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Presidents Message: Academic Freedom is Threatened

by James (Jim) Klein President, Texas Association of College Teachers

Hello again from the Texas Association of College Teachers! I hope you are managing to remain cool during this extremely hot summer. Today I want to discuss a worrisome development in higher education—outside, politically motivated influence on classroom instruction and research, or the undermining of academic freedom. We in Texas may soon face such a threat as legislation has been proposed for the next state legislative session that would make the teaching of critical race theory a fireable offense for all faculty members, tenured and untenured alike.

Such a law would have a chilling effect on classroom instruction in colleges and universities where, ideally, diverse ideas are discussed allowing those with the greatest merit to prevail. Limiting that discussion by forbidding certain topics would undermine the mission of colleges and universities and do a disservice to students seeking higher education degrees in the Lone Star state. Beyond that, such a law would direct Texas down a very dark path that historians have identified in numerous instances in the modern era.

Authoritarian governments that sought to squelch diverse opinions often started in the academy. Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany forbid the teaching of certain topics at colleges and universities, causing numerous academics to flee to other nations. Joseph Stalin accomplished a similar task in the Soviet Union by the middle of the twentieth century. We can add to this list Spain under Francisco Franco, China under Mao Tse Tung and Chile under Augusto Pinochet. In the twenty-first century, China, under the increasingly repressive government of Xi Jinping, has seen a mass exodus of academics specializing in the areas of law and political science, many of them coming to the United States; and in Russia, Vladimir Putin has so far as to bar all media from describing his conflict in Ukraine as a war.

The governments listed above are not good company to keep. The law being proposed for Texas would establish the ominous precedent that politicians—without expertise in an academic discipline—can limit research and discussion or debate on certain topics. The current issue pertains to the social sciences, but this precedent could be applied to other disciplines deemed as controversial. This will hinder the search for new insights into and knowledge of the human condition.

I feel this acutely as a historian. As I tell my freshmen students each semester, people, individually or as a society, are defined by what they say but also by what they do. The study of history (peoples’ actions in the past, whether honorable or sordid) can help us to understand better the nature of humanity as we are now and can be in the future. Prohibiting discussion of some aspects of history, for whatever reason, will limit our ability to understand who we are as individuals, as a state, as a nation, and as a species. This, I fear is what we Texans face from any proposed legislation designed to limit discussion, debate, and research at institutions of higher education.

It also will discourage top academics from coming to Texas. I recently chatted with a promising young scholar who is considering doctoral programs in history. She indicated that the political climate in Texas already had discouraged her from considering any institutions here, notable since she wishes to study the eighteenth century origins of folk remedies among the populations of south Texas and northern Mexico. This is an immeasurable loss to the Lone Star State. More measurable will be the potential exodus of academics from the state similar to what has happened and is happening in other parts of the world.

TACT is engaging this threat to academic freedom. We are facilitating meetings between faculty and state representatives to discuss the proposed legislation and its implications for Texas. We are all busy, but I urge you to schedule such a meeting (by Zoom, if you prefer) with your representative to discuss this. I am happy to join such a meeting if my schedule allows. Contact the TACT staff if you need assistance or resources regarding this. We believe that higher education in Texas is worth fighting for.

In the meantime, I hope you and your families are in good health and are bearing up under the summer heat. I wish the best for you in the upcoming academic year. Rest and recreate when you can and do great work when the opportunity arises. TACT and Texas need you.

James (Jim) Klein

Professor of History, Del Mar College

President, Texas Association of College Teachers

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