Statement on Academic Freedom
It is August 10th, 2021. Eight states have passed laws that define how educators can and cannot discuss gender, race, and ethnicity in the classroom. Though often cast as anti- critical race theory laws, none ban critical race theory itself but instead limit how subjects such as discrimination, oppression, and bias can be taught. The language in the bills is often exactly or nearly the same, including prohibitions regarding the possibility that students might come to “feel” blame or guilt in relation to their race, ethnicity, or gender, or in some cases, even be asked to look at content that suggests that “An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” Nineteen other states have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation.
As scholars and educators, we are called to affirm that limits on discourse and inquiry are antithetical to intellectual and psychological growth. Laws that constrain the examination of slavery and racism and their impact on contemporary society are particularly disturbing for what they reveal about our inability to set aside political differences in the interest of scholarly, educational, and social advancement, for it is impossible to honestly consider the history and nature of the United States without asking uncomfortable questions about how race has shaped and continues to shape our society. Some subjects should cause discomfort and even challenge deeply held beliefs, and we have examples of how honesty and forthright treatment of a disturbing past can benefit a society in the long run. After World War II, the Germans chose to directly present and confront Nazi racial ideology and its horrific outcomes, in part by engaging in educational discourse that included visits to concentration camps and the amplification of the voices of the murdered and oppressed. The past will always speak; the question is, do we listen and respond.
At a university, the answer must be yes, for a university is an embodiment of discourse. As scholars, researchers, and artists, we value creation, examination, discovery, and above all, freedom of expression and the expectation that we follow our thoughts and investigations where they lead us and share those journeys with colleagues and students. Most American universities value open discourse so deeply that they offer many faculty members the protection of tenure, a near guarantee that we will not be economically punished for letting our curiosity get the best of us and a symbol of a collective belief in the value of the pursuit of knowledge for practical and intrinsic reasons.
Much of the current controversy over critical race theory has been sparked by the 1619 Project and the conclusion therein that one of the primary reasons the colonists declared independence from Britain was to defend slavery. Whether true or not, the idea has required that we think more deeply about race, American history, and the nature of the society that we want to live in and create. The work of Nikole Hannah-Jones and others has been generative and catalytic in the way that we want scholarship, research, and art to be, has spoken beyond its immediate content about the value of new perspectives and fresh engagement with familiar material. Whether it’s blowing ocher across a hand onto a cave wall or sending space probes out of the solar system, everything we do or create speaks of who we are, what we love and fear, need and want. In building a road, we tell each other where we want to go.In cooking a meal, we tell each other what we believe substance is. In examining the fullness of our past, we tell each other that we are strong enough as a nation to reconsider and reinvigorate our most deeply held ideas about freedom and equality. For humans, discourse is inseparable from life. To limit discourse is to limit human possibility.
As educators, we are stewards of the aspirations of young adults; as state employees, we are subject to the laws and political climate of Virginia. When these two aspects of our lives are in conflict, the leadership of the Faculty Senate will always be guided by the expectation that Virginia Tech faculty will teach in a manner that helps students prepare for the future; above all, not to be afraid of it, however it comes to them. We do this by engaging difficult questions and challenging ideas, by rejecting limits on the information we present and the discussions we have, and by upholding the expectation of the free and open pursuit of knowledge. More than anything else, we try to show them that we are not afraid of ourselves, of the myriad expressions of the complications inherent to the human mind and heart, whether we agree with them or not.
While academic freedom is a concept, it is also, in the way of a chisel to a sculptor, a tool and requirement for our work. We need those who would try to dispense with academic freedom based on a disagreement over what our history is or says about us to recognize that faculty can never accept this kind of eclipse; and we invite them to join us instead as we discuss, debate, and even argue about these and other questions, with the shared goal of advancing our understanding and appreciation of life as it was, is, and may one day be.