Think Out Loud

University of Oregon hosts conference on academic freedom

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Oct. 12, 2022 6:42 p.m. Updated: Oct. 20, 2022 10:17 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Oct. 12

Some states have placed limits on topics that can be taught in schools. Some have tried to ban the practice of tenure, which gives professors job security. Some universities have bowed to pressure from students or outside influences to censure or fire teachers. These attacks on academic freedom may not be new, but they feel particularly acute right now. This week, the University of Oregon is hosting a conference on the present and future of academic freedom. Michael Dreiling, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, and Lori Latrice Martin, professor in the Department of African and African American Studies at Louisiana State University, are both speaking at the conference. They join us to explain what’s at stake.

This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.


Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We start today with academic freedom on college campuses. Some states have placed limits on topics that can be taught. Some have tried to ban the practice of tenure, which gives professors job security; some universities have bowed to pressure from students or outside influences to censure or fire teachers. This week, the University of Oregon is hosting a conference on the state of academic freedom. Michael Dreiling, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon and Lori Latrice Martin, a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Louisiana State University, are both taking part in the conference. They join us now to talk about what’s happening and what is at stake. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Lori Latrice Martin / Michael Dreiling: Thank you. Thank you very much, Dave.

Dave Miller: Michael Dreiling, first. I thought we could start with just a basic definition. How is academic freedom the same or different from constitutionally protected First Amendment rights?

Michael Dreiling: That’s a great question. You know, academic freedom is an extension of First Amendment protections and it’s innovation in the modern university was an extension of free speech, but it goes further in certain respects because it defines free…freedom of academic inquiry as informed speech, right? This is quite a distinction from ‘free speech,’ where you can have politicians, pundits, and public bullies. They’re not necessarily held to account to rigorous standards of expertise for their opinions, claims and assertions. In fact, they can just make things up. And they exercise ‘free speech,’ that is not ‘academic freedom;’ opinionated rants simply…just aren’t the same as a scholarly publication or a curriculum that must adhere to standards and expectations among the field of experts where that field of experts provide checks and balances on the validity, the factuality and the evidence basis of claims made within that field of experts. There’s no…there’s no, you know, strict parallel in the field of…the broad field of First Amendment protection of ‘free speech.’ It’s, you know, in your field, in Journalism, for example, ‘freedom of the press’ is similar, but it also has these checks and balances that we see are kind of an analog to the academic freedom principles that we utilize here and hold dear in the academy and the modern university.

Miller: I’m still trying to understand the distinction you’re drawing here, because the kind of internal checks and balances you’re talking about, they seem like truly internal ones, that ‘you’re not going to be published, if you keep saying things that are not factually true, or if they go against what is is seen as the mainstream of your field;’ it doesn’t mean that you can’t still make those arguments right? I mean, you’re saying you shouldn’t be prevented from making those arguments, even if everybody else in your field says, ‘No, you’re wrong.’

Dreiling: Well, people do make those arguments when they’re wrong and they’re held to account by it either, they don’t get promoted. they don’t get published. They don’t, they…there are consequences to it that are internal checks of course. Much like any other field of professional expertise, there’s great value in holding and insulating that community from outside interference, right? We wouldn’t have the great university systems, the great science, the medicine, the vast historical knowledge that we have produced in modern universities, without this kind of debate, this academic freedom that has made that debate and investigation possible.

Miller: Lori Latrice Martin, where do you see the biggest threats to academic freedom coming from today?

Lori Latrice Martin: So I think that there have always been threats to academic freedom, and I’m speaking specifically as it relates to Black scholars who do work on Race. You have to be concerned about what you say in terms of your teaching, in terms of your research and even in the kinds of service that you do, to Michael’s point you know, that can have an effect on how people vote when it comes to you, your tenure and promotion. They may not place a great deal of value on the kind of work that you do if it centers on people of African descent in America. So,  they’re always been limitations placed upon academic freedom. I think that, in more contemporary times, we’re seeing this assault on things like ‘Critical Race Theory,’ which, in a popular and public discourse is really now a catch-all term that refers to anything remotely connected into discussions about the history of race relations in America, which is very different than the academic understanding of ‘Critical Race Theory,’ which actually began as a critique of legal studies and education studies, and not necessarily meant to be a catch-all term for all things related to race in America.

Miller: What does it mean to ban the teaching of so-called ‘divisive topics,’ like race or gender in higher education, something that is happening in various ways in various states?


Latrice Martin: I think it’s very dangerous when we talk about history repeating itself. It’s important for us to know our history, and take an honest account of our history, especially as it relates to race in America. So oftentimes, I’m asked questions about whether, you know, this particular period that we’re living in is any worse or better than another period. And it’s important really to understand our history and to be able to recognize these patterns so that we can anticipate and understand when we think we have made some great strides in terms of race relations in America, and then only to find out that,some years later we’re back to business as usual, we’re not surprised or even disappointed in that, when we know our history and we can see the pattern dating well back into the period before the Civil War, up into the present. So there are a lot of issues related to trying not to have those kinds of conversations and share that knowledge and create that knowledge in higher ed. And it does not only us as a disservice as a nation, it does the students of the service as well. And the number of students who feel that they have been cheated because they’ve never heard about the history of race relations in an authentic way is really mind blowing. And so higher ed is really where sometimes they get their first indication of, you know, what they don’t know about the history of race in America in particular.

Miller: Michael Dreiling, ‘Pen America’ []  has called… state laws have been passed in the last two years or so in a number of different states, starting at the K-12 level, but now bubbling up to higher education, they’ve called them educational gag orders. What do you see as the effects of these various laws?

