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What We’re Reading: May 2023

In this month’s top-reads, state legislators are in focus, with bills touching academic freedom at public universities under consideration and criticized by a public university president.

Campus Happenings

More than 70 Harvard Faculty Form Council on Academic Freedom, Co-Led by Steven Pinker
Rahem D. Hamid and Elias J. Schisgall | The Harvard Crimson | April 14, 2023

More than 70 Harvard University professors came together to found the Council on Academic Freedom. Two of its six co-presidents, professors Steven Pinker and Bertha Madras, announced the initiative in a Boston Globe op-ed, writing that members concluded that academic freedom needs a “defense team.” The council will sponsor events, educate new faculty, and respond to threats to academic freedom.

Hundreds Protest, Attend Lecture of Conservative Commentator Matt Walsh at UI
Liam Halawith and Emily Delgado| Daily Iowan| April 20, 2023

A University of Iowa student organization sponsored a lecture with Q&A by a critic of transgenderism. The event was attended by a capacity audience of 750 and proceeded without disruption, while hundreds protested outside. Prior to the event, the school’s administration coordinated with event organizers and protestors to ensure compliance with the Code of Student Life; LGBTQ+ and other clubs issued statements, organized counter events, and chalked to protest.

West Texas A&M University Releases Results of No-Confidence Vote on President Walter Wendler
Caden Keenan and Angel Oliva | My High Plains | April 25, 2023

Following President Walter Wendler’s decision to cancel a drag show, 69% of the faculty voted no-confidence in his leadership, with 70% of the faculty casting a ballot. The no-confidence resolution charged, “President Wendler has acted contrary to WT’s commitment to academic freedom and ‘champion[ing] the free exchange of ideas’ through prohibiting previously approved on-campus activities contrary to his personal worldview.” President Wendler responded that he was disappointed but did not plan to step down.

New College of Florida Drama Continues as Trustees Deny Tenure for 5 Faculty
Ian Hodgson | Tampa Bay Times | April 26, 2023

The College of Florida Board of Trustees, by a 4-9 vote in each case, denied tenure to five professors who had been recommended for tenure by the interim provost. Among those voting against tenure were all six trustees recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). Critics charges political motives for denying tenure to the candidates, who are eligible to reapply for tenure. The faculty representative on the board resigned from the school, effective at the end of the academic year.

State and Federal

Amended Bill Would Keep Tenure at Texas Public Universities
Kate McGee |Texas Tribune | May 7, 2023

After criticism from the academic community, Texas state senators are amending two bills. An earlier version of SB 18 would have eliminated tenure for new faculty, but the current version allows tenure appointments and directs regents to have clear policies for tenure, promotion, and dismissal for cause. An amended version of SB 17 is also expected; the first version of the bill prohibited diversity, equity, and inclusion offices (DEI); the amended version is expected to allow DEI programs with board approval.

UW System Will Ban Diversity Questions in Hiring in Effort to Eliminate ‘Political Litmus Tests’
Kimberly Wethal | Wisconsin State Journal| May 12, 2023

University of Wisconsin System President Jay Rothman announced that system universities will cease requesting diversity, equity, and inclusion statements as part of job applications. Appearing before the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, President Rothman testified, “If people think we are imposing litmus tests on them at that stage in the employment process, we are not being inclusive.”

Thought Pieces and Op-eds

George Floyd’s Death a Pivotal Point in ‘Cancel Culture,’ Campus Speech Censure tarted to Spike
Sean Salai | Washington Times | April 20, 2023

A report from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) finds attempts to sanction professors for expression increased in 2020 and have remained at elevated numbers. In 2022, 41% of the sanction attempts were from those to the right of the professor, while 52% were from those to the left of the professor. A FIRE spokesman is quoted, “The report suggests a major reason for the spike is the murder of George Floyd in 2020, which led to a huge jump in scholars targeted for racial speech.”

The Gravest Threats to Campus Speech Come from States, Not Students
Christina Paxson | The New York Times | April 21, 2023

Brown University President Christian Paxson criticizes state lawmakers who propose legislation curtailing tenure and diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in public high education. She charges these lawmakers are blind to their own aspiration to “indoctrinate students into seeing the world through one lens” while complaining of students’ intolerance of certain viewpoints. She warns, “misguided laws that censor ideas and suppress the advancement of knowledge fail, and their architects fail with them.”

How an Ill-Informed Internet Mob Ruined a UVA Student’s Life
Emma Camp | Reason | April 24, 2023

The author presents a cautionary tale of social media being weaponized on campus to distort the meaning of speech with unjust consequences. After social media images of a then-University of Virginia student driving away from a protest, she was accused by another then-UVA student of calling protestors “speed bumps” with threatening intent. The school’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights found insufficient evidence against her, but she faced social ostracization and the student-run University Judiciary Committee judged that she had made threats. The accused student, now an alumna, is suing the school.

More Students Endorse an Expansive Definition of ‘Harm.” Colleges Aren’t So Sure.
Katie Hidalgo Bellows | Chronicle of Higher Education| May 3, 2023

Many students’ definition of harm includes damage to emotional and psychological wellbeing, with the attendant expectation that colleges will disallow speakers whose messages are perceived as hurtful, require trigger warnings, and limit curricula. Increasingly, administrators are resisting these calls and “trying to find a middle ground” of insisting on allowing controversial expression and speakers while “addressing the harm” students feel.

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