half can name all three branches of government. Initiatives aimed at filling the gap in civics and government knowledge can help individuals understand that politics goes beyond partisanship and enable them to find their roles in a democratic republic with or without a party affiliation. Democracy provides educational freedom; educational institutions must provide democracy with competent, engaged citizens.

Governing board members could expand their relationships with community and state leaders. For example, the board could sponsor a public symposium series featuring thought leaders on higher education governance, academic freedom, and the democracy movement. Mobilizing alumni and donors to build trust and protect their institution from intruders could be powerful. Elite private universities and colleges, being relatively safe from threats, have a significant opportunity to leverage their national stature and networks by publicly expressing their views and participating in collective efforts to ensure institutional independence and academic freedom.

Institutional leadership provides the essential grass roots for new initiatives. But to achieve a tipping point for success, higher education institutions and beyond should collaborate to share agendas and provide mutual support. Numerous national associations are already developing initiatives to support independent governance and academic freedom. Their work could provide essential networking, coordination, strategic initiatives, and mutual assistance among institutions and with other threatened sectors.

Partnership opportunities include libraries and schools, which have also experienced intrusions. For instance, an expanding network is promoting book-banning in libraries. A well-funded national nonprofit is supporting candidates who espouse anti-democracy ideologies in public school-board elections nationwide. They have even emphasized their purpose with a quote from Hitler: “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” This is nothing less than a battle for the minds of Americans.

Lastly, some people hold the perception that colleges and universities resist necessary change, leading to external imposition of change. That position does not apply to ideological or political mandates for change. These harmful intrusions are not the changes that colleges and universities should be making to enhance their societal value. Universities and colleges acknowledge the need for continuous improvement and strive to achieve it. Board members and executive leaders possess the knowledge, constructive mindset, and authority to drive change. If an institution requires change, and they all do, the governing board and president are the ones who should lead it.

United for Freedom

Standing up for freedom in higher education and standing up to those who seek to end it takes courage. Voting to protect the institution from harmful intrusion could result in the loss of funds, friends, political allies, or business associates. Governing board members need to deal with any misgivings they may have. Those who do not believe that their fiduciary duty is to advance the best interests of the institution over all else need to come to terms with their misunderstanding. Those who cannot risk potential personal consequences need to protect themselves without voting against the institution’s best interests.

Higher education and democracy owe a great debt to citizen trustees, all of them generous volunteers, who work hard to understand and fulfill their role. Thank you. We need even more from you now, and if that does not work for you, just say so and step aside—we understand. But the gravity of these challenges requires leaders who can work with each other to create a unified position and strategy that will keep independent governance in the hands of fiduciary citizen trustees and academic freedom throughout the institution. How you proceed now, individually and collectively, matters more than ever.

July 4, 2026, is America’s semiquincentennial. How will your college or university contribute to the joy of the occasion by ensuring institutional independence, academic freedom, and a stronger democracy?

Ellen-Earle Chaffee, Ph.D., was president of Valley City State University and served nine years simultaneously as president of Mayville State University. She then spent a term as president in residence at Harvard University. Earlier, she served as academic vice-chancellor for the North Dakota University System and director of organizational studies at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. She was president of the Association for Institutional Research and the Association for the Study of Higher Education, as well as the public member of the American Council on Pharmaceutical Education. She is a past member of Des Moines University’s board of trustees and served as board member and chair of a major health care system. Dr. Chaffee earned her masters degree and Ph.D. from Stanford University.

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