AERA Statement on the Significance of Academic Freedom in a Divisive Political Climate
AERA Statement on the Significance of Academic Freedom in a Divisive Political Climate

For Immediate Release
February 22, 2022

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235

Marla Koenigsknecht,
(202) 238-3233

AERA Statement on the Significance of Academic Freedom in a Divisive Political Climate

Felice J. Levine, AERA Executive Director
Na’ilah Suad Nasir, AERA President, 2021–2022

February 22, 2022

Our democracy is in a precarious moment. There are many disturbing signs. Most notable for higher education institutions that serve as the bedrocks for the free expression of ideas and innovation is the evident effort to suppress academic freedom. These attacks come at a time when such freedoms are the solution to, rather than the cause of, a divisive political climate.

We support higher education institutions and urge them to stand firm for what is foundational to their purpose. Universities and colleges are core contributors to the advancement of societies through faculty research, the conveyance of knowledge to the next generation of students, and the dissemination of new knowledge and discoveries to the public. These institutions are in many respects the centerpiece of a vibrant democracy, where ideas—no matter the viewpoint—are shared, challenged, and improved in the service of our communities and the world at large.

A central tenet undergirding this ecosystem is the free exchange of ideas—in the classroom, in research topics studied, and in the communication of research findings to public and policy audiences. A right to academic freedom is fundamental to this ecosystem. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the need to protect academic freedom under the First Amendment.

As early as 1967, the Court stated: “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom” (Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 1967).1 Acknowledging the important role of the university in creating a climate for the free expression of ideas, at the beginning of this century the Court reaffirmed: “We have long recognized that, given the important purpose of public education and the expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition” (Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).2

Threats to academic freedom are not new, but the political climate in which we now live is putting those freedoms at grave risk. Some state legislators and executive branch leaders are functionally taking the view that public academic institutions are extensions of government. Courses are being removed from the curriculum or threatened with removal; those engaged in teaching or undertaking research on such topics as racism, critical race theory, or gender identity are being scrutinized or chilled from pursuing those lines of inquiry, whether directly by their institutions or more broadly by the pressures exerted on their institutions. While some of the most egregious suppression is directed to social issues, many other areas (e.g., pressure to destroy COVID research data) have experienced suppression effects as well.

There is good reason for being both alarmed and vigilant. A wave of legislation that aims to restrict academic freedom, limit anti-racist education and research, and even prohibit the discussion of “divisive” concepts in the classroom is beginning to flood state legislatures. Several bills proposed in Alabama would make it illegal to teach students to believe “divisive concepts” regarding race or gender, including critical race theory. One bill goes so far as to require the termination of faculty who do so.

Other examples of restrictive legislation are evident in Florida. The state has cast a pall over higher education with the passage of a law with a provision that allows postsecondary students to record faculty without their knowledge for possible violations of “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity.” The chilling effects of such state laws can be seen in the actions by one Florida public institution barring faculty from testifying in voting rights and mask-mandated court cases and pressuring faculty to remove race-related language from course materials and destroy COVID-19 data.

In Texas, a faculty research project on anti-racist education was paused without investigation following a Title VI complaint. Although the university subsequently lifted the hold, this type of disruption sends a paralyzing chill throughout an academic setting. Faculty should be guaranteed the right to due process before administrative actions are taken if universities are to truly remain fertile ground for the exchange and advancement of ideas.

These threats to academic freedom are serious, and they are spreading. In January, the Mississippi Senate passed one of several bills directed to banning critical race theory in public K–12 schools and public higher education institutions. Laws like these have been rebutted through lawsuits that make a case for the dangers to a democracy when freedom of expression is stifled, which did occur in the case of Florida. If we are, however, to promote and foster a free and civil society, we need to work proactively, especially with higher education institutions and with scientific and scholarly societies, to steward academic freedoms rather than only to position ourselves to defend fundamental rights.

This is not the first time that AERA or other scholarly societies have confronted the need to protect academic freedom in the face of political pressure. But we are at a critical juncture when we are also confronting a U.S. history of racism, debating public health measures during a pandemic, engaging with other challenging issues in the public sphere (e.g., limiting the rights of transgender and nonbinary youths), and undergoing a rapid change in the demography of our population. At times like these, scholars and students must be free to explore ideas, test them, and widely share and communicate findings, even if they challenge current narratives or political views.

AERA is prepared to act on matters that affect the ability of its members to conduct research, communicate findings, and teach students in an environment free of political interference. We endorsed the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure; issued a joint “Statement in Support of Anti-Racist Education”; and co-signed a “Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History.” Based on what we have observed already, it is none too soon to challenge the growing state legislative efforts and the policies of state-level government officials that can undermine or even more severely damage academic freedom in our educational institutions.

AERA joins other scientific societies, institutions of higher education, and faculty in the U.S. and throughout the world in a commitment to academic freedom as a fundamental principle central to the development of knowledge, an informed public, and the advancement of society. We encourage higher education institutions to implement policies that safeguard faculty in the exercise of that right and create a culture that celebrates that right as a core part of their mission. If colleges and universities are to remain the center of intellectual debate and the pursuit of knowledge, efforts to insulate academia from political pressure must be advanced.

1Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967). (under headline, click “Case”). See Section III, para. 21. This paragraph count treats each part of a broken paragraph as if it were separate.

2Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003). (under headline, click “Case”). See Section IIIA, para. 6. This paragraph count treats each part of a broken paragraph as if it were separate.


About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.