Statement on Political Interference in Higher Education

Published January 2024.

The following statement was approved for online publication by the Association’s Committee on College and University Governance.

Political interference in US higher education has reached an alarming level. In a number of states, including Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, Republican majorities in the legislature, alongside Republican governors, have made explicit their intention to reshape colleges and universities. They have passed bills seeking to marginalize, and even criminalize, teaching and research on issues of race and gender. In doing so, they subvert the possibility that, as a site of free inquiry, the university can serve the common good. Instead, these efforts seek to compel institutions of higher education to reinforce racist and white-supremacist interests. This statement is designed to help AAUP chapters, state AAUP conferences, and faculty governance bodies to fight back against political intervention, safeguard freedom of inquiry in research and teaching, and promote racial justice in higher education.

Trends in Political Interference

Since the Trump administration’s executive order on so-called divisive concepts was released in September 2020, at least ninety-nine bills representing direct political interference in higher education have been introduced in more than thirty state legislatures. The joint report recently issued by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the AAUP, “The Right-Wing Attacks on Higher Education: An Analysis of the State Legislative Landscape,” identifies four trends in these bills: restricting academic freedom by limiting teaching about race, gender, and sexuality (“divisive-concepts” bills); requiring intellectual and viewpoint diversity statements and surveys; cutting funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts; and weakening faculty rights by eliminating tenure and placing restrictions on collective bargaining.1 In addition, some politicians have publicly questioned the legitimacy of higher education accrediting agencies, challenges that appear to be based on these agencies’ capacity to serve as a check on political interference in the operations of colleges and universities.

Restricting Academic Freedom in the Classroom

American institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good. Elected officials threaten the very purpose of colleges and universities when they place ideological constraints on what can be taught and studied on campus. Public policy must protect faculty members’ academic freedom to teach, conduct and publish research, and express themselves as citizens, free from institutional censorship or discipline. These rights are set forth in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP’s most fundamental policy document; when they are disregarded, the common good, which “depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition,” inevitably suffers.

  • Numerous state legislatures have attempted to ban the “promotion” of certain vaguely defined “divisive concepts.” A North Dakota bill (SB 2247) enacted in 2023, for example, prohibits “training” in divisive concepts, defining “training” to include “instruction.” Other legislation, such as Florida’s 2021 “Viewpoint Diversity Act” (HB 233), empowers students to monitor classrooms by recording professors’ alleged violations of the act, creating a chilling effect on faculty and student speech. Ohio’s SB 83, which has passed the state senate, allows classroom debate about “divisive concepts,” but only “so long as the faculty members remain committed to expressing intellectual diversity.”
  • A number of states have passed academic gag orders, including South Dakota (HB 1012), Mississippi (SB 2133), and Tennessee (HB 2670). Florida’s 2022 “Stop WOKE” Act (HB 7), for example, prohibits faculty members at public colleges and universities from engaging in “instruction” that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels . . . student[s] or employee[s] to believe” eight so-called divisive concepts. These bills use language drawn directly from Trump’s 2020 executive order, propagated as model legislation by right-wing think tanks. Such academic gag orders ban classroom discussions of how America’s racist past continues to shape the present, how racist assumptions undergird notions of “meritocracy,” and any other ideas that might cause a student, as the “Stop WOKE” Act states, to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress due to the sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin attributed to them.”
  • Prior to the vote on Mississippi’s academic gag order (SB 2133), every Black legislator walked out in protest of the bill, which was supported by an all-white Republican majority. When Governor Tate Reeves announced the bill signing, he stated that the teaching of critical race theory “threatens the integrity of our kids’ education and aims only to humiliate and indoctrinate.”
  • Florida’s SB 266, signed into law in 2023, doubles down on the “Stop WOKE” Act by further restricting the content of general education courses at public colleges and universities. The law stipulates that “core courses may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, violates [HB 7’s provisions on divisive concepts], or is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequalities.”