Dreiling: It’s a great question. The… just building on what Lori just explained here, and from your previous question, there is a use of this term, you know, ‘restrict teaching about divisive matters,’ that really is about silencing criticism. It’s really about evading accountability and knowledge claims. And so these ‘Gag Orders’ that the Pen America has described and others have as well, now, these are essentially efforts to restrict and censor teaching about the very complicated, rich tapestry of history that comprises the multicultural and complicated history of the United States, including painful concepts that are essential to understand, if you want to understand our present time, from dispossession to racial enslavement to oppression of all sorts, including environmental contamination. We… avoiding learning about these issues because somebody’s  concerned about them being divisive, you know, it’s kind of looking at the problem, you know, in a way, I think, in which those who want to censor, want you to look at it. They want you to think that, ‘Oh, you know, an eighth grader shouldn’t be having to deal with divisive questions of racism in America today,’ when what they’re really talking about is white kids who have not developed these cognitive and the cultural understandings that make up the complex world – and that that harms them to not understand this world. This is what  instructors, teachers, scholars want to have happen. But the gag orders are prohibiting this. They’re restricting access to curriculum that expands the worldview and the knowledge of students by putting gag orders on teachers. And so, I think this is what we’re looking at here today, fundamentally, it’s about censorship, and it’s about state-sanctioned, partisan censorship, that is aimed at protecting a privileged group at the expense of a broader understanding of the next…for the next generation, all students.

Miller: Oregon is not on the list of states that has passed a law like this in the last couple of years, but Michael Dreiling, what do you see as the state of academic freedom in Oregon?

Dreiling: In Oregon, I think like much of the country, is feeling the strain of hyperpartisan kind of threats, especially from the far right, to academic freedom. We certainly have seen and observed and I’ve had colleagues across the state…it’s not necessarily the same kinds of threats and tactics that we’ve seen in Texas or Florida or Louisiana, but the kind of threats that we face now, here on this campus, are really targeting faculty who are teaching topics that have been deemed divisive by the far right, or they’ve been seen as controversial in some way. And these are typically also underrepresented faculty or allies of underrepresented faculty, we’re teaching issues about LGBTQ History, but also about environmental change and environmental climate change in particular. And we’ve had scholars and scientists doxed, we’ve had vandalism, we’ve heard of, had cases of vandalism of faculty cars and property.  So there is a backlash happening on a broad scale and it is coming with a kind of threat basis that is certainly happening elsewhere in the country, but we don’t have, and I would say this is largely because of the…we’re leaning blue as a state. We don’t have the legislative threats that we see in some of the more red states where these hyperpartisan agendas have decided to use an authoritarian method to censor and put gag orders on teachers and faculty.

Miller: Lori Latrice Martin, we’ve been focusing largely so far on conservative state legislatures working to limit what could be taught in terms of race or gender, which you could see as a kind of top down issue. I’ve also seen reports of almost the opposite, more bottom up, of students or potentially, Administrators, complaining when professors don’t hew to progressive political positions. How big an issue do you think this is in terms of academic freedom on campuses?

Latrice Martin: I think there are a lot of myths about higher education and I think that for some people, they see colleges and universities as places where there are people really embracing values such as fairness and justice, when in actuality, it’s as dynamic and complex as the broader society. So I think it’s difficult to label any particular institution as leaning one way or another because of the variety of individuals and structures that are in place. But I also think it’s important to know, as you indicated in your question, that you have challenges coming from both within the colleges and universities and also outside. So you have some students who are demanding a more diverse curriculum, and want to see more diversity among the faculty and then you have others that might be more comfortable with the historic racial status quo. Likewise, you have parents who are excited to hear that an incoming class is the most diverse in history, then you have others who are concerned about what that means for the universities’ or the colleges’ traditions, and will donors continue to support them. So you have a lot of factors to consider with regards to the issue of academic freedom and peoples’ perceptions about whether an institution or curriculum is leaning one way or another. But for people who think that colleges and universities are places where everyone is embraced and in agreement, that couldn’t be far from the truth, if… at best. That’s aspirational.

Miller: Mikel Dreiling. The New York Times had an article about a week and a half ago about a Chemistry Professor at NYU, whose contract was canceled after 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him saying that his class was too hard. Have expectations of students or their parents affected the academic freedom of faculty, and do you see this one case as a story about academic freedom or something else?

Dreiling: That’s another great question. The challenges that most universities face as we become dependent of course on tuition revenue, these are, these are classic problems that affect the academic freedom of faculty, donors, tuition dependency, but also these cultural caricatures of the university, as a hyper-liberal space or you know, something that, you know, is not open to internal criticism. Those caricatures really undercut our ability to kind of examine the difficulties going on and the realities and complexities within the modern university. And this is an example here, where you get pressure, you get expectations that I think have been lowered since COVID, for understandable reasons to address falling enrollments in many cases,  and we have a real challenge, not just with the academic freedom, but with shared governance, right? And these are the kind of principles that you know, much like the professoriate has kind of stood on its two feet for many, many generations to kind of establish standards, curriculum standards, as well as kind of overall missions and purpose of colleges and universities. There has been a transformation in the modern university to a much more administrative, top heavy institution that is again, tied to these kind of, norms of appeasing customers. And that, I think, throws into some risk, the future of the university as well. And it’s not, it’s not tied to academic freedom, but I don’t think it’s centrally just an academic freedom question. It’s also a matter of the governance of our institutions and the role of outside forces that can pressure and change the way curriculum, curriculum  expectations, and ultimately the mission of the university or college, how it’s set.

Miller: Michael Dreiling and Lori Latrice Martin. Thanks very much.

Latrice Martin / Dreiling: Thank you. Thank you very much, Dave.

Miller: David Michael Dreiling is a Professor of Sociology at University of Oregon, also Co-Editor of the American Association of University Professors Journal of Academic Freedom. Lori Latrice Martin is a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Louisiana State University.

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