From the President: Rising to the Challenge of Our Time

By Irene Mulvey

Our profession remains under very serious threat. Over the last couple of years, attacks on the academy from state legislatures and governors’ mansions have been relentless. All indications are that these attacks will continue into the new academic year and beyond. Higher education’s essential role as a public good in our democracy is being undermined, and our profession is teetering on the edge of a cliff.

Academic freedom has always been vulnerable to attack, and the faculty’s vigilance in protecting it must be resolute and unwavering. The AAUP’s history is replete with cases in which people with power and influence have attempted to silence faculty members. The lengths to which some individuals have gone to restrict the exercise of academic freedom is a testament to its power. For the most part, we can be proud of the AAUP’s work protecting academic freedom and our profession, but we would be remiss not to admit that there have been times when our responses have been dreadfully deficient. At this moment, the history of how we respond to today’s threats is being written—by us. It is essential that we meet the challenge.

In the past, attacks on academic freedom primarily targeted individual professors. Current attacks have broader targets: recent state legislation has sought to censor course content by imposing educational gag orders; abolish diversity, equity, and inclusion offices; weaken or abolish tenure; and undermine shared governance. This battle against higher education is a part of the larger war on all public institutions and on the vibrant civil society necessary to a well-functioning democracy. Although faculty have often been falsely accused of “indoctrination” over the years, today’s educational gag orders represent literal indoctrination: students can learn only the “truth” allowed by the state. By singling out content involving race, racism, gender, and sexuality, such legislation will curb research into these important areas and make careers for faculty in these fields much more difficult. Bills that attack tenure, meanwhile, are intended to intimidate faculty into silence. They will result in more cautious research projects, as well as anodyne readings and watered-down discussions in less challenging courses.

The magnitude of this new attack through state-level legislation is illustrated by the index updated monthly by PEN America, which includes bills that target K–12 as well as higher education. Since January 2021, more than three hundred anti-education bills have been introduced in at least forty-five states. Most have not become law, but we can be certain that the legislative attacks will continue.

The AAUP has fought back in some places, and we’ve had successes. In Ohio, Senate Bill 83 was beaten back, at least temporarily, in no small measure because of the many AAUP members who testified at legislative proceedings, wrote op-eds, made calls, and stood in solidarity during long hearings at the statehouse. I testified against draconian bills in both Florida and Texas. I spent many hours with other faculty members waiting to be called to provide timed two-minute testimony. Colleagues were sitting on the floor working on their laptops and taking Zoom meetings in the statehouse. We drank a lot of coffee, we stood together, and we made a difference. Although the bills passed in Florida are terrible, they are somewhat better than the bills first introduced, and tenure survives in Texas. I’m certain that the politicians would not admit this in public, but faculty arguments about the damage these bills would do to education in their states, and about the devastating effect these bills would have on the recruitment and retention of excellent faculty, made an impression, and—behind closed doors—some of the worst elements of the bills were removed.

Now, hear and heed this call to action! We must build our movement and fight back harder through our chapters and our state conferences, with the state federations of the American Federation of Teachers, and with like-minded coalition partners. Fighting back is hard work, and it will require a long-term commitment to grassroots organizing at the chapter, institution, and state level guided by AAUP resources, toolkits, and initiatives. We are fighting back against a well-funded, well-organized attack on higher education and other public institutions that has been decades in the making. I know we can rise to the challenge, but it will take all of us working together to defeat this campaign against higher education. We have no choice. Our ability to train our students in independent thinking and critical analysis, our ability to challenge authority and work free of fear, and our very democracy are in jeopardy. Our efforts are essential in their defense.