Compelling "Viewpoint Diversity" While Attacking DEI Initiatives

Gag orders targeting the teaching of critical race theory and other “divisive concepts” are part of a larger effort to decry “diversity” when applied to matters of race and gender. However, state legislatures have embraced the notion of “viewpoint diversity” by accepting the argument that conservatives are underrepresented on the faculty and that left-wing faculty members are indoctrinating students. These ideas are based on the false premise that a faculty member’s political affiliation determines how that faculty member teaches. Presumably, hiring more conservative faculty members to indoctrinate students will serve as a counterbalance to alleged liberal indoctrination. The AAUP has debunked these presumptions, most notably in Freedom in the Classroom, a 2007 report of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

  • In their efforts to promote “viewpoint diversity,” political appointees to system-level and institutional governing boards have targeted academic centers. In 2015 the University of North Carolina system’s board of governors closed policy centers working on biodiversity, civic engagement and social change, and poverty, and in 2017 the board prohibited faculty members in UNC–Chapel Hill Law School’s Center for Civil Rights from participating in litigation.2 In 2023 the board of trustees of UNC–Chapel Hill created the School of Civic Life and Leadership, which, according to the board chair, is “an effort to try to remedy” an alleged lack of “right-of-center views” on campus.
  • Arguably the most blatant example of a politician using an institution’s governing board to advance an ideological agenda is the “hostile takeover” of New College of Florida early in 2023. Governor Ron DeSantis appointed to New College’s board of trustees a slate of six highly partisan trustees, including Christopher Rufo, who was responsible for weaponizing the teaching of critical race theory in his public attacks on higher education. The swift recomposition of the New College board, as well as the closure and creation of academic centers in North Carolina, were undertaken without meaningful faculty consultation.
  • Florida’s SB 266 also prohibits institutional funding for DEI initiatives, notwithstanding the Florida board of governors’ having authorized in 2020 the creation of DEI programs. SB 17, passed by the Texas legislature in 2023, bans DEI offices beginning in 2024. At least eighteen other state legislatures are seeking to eliminate or defund DEI programs.

Weakening Faculty Power and the Accreditation System

Authoritarians across the globe have been working to eliminate democratic procedures designed to limit the concentration of political power. To achieve the racist goals described above, state legislatures have introduced measures that would reduce the power of the faculty to serve as an internal check on politicized institutional authority and reduce the capacity of external accreditors to apply standards of excellence independent of the politically motivated initiatives of legislative majorities. Legislation that eliminates or minimizes tenure protections, as well as the right to organize, is designed to limit academic freedom. The extreme case of New College of Florida suggests that disruption is the goal, and that creating a hostile environment for higher education is designed to drive students and faculty members from states where partisan legislators reject demands for racial justice, preferring instead to double down on white supremacist narratives of American history. A recent survey of faculty members in the South jointly conducted by the Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas AAUP conferences, the United Faculty of Florida, and the Texas Faculty Association provides evidence of the “brain drain” resulting from this strategy. Legislation to require institutions to seek a new accreditor every accreditation cycle is an effort to destroy meaningful external review that will cost public institutions enormous sums of money and threaten students’ access to federal financial support.

  • The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, the members of which are appointed by the governor, adopted post-tenure review policies that, according to a recent AAUP report, “effectively abolished tenure in Georgia’s public colleges and universities.”3
  • Ohio’s SB 83 would eliminate “standards, policies, and systems” from collective bargaining negotiations and prohibit strikes by various public-sector employees, including college and university faculty members. A new Florida law makes dues collection for many public-sector unions more difficult and establishes a minimum of 60 percent of eligible members in the bargaining unit for recertification.
  • Florida’s SB 266 empowers college and university presidents to delegate to provosts and deans the authority to appoint new faculty members. The bill includes a provision that the “hiring authority is not bound by the recommendations or opinions of faculty or other individuals.”
  • A 2022 Florida law requires public colleges and universities to seek a new accrediting agency every accreditation cycle, reportedly because of the accreditor’s inquiries into political interference at the University of Florida and conflicts of interest in a presidential search at Florida State University. In September 2023, the North Carolina legislature adopted a similar accreditation measure, which it buried in the state budget bill. Texas is considering legislation that, like Florida’s, would give an institution a legal cause for action against the accrediting agency’s supposed “retaliatory action” of upholding its accreditation standards.

