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The Increasingly Authoritarian War on Tenure

In 2015, I asked a history professor at a prominent university in Shanghai what happens if graduate students in China want to study the Cultural Revolution. They don’t get funding, he said flatly, and they won’t get a job. Clear and simple. In the United States, politicians have to work a little harder when they want to control what professors research and teach. Unlike in the People’s Republic of China, politicians in the United States have to loop their efforts through invocations of “the people.” We saw this in action on Friday when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas held a news conference. He promised to end tenure because he was enraged that the Faculty Council of the University of Texas at Austin had passed a resolution a few days earlier defending faculty members’ academic freedom to teach gender justice and critical race theory.

UT-Austin’s resolution is one of over 20 that have passed at institutions across the country in response to the laws and pending bills censoring what and how we teach in the classroom. Seven of these were passed by public flagships. Many of these resolutions, including the one passed in Texas, are drawn from a template provided by the African American Policy Forum while others, such as the one passed at the University of Alabama, were drafted from scratch. The resolutions affirm the long-established prerogative of faculty, as the experts in their fields, to determine curriculum. “We must collectively demonstrate that the faculty are organized on our own campuses across the country to fight back,” the UCLA law professors Kimberlé Crenshaw and Devon Carbado and three others wrote in an open letter encouraging faculty to bring resolutions to their senate floors.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Patrick does have a high degree of popular support among the general public in Texas. It’s easy to rally people behind you when you feed them propaganda. It’s easy to work people up by suggesting that their (white) college-aged offspring are routinely denounced by their (Black) professors for being inherently racist. Politicians don’t need evidence for their claims; they just need one or two opportunistic activists spreading misinformation through social media. They then simply gesture at the debris floating at the top of the mediasphere in lieu of real evidence.

This feedback loop is familiar: Consider how the partisan activist Christopher F. Rufo’s prolific falsehoods became evidence in a formal opinion by Montana’s attorney general. In Texas, the loop took all of two days after the resolution passed. A finance professor who came to the council meeting only for the period during which the resolution was on the floor gave a prepared speech chock-full of basic misunderstandings about both critical race theory and the role of faculty resolutions. He then tweeted a clip of himself, thus disregarding the faculty member who patiently explained his misunderstandings. (A Washington Post article brought that context back to the foreground.) Claiming that the finance professor’s tweet had gone viral, Fox News called further attention to it. Dan Patrick now had all the evidence he apparently felt he needed.

In his news conference, Patrick lauded the finance professor and blamed a “small minority” for the resolution. In fact, it was proposed with the full support of the academic-freedom committee, and with the endorsement of three other standing committees. Each committee had held its own discussion of the proposal weeks and, in some cases, months earlier. When council members voted, the tally was 41 in favor and 5 against, with three abstentions. Patrick also trotted out that time-honored McCarthyite trick of intentionally conflating issues involving race with communism by claiming that the faculty in favor of the resolution were “looney” (sic) Marxists. In fact, they are neuroscientists, biologists, historians, art historians, and so forth. The available evidence suggests that they are not loony nor, for that matter, Marxist.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education