Academic Freedom, Pedagogy, White Privilege, and Racism in Higher Education

College and university administrators and faculty too often lack the political and ethical will to simply do the right thing.

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Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

“Reckoning” is an imposing word for those with power and privilege; for white people in the U.S. the threat or possibility of a reckoning is often terrifying, triggering what has now been identified as white fragility.

For those abused, assaulted, or marginalized by racism, sexism/misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc., the possibility of a reckoning is exhilarating — although tinted with at least skepticism if not cynicism about any reckoning coming to fruition.

Amidst a pandemic, however, the murder of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer seems to have reignited with a renewed stamina the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Professional sports, including even the ultra-conservative NFL, have blinked finally against the call for police reform and racial reform across all aspect of the U.S.

Like the symbolism now being allowed and celebrated in the NBA and WNBA, the diversity and inclusion initiatives in U.S. higher education remain mostly rhetoric (and seemingly endless committee work).

While higher education is often characterized (and demonized) as some sort of insular liberal and progressive playground for college professors, the truth is that colleges and universities — like K-12 schools — are deeply conservative and mostly a reflection of society and the populations they serve.

Yes, a good portion of college faculty talk the talk of moderates and progressives, but almost all institutions are conservative by nature in order to exist; revolutionary behavior fits poorly with the economics of running a college or university.

Public universities are governed by politicians (mostly conservative and right-leaning moderate across the U.S.), and college and university boards tend to be populated by wealthy and conservative advocates for sustaining the institution (not brainwashing students with Marxism).

We of a genuine leftist persuasion, Marxists or critical scholars, are small outliers on college and university campuses; we are at best begrudgingly tolerated, often with significant consequences to our professional and personal lives.

Here’s the ugly truth — colleges and universities are systemically inequitable places. The campus, dorm, and classroom cultures are more often than not hostile to marginalized groups.

Black students, for example, are under-represented on college campuses (except at HBCUs), and even though women are the majority of students at those colleges and universities, they still must navigate sexual assault and harassment cultures with weak university support as well as significant inequities in access to majors as well as extracurricular activities such as athletics.

At my university, there have been a number of diversity and inclusion movements over the years, and we have fairly recently hired a Chief Diversity Officer.

The university has also been relatively proactive in confronting the racism in the founding of the institution, creating a report, Seeking Abraham, and establishing a series of action steps to address the racism built into the institution.

Yet, a new reckoning appears to be upon the university, best represented by an Instagram account, Black at Furman.

Alumni have been posting anonymously, detailing that the campus, dorms, and classrooms have been and remain hostile environments for students who have been marginalized by race, gender, nationality, sexuality, etc.

To their credit, administration at the university has responded positively so far to a petition by those running the IG account. Faculty seem also more motivated than in the past to acknowledge and address campus-wide inequities, especially those impacting Black students.

Along with other faculty, I have created a Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Bias Statement, fore-fronting it on all course materials across my fall load:

#BlackLivesMatter

In my teaching, scholarship, public writing, and life, I am fully committed to racial, gender, and all forms of equity not yet realized throughout the U.S. and world. While academic spaces are often intellectually challenging and even uncomfortable, I will not tolerate in any aspect of this course language, ideas, or behavior/symbolism that are hostile to marginalized/oppressed groups (racism, sexism/misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc.).

Academic freedom for students and professors is tethered to consequences, and is not license. (See Free Speech and Diversity of Thought?)

Students uncertain about what language and ideas are not acceptable because they are hostile or offensive are invited to discuss those questions with me privately and are guaranteed those exchanges will be treated confidentially and respectfully. I am eager to share evidence, research, and reading to help anyone better understand goals of equity, anti-racism, and anti-bias (see materials in Box, Race and Racism).

If you witness or experience any form of bias, please report here:

Bias Incident Report

Anti-racism and anti-bias practice has been central to my teaching career for almost four decades; students are well aware of where I stand against the -isms that deform us, and my public work (such as my blogs) and my scholarship are firmly grounded in critical pedagogy, critical race theory, and critical discourse analysis.

I have also been a vocal critic of the ways in which my university falls short of critical practice and ant-racism/anti-bias commitments.

Yet, the IG account has highlighted in vivid and disturbing ways that far too often — and like many colleges and universities — inexcusable behavior is tolerated in dorms, across campus, and in classrooms because of tradition, fear of upsetting students and parents as customers, and more insidious ideologies such as academic freedom and narrow (traditional) expectations for research, scholarship, and teaching.

Central to my statement above, I think, is a confrontation of academic freedom and how it has been weaponized in the name of white privilege and racism.

Again, read the experiences of Black students in courses at my university, class sessions where language and comments that have no credibility have been allowed and have created hostile learning environments for Black students.

As I note in the statement, academic freedom is not license; it is not about “anyone can says anything in a class setting.”

For example, biology professors might acknowledge creationists and their rejecting Darwinism/evolution, but many do not, and certainly none suggest that “counter opinion” is credible in the field fo science.

How much time is spent in courses on World War II allowing Holocaust deniers equal time? Do we allow students to hold forth about the credibility of exterminating Jews?

In other words, academic freedom is about the boundaries of a discipline, and who determines the boundaries. Biology professors determine the boundaries for teaching evolution (not the university’s board of directors), and that is academic freedom.

Academia is not about knowledge bereft of moral or ethical parameters.

I will not sit in a classroom and allow students to create the sort of hostile environment former students lived and learned through because of the negligence of their professors and the university’s administration.

In the U.S., our government failure is a lack of political will, allowing and perpetuating what is ethically wrong because doing so gains political capital.

This, I fear, is an equally valid commentary on higher education.

College and university administrators and faculty too often lack the political and ethical will to simply do the right thing.

Academic freedom, how we teach (pedagogy), and what we teach are sacred and even potentially beautiful things, enormously valuable to the students who walk the grounds and sit in our classrooms.

But we have failed too, too many of those students; we have hidden behind a tarnished vision of academic freedom and proper pedagogy.

Let’s hope this reckoning is the real thing. It is long past due.

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