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An Illiberal Attack on Public Higher Education

Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, has proposed to eliminate tenure in the University of Texas system.

The argument against tenure has a respectable conservative pedigree. It isn’t obvious that professors, after some years of satisfactory service, should enjoy an indefinite appointment, revokable only under extraordinary circumstances. That’s worth debating. But Patrick isn’t against tenure for the usual reasons: that it supports unproductive professors, rewards people who are good at keeping their mouths shut, or denies universities the same flexibility in shaping their workforces as other institutions have. Patrick is against tenure because some professors at the University of Texas crossed him.

As Patrick explains in his refreshingly frank statement on the matter, he is “outraged by the University of Texas at Austin’s Faculty Council’s 41-5 vote on a resolution in support of teaching critical race theory.” He refers to a resolution that “supports the rights and academic freedom of faculty to design courses, curriculum, and pedagogy, and to conduct related scholarly research.” It is true, as Patrick says, that the resolution was occasioned by and refers to a campaign, reaching across numerous state legislatures and dozens of bills, that target critical race theory. Critical race theory is a constellation of ideas going back at least to the 1970s that stress the supposed inadequacies of the civil rights movement.

It is also true that the present campaign against critical race theory is objectionable for reasons many conservatives would have recognized until only yesterday. In the 1990s, the conservative fight against “political correctness” was waged against speech-limiting campus codes that, lacking clear definitions of hate speech, would inevitably encroach on freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas. Today, legislatures in many states, including Texas, wish to prevent teachers from making CRT “part of a course.” The Texas bill ensures, among other maxims, that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race,” that “members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex,” and that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”

Here that ambiguous “making part of the course” does harmful work. It suggests that one can’t include as part of a course syllabus arguments in favor of affirmative action, much less more radical arguments about the character of the American founding, even if that course syllabus otherwise consisted mainly of arguments against affirmative action and in praise of the American Founding.

In Texas, incidentally, the wish is law for K-12 education. And despite claims that these laws are not a “ban” but are instead designed to combat only indoctrination, Patrick is not shy about their intent, or about his intent concerning higher education: We banned [critical race theory] in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed.”

I have a confession to make. I teach critical race theory, along with the arguments critical race theory rejects, when I teach courses on campus free speech or on the philosophy of higher education. I don’t teach them because I agree with them but because it’s impossible to understand contemporary debates about free speech and higher education without understanding critical race theory. The attempt to ban it, not only in my classroom but also in the classrooms of professors more sympathetic to it than I am, is misguided. We don’t protect our students by shutting out dangerous ideas. We know this when we attack left censoriousness but forget it when we find ourselves in power.

This would be the right time to take up, in the name of even-handedness, left-wing censors, or to complain that the University of Texas at Austin’s faculty finds the energy to defend academic freedom only when its right-wing censors knocking at the door. But I’ve written extensively against the left. Conservatives have long focused on the unique dangers posed by state power. The threat to freedom of thought in higher education now requires our focused attention. State officials have a hand in appointing the boards that govern universities, and state legislators, with the blessing of governors, are empowered to coerce professors and administrators in a way that the “looney Marxist [University of Texas] professors” that Patrick invokes to justify his illiberal policy are not.

The power to punish political targets, wielded by figures like Dan Patrick, is a true threat to freedom in our colleges and universities.

This content was originally published here.

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