ACE, PEN America Resource Guide to Help Campus Leaders Make the Case for Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy
February 24, 2023

Presidents and other campus leaders are well aware of an unsettling and deeply troubling trend of elected officials intruding on academic freedom and institutional autonomy by trying to restrict what is taught and discussed on campuses regarding topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities sometimes labeled as “divisive concepts.”

So far, these proposals to restrict the teaching and campus discussion of a range of issues are mostly coming from state legislators and governors, but they also could surface at the federal level. Regardless of where such attempts are made, it is important for presidents and other campus leaders to communicate why they are antithetical to their academic missions and commitment to providing students an intellectually rigorous education and the ability to analyze complex issues.

That is why ACE and PEN America have collaborated on Making the Case for Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy in a Challenging Political Environment: A Resource Guide for Campus Leaders. PEN America is a nonprofit organization that stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide, and has been a national leader in fighting educational censorship, what it calls educational gag orders. ACE last year helped spearhead a higher education community statement signed by more than 90 organizations stressing the importance of free and open academic inquiry on our campuses.

This new resource guide helps higher education leaders make the case against elected officials imposing restrictions on what is taught and how, and emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all members of the campus community feel comfortable airing varying perspectives across campus and in the classroom. It provides an overview of what is happening and why, and offers guidance on how presidents, chancellors, and other campus leaders can address these issues from a higher education perspective with internal and external stakeholders. It also includes a two-page, high-level summary that presidents can share with their stakeholders, a document that also can be viewed separately here.

Included in the resource guide is information drawn from recent public opinion research surveying registered voters that was commissioned last year by ACE. The findings demonstrate that there is broad bipartisan agreement that elected officials should not shape higher education curricula, and that it is important to preserve academic autonomy, freedom, and free speech on campus. Bipartisan majorities said that because college students are adults, as long as issues are fairly presented in a non-doctrinaire way, all topics should be open for discussion. And as part of that, college students should be exposed to a wide range of topics and viewpoints, even some deemed controversial, because weighing multiple points of view is essential to learning to think critically, a fundamental part of a college education. 

The resource guide offers a range of information and background points, noting that overall it is important for presidents and other campus leaders to emphasize in discussions with policymakers and other stakeholders that the ability of colleges and universities to determine the academic content and intellectual rigor of what takes place in the classroom and across campus is of paramount importance to the quality of the education that our students receive.