Global threats to intellectual and academic freedom in higher education are harming researchers’ abilities to study contentious topics. From attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion curricula to opposition to critical race theory to pressure on those studying midinformation, constraints on research and participatory democracy are as strong as ever.
Janet Salmons, the research community director of our sister site, Sage Methodspace, coordinated a series of research roundtables to discuss the obstacles facing academic freedom and how to navigate them.
“This is a great time to celebrate interdisciplinary collaboration and looking for ways that we can speak up, be courageous and encourage others to do that as well,” Salmons said in the first roundtable.
Marc Spooner, a professor in the faculty of education at Canada’s University of Regina, joined Salmons to discuss the issue in an interview. Spooner composed and edited a special issue for the Qualitative Inquiry Journal, titled “Higher Education in the Time of Trump and Beyond: Resistance and Critique.” The compilation of articles was created prior to the COVID-19 pandemic as a response to academic freedom limitations at the time, which he has described as a period of backsliding democracy, authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism.
“Critical race theory and various forms of equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives and areas of study are being outright banned, being pushed to the margins, people are being fired,” Spooner said in a Methodspace interview with Salmons. “So, in this regard I felt like the academy has not only an important role but an ethical role in fighting this and resisting this, and I was saying before when I first put the issue together, I thought maybe I was being an alarmist, but now I can see I haven’t done enough, we haven’t done enough as scholars.”
The interview discussed various threats, including legislation removing tenure for future university faculty, initiatives marginalizing minoritized communities and limits on publishing certain books and bans on others.
“It’s not hyperbole to say our very democracy is at stake at this time,” Spooner said in the interview. “We’re at a very critical juncture like I mentioned before where authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, this kind of populous version of those is taking over, and academics have to speak out, and keeping quiet and keeping to ourselves in our peer-reviewed committees and our collegial spaces isn’t enough anymore.”
The first academic freedom roundtable features a discussion between Spooner and four additional researchers who contributed articles to the special issue. Participants included:
Leslie Williams, educational program administrator at the University of Connecticut and co-author of Trumpocalypse and the Historical Limits of Higher Education Policy: Making the Case for Study/Struggle.
Sandy Grande, professor of political science and Native American and Indigenous studies at the University of Connecticut and co-author of Trumpocalypse and the Historical Limits of Higher Education Policy: Making the Case for Study/Struggle.
Bryant Keith Alexander, dean of the Loyola Marymount University college of communication and fine arts and author of A Welcome, A Warning and A Wish: On Entering a Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership for Social Justice in the Year 2020.
Michelle Fine, professor of urban education, psychology, liberal studies, women’s and gender studies and American studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and co-author of ENCUENTROS: Decolonizing the Academy and Mobilizing for Justice.
The second academic freedom roundtable includes insights from Spooner and four other researchers, including:
Nicole Brown, associate professor at the University College London institute of education.
Áine McAllister, lecturer in languages in education in the international center for intercultural studies at the University College London.
Natalia Reinoso Chavez, independent qualitative researcher and lecturer at the medicine faculty of the Universidad de la Sabana.
Consuelo Chapela, professor of health promotion and qualitative research at Metropolitan Autonomous University.