The Precarious State of Academic Freedom: An Interview with Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder
Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy
Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder are professors at Carleton College in Minnesota. Khalid is an associate professor of history and Snyder is an associate professor of educational studies; both are members of the Academic Freedom Alliance. In this recent interview I was able to ask them their thoughts about academic freedom, the AFA, and a new project they have undertaken.
Howard Muncy: The two of you have published, separately and together, a number of recent articles about academic freedom issues. What have you focused on and how have these pieces advanced the conversation about the current state of academic freedom?
Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder: We have written on a range of topics pertaining to academic freedom, including diversity trainings, trigger warnings and the growing DEI bureaucracy. Beyond specific topics, one of our key concerns has been how to expand and diversify the coalition of academics who are committed to defending academic freedom. To that end, we wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year called “The Purpose of a University Isn’t Truth. It’s Inquiry.” We were delighted to see it generate strong reactions and robust discussion. In our view, the pursuit of truth is indeed a key part of what necessitates academic freedom and campus free expression–but there are many other compelling reasons to support free speech in higher education including artistic expression, the capacity to engage in political protest and the right of faculty to speak freely as citizens when they exercise their extramural speech.
HM: Do you tend to encounter more threats to academic freedom on an institutional level with policies and reactions or are they more along the lines of random individual controversies? I guess what I am asking: are there any noticeable patterns?
AK & JS: There are broad patterns. From the right, we are seeing attacks on academic freedom from anti-CRT bills and challenges to tenure. Conservative state legislatures in Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma and several other states are driving these efforts. Informed by culture wars agitation with respect to race, gender, sexuality and U.S. history, not to mention skepticism about the direction of higher education, the conservative assault on academic freedom comes from beyond campus and is squarely focused on public colleges and universities. From within higher education, at both public and private institutions, threats to academic freedom come primarily from the left, especially via institutional initiatives such as Bias Response Teams, mandatory diversity statements for hiring and promotion and shallow, ill-conceived diversity/antiracism trainings. A strong liberal skew among faculty, administrators and students also constrains open inquiry and debate on many college campuses.
HM: The two of you are working on a new academic freedom project together. I want to give you this opportunity to outline the project for our readers.
AK & JS: Yes, thank you. We would be grateful if AFA members could help spread the word about our project. We are fellows at the University of California Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement this academic year. The title of our project is “Anti-CRT Bills Come to Campus: Documenting and Analyzing Emerging Threats to Free Expression and Academic Freedom from State Legislatures.” Anti-CRT laws invest state legislatures with extraordinary power to regulate curricula at public colleges and universities. They pose a direct threat to core academic freedom principles related to teaching, including the autonomy of faculty with respect to course content and pedagogical choices.
Our main research questions are as follows:
- To what extent is anti-CRT legislation threatening free expression and academic freedom in higher education? Which fields are most affected and how?
- How are faculty, administrators and other campus stakeholders, including organizations like the AAUP, FIRE, AFA and PEN America, responding to these threats?
We are eager to interview faculty and administrators affected by these laws. (And we are more than happy to keep interviews confidential if respondents do not want to go on the record.) We can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
HM: Do you think that there is a turning of the tide with the protection of academic freedom as awareness is raised about the current environment or are the problems evolving with many new challenges ahead? In short, where do you see the overall state of academic freedom in the near and long term? What role do you see the AFA playing?
AK & JS: The state of academic freedom is more precarious than it’s been since the McCarthy era. While we have been heartened to see growing awareness among the professoriate, navigating and responding to the wide array of threats to academic freedom will require enormous energy and commitment. That’s why organizations like AFA are so vital at this moment. There is definitely strength in numbers when it comes to academic freedom controversies. The public letters issued by AFA provide essential information about specific academic freedom cases as well as about broader policies that intersect with academic freedom. In addition to raising awareness, applying public pressure on academic leaders to uphold the academic freedom rights of faculty strikes us as vital at this time when the very mission of higher education is under threat.