American universities are at the pinnacle of scholarship and discovery in the world. Many things contribute to this greatness, but among the most important is the commitment to free and open inquiry that has always been central to American higher education. Academic freedom is the soil in which transformative ideas germinate and significant innovations grow.
Academic inquiry is supported by norms and traditions within the academy, but also in the broader society. Importantly, politics has to remain one step removed from academics. In many countries, university work is controlled and constrained by governmental interests, and the result is a mediocre academy. In the United States, higher ed has historically been well insulated from direct governmental meddling, even at public institutions, and this is a key reason for the success of American higher education.
In recent years, there have been troubling signs that this norm is decaying in many states. Wisconsin has effectively eliminated faculty tenure, which has always been a linchpin of academic freedom. In June, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed legislation to require an Orwellian survey of all public university faculty and students to assess the diversity of viewpoints, presumably — should the state not like the results — with the goal of telling faculty what they can and cannot teach in the classroom or study in their scholarship. The Tampa Bay Times reported that, at a press conference, DeSantis suggested “budget cuts could be looming if universities and colleges are found to be ‘indoctrinating’ students.” State legislatures across the country are considering bills that target the content of university research and instruction. This summer a coalition of organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and PEN America, issued a joint statement sharply criticizing “deeply troubling” efforts “in at least 20 states” to pass legislation that would “prohibit or impede the teaching and education of students concerning what are termed ‘divisive issues.’ ”
In Massachusetts, we are fortunate to have a political establishment that understands the value of higher education and the importance of academic autonomy. The public colleges and universities in the Commonwealth can feel confident that the academic pursuits of their faculty and students will not be constrained or directed by the state. Our politicians know that great research universities like UMass Dartmouth, where we teach and research, thrive best when politics is not driving academic decisions.
Of course, the historical record here is not entirely clean, and the patronage era in Massachusetts generated a number of politicians who viewed state universities as useful for their own political careers. Patronage politics was in many ways the standard way of doing business, but the political culture of the Commonwealth has shifted in recent years. As the 2011 scandal in the Probation Department revealed, Bay Staters are no longer willing to tolerate the old ways of doing things.
In light of these changes, it was troubling to see the recent report about a state legislator telling public university administrators whom to hire and fire, and then threatening financial consequences if they did not follow his demands.
Public universities should be accountable to the public, of course, and this accountability always entails a political process, but there are laws and structures in place for doing this. UMass, for example, is structured by Chapter 75 of Mass General Law, which establishes a Board of Trustees that is mainly appointed by the governor. That board has established policies for selecting campus administrators and faculty that accord with best management and academic practices. It is wholly inappropriate for a politician to short-circuit those laws, structures, and policies and attempt to directly influence university personnel decisions. This kind of political influence has no place in a world-class university.
What is important for all elected officials in Massachusetts to understand is that their constituents are best served not by securing a few patronage jobs on campus or leveraging some local economic development project in their district, but by providing a best-in-the-world college education at a great value, which is maintained by providing adequate financial support and then letting public universities and their boards manage their operations, leaving politics out of it.
It will be critical in upcoming years, as other states erode the bedrock of their public universities, for Massachusetts to remain steadfast in maintaining its own great institutions of public higher education.
Tom Boone, Ralph Clifford, Arpita Joardar, Kari Mofford, Ziddi Msangi, Nancy O’Connor, Grant O’Rielly, and Doug Roscoe are members of the Faculty Senate Steering Committee at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.