Opinion: Regents must honor commitment to academic freedom in Georgia

In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, praises the Board of Regents for affirming its commitment to academic freedom.

Boedy hopes a policy revision by the Regents strengthening that commitment signals that Georgia will not follow Florida down the road of gutting academic freedoms and allowing politics to shape what is taught in its public colleges.

Boedy is conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization that represents the interests of college and university faculty members.

By Matthew Boedy

With all the attacks on higher education happening in Florida, Texas, and Ohio (among other places) some in Georgia may be curious if it can or will happen here. Maybe some of our fellow residents want it to happen here.

As a reminder, here is what happened in the Sunshine State. Florida’s governor recently signed a wide-ranging law that bans the state’s public colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, bans general education courses from being centered on any theory that argues “systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege” are ingrained in American history and society, and bans such courses from distorting “significant historical events.”

Texas is about to pass similar legislation and end tenure, one of two bedrocks of American higher education for the last century. The other bedrock is academic freedom, which gives all faculty the right to decide how they will teach and what they will teach.

And this is where what the University System of Georgia Board of Regents did this week comes into focus. After passing last month a “statement of principles” about academic freedom, the board this month strengthened its commitment to academic freedom through a policy revision.

Credit: Peggy Cozart

Credit: Peggy Cozart

The new policy (which you can read on the May 16 meeting agenda here) frames academic freedom as part of the larger First Amendment right to free expression. It defines academic freedom as extending to “classroom material and discussions, research, publications, and other academic activities that are germane to the subject matter being taught, researched, written about, or presented.”

Ironically, the Regents’ policy liberally draws from but does not cite the long-honored statement on academic freedom and tenure from the American Association of University Professors, the group I head in Georgia. It’s the same group that has censured the University System of Georgia for its gutting of tenure. You may wonder why the Regents are praising by implication the AAUP’s standards on academic freedom, but not tenure. I have asked with no reply.

This strong statement about academic freedom from the Regents then applies to the question of if any Georgia lawmakers want to follow Texas and Florida down their terrible road.

There is the matter of the independence of our university system. Any attempt by lawmakers to define higher education’s curriculum or the role of the system has often been met with not merely strong objection, but a governor’s veto.

This spring the governor vetoed a bill that would have forced the Regents to set tuition in a certain manner. Gov. Brian Kemp said it violated the state constitution. And remember last year when the governor signed the “divisive concepts” law that is a scaled down version of the Florida version, lawmakers removed higher education from it at the behest of the university system because of those constitutional barriers.

So lawmakers may be barred. But what about the system’s Regents? Would they give in to legislative or broader political pressure and force Georgia to become Florida?

By what they passed this week concerning academic freedom, the Regents would be spitting on their own commitment to the principle if they followed Florida.

The AAUP defines academic freedom as “the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible.”

From my reading of the new Florida law, faculty there can no longer determine individually the approach to a core course. This is why the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers and other groups have condemned the new law. The AFT noted what passed “would place control of core curricula and institutional mission statements entirely in the hands of political appointees.” The United Faculty of Florida said the law will “dramatically limit what can be taught in general education courses.”

In a state that values academic freedom, faculty have the freedom to center any course on any theory they want that is germane to the course’s subject matter. They have the freedom to determine for themselves how much or how little to give to other theories. They determined how to teach, what to assign, etc.

This is the kind of trust we put in professors. And it is well-deserved. There is no indoctrination going on at Georgia’s colleges and universities. If you know any graduates from this year’s classes across the state, you know how well all 26 schools are doing to educate and prepare students for their lives of work.

Academic freedom and tenure are the bedrock of higher education because together they produce great higher education. If anyone thinks otherwise, watch what happens to Texas and Florida. Many will leave. Many won’t come. And those who stay will not be at great institutions. In some ways, that is already happening in Georgia due to its policy on tenure.

To answer my own question, I can’t imagine the Georgia Board of Regents following Florida. If they do, they would be self-inflicting another gigantic blow to our great collection of schools. I hope my faith is well-placed. The Regents trust me to teach and I have to trust them to uphold their own commitment to academic freedom.