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Holding the Line against Attacks on Critical Race Theory in Nebraska

How academic freedom trumped politics.
By William Avilés

On June 25, 2021, Jim Pillen, a member of the University of Nebraska’s board of regents, summarized his views on critical race theory (CRT), stating, “I’m not supportive of teaching of theories or ideologies that are divisive, that are anti-American. . . . I oppose our kids being indoctrinated with radical theories.” Pillen is not only a regent; he is also currently a candidate seeking the Republican nomination to compete in the 2022 general election for governor. His misleading sound bite did not, however, convey sufficiently strong opposition to CRT for conservative groups like the Nebraska Freedom Coalition and the Nebraska Federation of Republican Women or for his Republican rival in the primary race, all of whom demanded that Pillen condemn CRT as a regent.

This political maneuvering played out within a larger political context in which the University of Nebraska became a target of the Republican Party’s latest cultural war—the nationwide effort to ban the teaching of CRT. Since early 2021, Republicans in two dozen states have proposed bills to undermine educational lessons about race, racism, and systematic oppression in the United States. Some Republican legislators have sought specifically to ban the classroom assignment of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, a series of essays exploring the role and influence of race and discrimination throughout US history, while others have called for more “patriotic education.” The attack on lessons and curricula examining the history and ongoing influence of racism in American society represents, in part, the Right’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation and the world in 2020. The politicization of CRT also reflects the Right’s hostility toward workplace trainings designed to mitigate racist behaviors within various institutions. Last summer’s struggle over CRT at the University of Nebraska was thus just one battle in a war that is taking place in school boards, university governing bodies, and state legislatures across the nation.  

The Anti-CRT Resolution in Nebraska

In view of this national political context, it was no surprise that a member of the board of regents running for the Republican nomination for governor in the deep-red state of Nebraska would be pressured to use his position on the board to advance the anti-CRT agenda. Unfortunately, Pillen quickly succumbed to this pressure.

On July 8, Pillen publicly vowed not only to oppose CRT as a candidate but also to oppose it in his capacity as a regent by introducing an anti-CRT resolution at the board’s August 13 meeting. His resolution sought to prohibit the “imposition” of CRT throughout the University of Nebraska system. It read, in part:

WHEREAS, we oppose discrimination in any form in the classroom, on campus, and in our communities, and we support the safety and wellbeing of all students, faculty, and staff; and
WHEREAS, Critical Race Theory does not promote inclusive and honest dialogue and education on campus; and
WHEREAS, Critical Race Theory seeks to silence opposing views and disparage important American ideals.
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, that the Regents of the University of Nebraska oppose Critical Race Theory being imposed in curriculum, training, and programming.

Pillen’s introduction of this resolution galvanized a wide cross-section of university constituents into condemning it and demanding that the board vote it down. In the lead-up to the August meeting, petitions against the resolution were disseminated across the university system. The chancellors of each of the University of Nebraska campuses—Lincoln, Omaha, Kearny, and Medical Center—as well as the system president released a joint statement opposing the resolution, while students, faculty members, and administrators attended the board meeting to testify against the resolution during the public comment period. Speakers pointed to the intolerant message that passing such a resolution would send to the public, the alienating effect it would have on students and university employees of color, and the self-censorship it would instill among professors. Several speakers stressed the fundamental importance, in the context of the ongoing Black Lives Matters struggle, of learning about the history and deep institutional roots of racism within the United States. As a member of the AAUP and as president of the University of Nebraska at Kearney Education Association (a faculty union local affiliated with the National Education Association), I joined these members of the university community in voicing opposition to Pillen’s resolution.

Reasons for Rejecting the Resolution

The opponents of the resolution argued, first, that it offered a “solution” to a nonexistent problem; second, that it failed to understand how the university actually operated; and, third, that it posed a substantive threat to the academic freedom and free-speech rights of faculty members across the University of Nebraska system.

