Samuel Dunietz is a Senior Policy/Program Analyst in the National Education Association’s Education Policy and Implementation Center, focusing on higher education and workforce issues. His research and policy interests include equitable access to high-quality post-secondary education, student debt, faculty tenure and research protections, and post-secondary career and technical education programs.
In the United States, we have seen attacks by state legislatures on post-secondary education. What is going on?
Over the past few years, and especially in the past few months, concerted politically based attacks on academic freedom and DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) threaten to impede certain aspects of democracy and drive faculty away from post-secondary institutions. This phenomenon, however, is not unique to the United States. Authoritarian regimes around the world increasingly seek to silence academics. In the United States, these political attacks aim to weaken the collective power of unions and their ability to organize by silencing tenured faculty, cutting out academic freedom and shared governance protections.
Florida, led by its Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, is a prime example of current threats to academic freedom. With House Bill 999 and its companion Senate Bill 266, legislators have moved to change the norms and practices of academic freedom, tenure and shared governance by mandating what can and cannot be taught. Meanwhile, House Bill 1445 and its companion Senate Bill 256 target public sector unions like teachers’ unions to prohibit members from voluntary and automatic paycheck deductions for dues while also threatening decertification if unions do not meet a 60 per cent paid membership requirement.
Lawmakers want to dictate or prohibit courses of study, prioritize neoclassical education focused on Western European civilization, stop spending on DEI activities, and usurp faculty hiring, tenure and grievance processes. Arbitrators would no longer mediate contract disputes between the administration, which are political appointees, and faculty members. The administration would be able to make unilateral decisions.
How are academic unions pushing back against this political interference?
When the governing body for the State University System of Florida announced regulatory changes to the systems of tenure and shared governance, National Education Association (NEA) affiliates sprang into action. They called and emailed legislators and organized virtual press conferences and town hall meetings. They launched social media campaigns, including live streams, to strengthen the connection of members with their union. They created national petitions and asked supporters to call and email elected officials. This pressure forced the system to delay and change their regulations. Collective action works.
NEA helped file lawsuits to challenge unconstitutional bills that limit academic freedom. We collaborated with groups focused on equity initiatives and academic freedom such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on some of the lawsuits.
NEA is conducting a massive recruitment drive with the support of our affiliates and other unions. We are also switching automatic dues deductions for current members to a new union-controlled system. At the federal level, we are backing policies that ensure the economic security of academic staff and graduate students.
Why is it important to defend academic freedom?
The ability of faculty and post-secondary institutions to be free of political interference and to have the security to innovate is crucial to the discourse of democracy and necessary for a free society. Most of the academic labour force in the United States does not have the protection of tenure, which has been declining steadily while rates of adjunct or contingent faculty have been increasing. Academic freedom is a necessity that tenure protects, but union contracts can also help to enforce academic freedom. Post-secondary institutions know they cannot attract top talent and research without academic freedom.
If Texas were to pass Senate Bill 18, for example, the post-tenure review system would be next up for review, and multiple other states would follow its lead. Ideological arguments aside, attacking tenure will hurt these states eventually through brain drain. We have started to see it in Florida, with faculty preferring not to work in the state because it offers no long-term benefit for careers and research.
In Texas, lawmakers want to create a new multi-billion-dollar endowment to boost emerging research universities and national rankings. Banning diversity offices and weakening tenure would have the opposite effect and would hurt the ability of these schools to recruit so-called all-star faculty. Furthermore, accreditation boards may not enforce tenure, academic freedom or diversity rules if they conflict with state law, which could generate an immediate crisis in program degree and institutional accreditation.
What about the debate over so-called woke ideology?
Republicans have found the most political success with attacks on wokeism. Politicians often misuse and mislabel terms like wokeism or critical race theory to encompass anything related to race, gender equity, or dismantling systemic or institutionalized inequities. Anti-woke legislation would continue to chill speech as faculty try to avoid any appearance of compelling belief on various sensitive topics routinely discussed in classrooms.
Senate Bill 16 in Texas and similar bills in Florida effectively gag academics, restricting them from speaking freely about specific viewpoints or issues related to race and racism that are based on historical facts and affect the lives of Black people today. Senate Bill 17 even proposes to disband diversity programs in public universities, and there is a big concern that institutions could lose out on federal funding if that happens.