What the Faculty Must Do

Faculty members must organize to effectively counter political attacks on higher education. Indeed, many AAUP chapters, state AAUP conferences, and other faculty groups have made extraordinary collective efforts to resist political interference. The Association’s chapters and state conferences can continue to mobilize their resources and build power in the following ways:

  • Build government relations capacity. Conferences and chapters should assess their capacity to engage in lobbying during the legislative session and through other government relations work. Even small actions within a group’s limited capacity can be effective in helping legislators better understand higher education and the repercussions of political interference. Conferences and chapters should consider the following actions:
    • Work with AFT state structures where available to build a K–12 and higher education alliance against political interference. Every AAUP member is also a member of the AFT.
    • Contact reporters covering higher education in your state to discuss why political intervention is dangerous and describe what your conference and chapters are doing to fight racist legislation. Sample talking points on these issues are in appendix A.
    • Make appointments to meet with legislators in your district to discuss specific issues.
    • Engage community organizations. Offer to speak about what professors actually do in the classroom, what the college or university contributes to the community, and why faculty members’ work must be safeguarded by academic freedom and their role in institutional governance protected.
  • Conduct a legislative review. As a first step, review the 2023 legislative session to assess the damage, identify the reasons some legislation failed or was watered down, and determine whether there are opportunities to undo some of the legislation that was passed. Whose work was effective in blocking or watering down bills? Are faculty members communicating their concerns effectively and collaborating with other groups? The fall 2023 issue of the AAUP’s Academe magazine reports on faculty groups’ legislative review of these issues across several states. A legislative review should also consider seeking court injunctions that might provide relief. Successful petitioning for judicial review will almost certainly require alliances with legal action groups but has the potential to force legislatures to revisit harmful bills.
  • Prepare for the next legislative session. Lobby legislators who might introduce favorable bills. Organize a lobbying day, which can be an effective way to engage more faculty members in advocacy generally.
  • Hold governing boards and administrations accountable. AAUP chapters should call upon their institutions’ governing boards and administrations to promote and defend Association-supported principles and standards of academic freedom and shared governance in response to political intervention. A chapter can also encourage faculty governance bodies to pass resolutions to hold the board and administration accountable. A sample faculty senate resolution is in appendix B.

Appendix A: Talking Points

The following talking points are intended as a general guide to inform faculty members’ discussions with legislators, reporters, and other nonacademic audiences. Specific pieces of legislation will require responses tailored to the circumstances in which the bills are introduced. 

“Divisive-Concepts” Legislation

Attempts to legislate what can be taught on a college or university campus are antithetical to the purpose of higher education to serve the common good. As the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure observes, “Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.” Further, The Freedom to Teach, a statement by the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, asserts “the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer.” These rights derive from the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, a joint formulation with the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, which assigns to the faculty “primary responsibility” for “curriculum, [and] subject matter and methods of instruction.” “Divisive-concepts” legislation and other forms of political interference not only restrict faculty members’ freedom to teach and students’ freedom to learn but usurp the faculty’s authority in academic matters.


Freedom in the Classroom, a report by the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, distinguishes “indoctrination,” which “occurs when instructors dogmatically insist on the truth of propositions by refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them,” from the “vigorous assertion of a proposition, however controversial,” which engages students in argumentation and discussion. The report asserts that “such engagement is essential if students are to acquire skills of critical independence.” As the report also observes, the idea that “students have a right not to have their most cherished beliefs challenged . . . contradicts the central purpose of higher education, which is to challenge students to think hard about their own perspectives.” Legislating what can and cannot be taught is itself a form of indoctrination, as it removes entire academic subjects from the classroom. Empowering students and requiring administrators to police what is taught inhibits the “free discussion, inquiry, and expression” in the classroom called for in the AAUP’s Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students.