A nonexistent problem. Legal scholars developed CRT four decades ago as an academic framework for examining how racism is embedded in American laws and institutions, and many of the ideas associated with this framework have been discussed in academic circles for a century. Yet supporters of Pillen’s resolution (who included Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts) argued that CRT became an existential threat only in 2020 and 2021. Neither Pillen nor his allies explained why they suddenly deemed CRT a threat, nor did they present any evidence of instances in which CRT was being “imposed” or attempt to illustrate the “problem” that the resolution purportedly addressed. There is little doubt that Pillen introduced the resolution in response to political pressures, to protect himself from being attacked from his right by other candidates (and by Governor Ricketts), who falsely claimed that CRT represented a threat.

Misunderstanding of higher education. In claiming that CRT could be “imposed” on students, the resolution was willfully misleading about how university education works and disrespected the independent thinking and analytical abilities of the students who attend our classes. As readers of Academe understand, students enjoy a range of choices not only regarding their majors and minors but also regarding the classes that they take to complete those majors or minors. The students at our various institutions of higher education are more than capable of learning about controversial or difficult subjects, analyzing and criticizing these ideas, and deciding whether the evidence supports a given theory. Right-wing promoters of anti-CRT measures in Nebraska and around the country portray students as empty vessels receiving information without recognizing that they are regularly encouraged to question and weigh ideas presented in assigned readings and discussed by professors. Students deserve more credit and respect than resolutions like Pillen’s give them. 

A threat to academic freedom. Opponents of the resolution also called for its rejection because of its direct and substantive threat to the academic freedom and free-speech rights of faculty members. Pillen and his allies on the board of regents asserted that academic freedom was not threatened by the resolution, but their claim was simply false. Obviously, ensuring that CRT was not being “imposed” in a specific classroom would require determining what counts as CRT and defining what this “imposition” looks like. The resolution offered no details regarding how the board of regents would review the hundreds upon hundreds of courses offered every semester across our system. At minimum, the resolution would have required periodically reviewing course syllabi (and, perhaps, conducting surprise checks) and establishing a systemwide infrastructure to monitor, censor, and exclude specific classes and materials determined by the board to represent an “imposition of CRT.” Such interference with teaching and the curriculum would clearly undermine academic freedom and violate normative standards of faculty governance, which recognize the faculty’s primary authority for curricular matters. It would also disregard the expertise and training of faculty members whose teaching, research, and service are already subject to periodic review by their departments, colleges, and campus administrations.

One Victory in an Ongoing Struggle

After hours of public comment, the regents voted five to three against the resolution, handing a defeat to Pillen and Ricketts. Several of the regents who voted with the majority expressed their trust in the system president, campus leaders, and the faculty. In addition, regents who voted with the majority cited the need to protect academic freedom and the need to be sensitive to the concerns of students of color as reasons for opposing the resolution. Such an outcome, in a state as conservative as Nebraska, represents an important victory, and our strategy may offer lessons for those seeking to turn back these threats against academic freedom and the teaching of race elsewhere.

However, this struggle will continue in Nebraska and nationally. After the board of regents vote, Pillen said, “I’m disappointed in today’s outcome, but this fight is not over. . . . I will continue to oppose critical race theory being imposed on students in higher education, and it will be a priority to ban it from Nebraska’s K‒12 schools as governor.” In fact, his failed resolution figures prominently on the “issues” page of his campaign website, where Pillen reiterates his opposition to CRT at the University of Nebraska. Governor Ricketts also pledged to continue his effort to ban the teaching of CRT at the University of Nebraska. However, since the August 13 vote, Ricketts and Pillen have made little public effort to renew their attempt to ban CRT from the university, nor is it clear how they could accomplish this goal. More likely than not, Pillen achieved what he sought politically. He can now campaign on the idea that he tried to block CRT as a regent, defusing attacks from his right on the issue.  

For the time being, administrators, faculty members, and students at the University of Nebraska have successfully held the line against the latest salvo in a Republican-manufactured cultural war. But none of the defenders of academic freedom and free speech in Nebraska or nationally should rest easy. As long as the struggle for racial justice continues, right-wing policy makers and think tanks will continue to advance their efforts to censor critical discussions of the current and historical impact of race on our society and its institutions.

William Avilés is professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and president of the University of Nebraska of Kearney Education Association. He is also an at-large member of the AAUP.

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