Former higher education leaders have decided to break their silence and stand their ground on what they see as an existential threat to America’s higher education system, and, by extension, the country’s democracy.
State legislatures across the country have proposed or are pending approval bills that could dramatically alter the behavior and function of the public higher education system. Specifically, 25 bills in 15 states seek to punish faculty and schools that promote conversation on “divisive concepts,” such as race, gender, sex and American history, according to the PEN America Index of Educational Gag Orders.
Champions of Higher Education, organized by PEN America and Campus Compact, has united former college and university leaders and system heads to collectively voice their dissent about recent politics that aim to increase state oversight of public education institutions.
The alliance kicked off its campaign with a statement last Friday, which to date has been signed by more than 140 former leaders. Among those on the list were nine former state university system leaders from Louisiana, Maryland, California and Wisconsin, to name a few.
“It is American colleges and universities’ reputation as bastions of intellectual freedom that makes the American system of higher education a global leader and the envy of the world—a stature threatened today by censorious legislation within our own country,” the statement read.
Current college and university leaders are forced to bite their tongues on recent legislative efforts across the country, in fear of the retribution the state may seek to lay on their institutions for voicing criticism, such as defunding their operations. Facing this “impossible choice” of having to keep quiet, Champions of Higher Education aims to speak for those who must work within the “political complexities” of being an education leader.
Leveraging their connections with like-minded legislators and cultural, medical and military leaders, participants of Champions will coordinate speaking engagements and publicize articles to educate the public on the implications of such political aggressions.
“Statements are important but they’re not sufficient,” said Patricia Okker, former president of New College of Florida who was ousted by efforts from Florida’s governor, according to USA Today. “Let’s figure out actions that we can take to address this and build support for higher education and academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus.”
Champions aim to promote the cultivation of diverse perspectives, educational independence and robust debate at public institutions. They are still looking for new voices to step in and join their allegiance as they begin their campaign.
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