Tenure and Post-tenure Review

The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure declares that “tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” The Association’s report Post-tenure Review: An AAUP Response insists that “post-tenure review must not be a reevaluation or revalidation of tenured status,” and individual faculty members with tenure should not be required to show cause for their continued appointment. For state legislatures to unilaterally mandate post-tenure review is to chill the intellectual climate for faculty members to engage in teaching and scholarship that may be perceived as controversial. It is also to deny the faculty its “primary responsibility” for “matters of faculty status” under the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities.

Academic Centers and Programs

The Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities calls for “joint planning and effort” among the governing board, administration, and faculty. The Statement assigns to the faculty “primary responsibility” for the curriculum. While governing board and administrative efforts to acquire necessary resources to establish new academic centers is welcome, an institution’s faculty should have primary decision-making authority for curricular matters. New academic centers should be developed primarily by the faculty, “based upon the fact that (the faculty’s) judgment is central to general educational policy.”

Faculty Organizing

The AAUP’s Statement on Collective Bargaining observes that collective bargaining “reinforce[s] and secure[s] the principles of academic freedom and tenure, fair workplace procedures, and the economic security of the profession.” Political efforts to deny faculty members the right to engage in collective bargaining or to impede faculty organizing limit the faculty’s role in institutional governance and, therefore, threaten academic freedom. As the Association’s statement On the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom asserts, “an inadequate governance system—one in which the faculty is not accorded primacy in academic matters—compromises the conditions in which academic freedom is likely to thrive.”


“Institutional evaluation,” according to the AAUP’s statement The Role of the Faculty in the Accrediting of Colleges and Universities, “is a joint enterprise between institutions of higher education and the accrediting commissions of regional associations.” Further, “the nature of the accrediting process requires common enterprise among the faculty, the administration, and to some extent the governing board.” Political interference in the accrediting process is not only at odds with these standards but a threat to institutional autonomy.

Faculty Appointments

As the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities observes, “scholars in a particular field have the chief competence for judging the work of their colleagues.” Consequently, the faculty should have primary responsibility for appointments, reappointments, and other matters of faculty status. Legislation denying the faculty this responsibility not only disregards AAUP-recommended governance standards but risks creating political litmus tests for potential appointees.

DEI Initiatives

Institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are designed to support students’ success. Insofar as such initiatives are curricular matters, the faculty should have primary responsibility for their development, execution, and continuation. Defunding and eliminating DEI initiatives through legislation usurps this responsibility and threatens institutional autonomy.

Appendix B: Sample Resolution on Governing Board and Administration Accountability

Whereas [the state legislature/name of governor] is considering one or more bills that represent political interference in [name of state]’s public colleges and universities; and

Whereas if enacted into law these bills would [select from list: chill academic freedom in the classroom, encroach on one or more areas of the faculty’s primary responsibility, effectively end tenure, limit the faculty’s ability to organize, eliminate funding for programs designed to promote student success, disrupt the accreditation process]; and

Whereas section[s] of the [name of faculty governance document(s)] recognize principles and standards recommended by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); and

Whereas it is the governing board’s responsibility to relate the institution to its chief community and to ensure that the institution has the resources necessary to fulfill its mission; and

Whereas it is the president’s responsibility to represent the institution to its many publics and to see to it that the institution’s standards and procedures conform with sound academic practice;

Be it resolved that the [name of representative faculty body]:

Calls on the president and chair of the board to publicly articulate the harm these bills would cause the institution; and

Calls on the president to report to the [name of representative faculty body] the actions taken by the institution to inform the legislature of our concerns and the status of these bills.

1. The AFT and PEN America have compiled lists of the relevant bills. See “Defensive Higher Ed Legislation 2023,” spreadsheet, AFT, accessed January 12, 2024,, and “PEN America Index of Educational Gag Orders,” spreadsheet, PEN America, accessed January 12, 2024,

2. See AAUP, “Report of a Special Committee: Governance, Academic Freedom, and Institutional Racism in the University of North Carolina System,” Academe, Summer 2022, 33–69,

3. “Academic Freedom and Tenure: University System of Georgia,” Academe, Summer 2022, 12, The AAUP’s governing Council consequently imposed censure on the University System of Georgia in 2022.

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