New voices are joining the national debate over academic freedom on college campuses, and that’s good for democracy.

What do academic freedom and democracy have in common? Plenty, and that’s why it’s more important than ever that we understand what’s at stake when people start throwing around loaded terms like “divisive concepts.”

Seven states, home to 42 million Americans, have enacted laws to limit college courses dealing with racism, gender, or other sensitive (to some) topics. Those of us concerned with high-quality education beyond high school have seen this coming, and it’s not good for our country.

For more than a century, PEN America has sought to defend free speech here and abroad. It’s disturbing that this organization, which has fought challenges to free speech in so many other places around the world, now sees the threat here at home.

PEN America and the American Council on Education (ACE) have written a guide to help higher ed leaders defend academic freedom. PEN America points to a rise of “educational gag orders,” legislative restrictions on what can be taught about race, gender, American history, and other topics.

“PEN America has tracked nearly 300 bills, introduced in 44 state legislatures, which have sought to restrict the teaching of such topics,” the group says. Nearly 100 bills have specifically targeted colleges and universities.

Legislative efforts to restrict education began with concerns about K-12. But even a year ago PEN and others noticed the increased targeting of colleges.

The new resource guide explains how higher ed leaders can make the case for open education to important audiences—including lawmakers, community members, and trustees. There’s also a short, easy-to-use overview for faculty and university supporters.

The work is informed by public opinion research commissioned last year by the American Council on Education:

“Bipartisan majorities said that all topics should be open for discussion on college campuses, as long as issues are fairly presented, because college students are adults,” the group said.

In another effort to protect freedom of speech, more than 100 former college presidents have begun a campaign to push back against the recent bills and policies. A signed statement from those leaders is the first step in the campaign, being led by PEN and the nonprofit Campus Compact. They’re using op-eds and other communications and engaging with key leaders across a range of industries.

It’s important that people understand what we mean by academic freedom. As the American Association of University Professors explains, this is the freedom of a teacher or researcher to investigate, discuss, and teach the issues in their academic field. They should be able to do so without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors, or others.

The impulse to curtail discussion of sensitive topics is often framed positively, as an effort to avoid conflict or shield vulnerable populations. But there’s an insidiously negative aspect to this as well: the idea that those in power know best and should be allowed to limit information flow. It’s an authoritarian viewpoint—one that has been on the rise globally with disturbing results.

In response to a rise of authoritarian leaders around the world, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce looked at the role of higher education in advancing democratic ideals.

“Higher education promotes independent thought, respect for diversity, and inquisitive assessment of evidence—all of which can counteract the unquestioning deference to authority,” the study said.

The link between higher education and increased levels of democracy in countries has been established in multiple studies. The Georgetown study found a larger benefit in the United States than elsewhere.

“This may be in part because American higher education places a strong emphasis on a combination of specific and general education, including coursework in the liberal arts,” the study said.

Our system of learning beyond high school, like every part of society, can be improved. But curbing academic freedom or limiting campus speech isn’t the answer. In fact, it’s the emphasis on open discussion, the chance to hear opposing viewpoints and grapple with difficult concepts that make college special. They help colleges produce well-rounded students with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive, in the workplace and in life.

In short, academic freedom is working for us—all of us. Let’s not throw that out at a time when so much is at stake for our nation.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

Back to News