Three state universities caught in the crosshairs of critical race theory

One lawmaker says an institution has 'turned its back on the values of intellectual diversity and the discussion of differing viewpoints.'

What has become a lightning rod for controversy in K-12 schools is gaining increased attention in higher education. In the past month, major stories have emerged in three states—Florida, Wisconsin and Oregon—around what, if any, critical race theory teachings should occur at universities.

They include a professor saying his institution denied inclusion of the words “critical” and “race” in a graduate concentration; a lawmaker lashing out as at a university’s mandatory graduate class; and a student government fighting hard for CRT to be an undergraduate requirement.

The latter request, a hopeful pitch among the student-led organization at the University of Oregon, seeks to bring more light to the notion that race inequality is still pervasive and systemic in American society, fueled by unchanging institutions and leaders.

“I think we’ve identified this as an issue across the nation, as something that’s relevant to not only the educational value for students, but also to the wellbeing of our community,” Associated Students President Isaiah Boyd told Oregon’s Board of Trustees last week. “Racism and the social power structures that have enabled and continue to manifest the inequalities that many marginalized identities groups face must be continuously addressed and studied.”

Though the university has not committed to the change, its Office of the Provost recently created an Academic Freedom website to back its faculty “who may face questions, criticism or threats related to their research or teaching.” It also does mandate that students take a course on difference, inequality and agency course, though CRT is not referenced in its title. “Academic freedom protects and encourages intellectual risk-taking, ‘blue skies’ research, and innovative teaching, even when those pursuits arouse controversy,” the website says. “The discovery of new knowledge, which is often both of academic significance and societal benefit, and its dissemination must be unfettered.”

Institutions that do entertain critical race theory largely do not do so at the undergraduate level, according to several experts University Business spoke with. It is mainly found in law studies and some graduate courses. But the very thought of it has prompted harsh backlash from critics, especially top lawmakers, who fear it could wind up as a requirement to earn degrees.

One of the proposed graduate courses for the spring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on relationship violence includes references to CRT, which has inflamed some state Republican lawmakers. “Our university system is a place to encourage and cultivate diversity of thought. Instead, it appears to have turned its back on the values of intellectual diversity and the discussion of differing viewpoints,” Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wrote to UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “It is unacceptable that the University of Wisconsin–Madison requires graduate students to take a mandatory class that instills the university’s negative opinion of white students and the idea that students should feel guilty simply because of their race.”

Vos took offense to the wording in the class curriculum: “The course states that Critical Race Theory and Critical Race Feminism can help students understand privilege better and ‘how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America … not merely to understand the vexed bond between law and racial power but to change it.’ “

Another staunch opponent to CRT is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose state has banned it in K-12 schools. He has called its foundations “toxic” and “nonsense ideology” and has said, “The woke class wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read.” That hard stance and the fact that the state legislature is soon going to be addressing CRT (including House Bill 57, which could prevent professors from teaching it) has led to reports of some censorship already occurring at the University of Florida along with questions about its board’s potential ties to state leaders.

Dr. Christopher Busey, an associate professor in UF’s College of Education, is an instructor for the Critical Studies in Race, Ethnicity, and Culture specialization. According to a report from the Independent Alligator, he says in a grievance that professors had a concentration request denied because the words critical and race appeared in its title: “Critical Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Education.”

The University of Florida was criticized in November for failing to allow its professors, who are considered experts in politics, from testifying on voting rights in a case against the state. It later backed down, with President Kent Fuchs telling university officials to “approve the requests regardless of personal compensation, assuming the activity is on their own time without using university resources.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

Most Popular