With the University of Wisconsin facing the latest in a series of political attacks, activists dread a chilling consequence on academic freedom
Educational watchdogs are warning that newly emboldened Republican leaderships at the state level are ramping up pressure on universities to curb programs they claim advance the politically correct agenda of liberal administrators and staff.
The latest row over academic freedom erupted at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in December when a Republican country senator, Steve Nass, launched an attack on the chancellor and regents over an undergraduate program on masculinity that Nass claims declares war on men.
The latest assault follows menaces from conservative Wisconsin legislators last month to cut monies from the university for offering a course on race relations titled The Problem of Whiteness .
Last July, lawmakers threatened to cut the University of Wisconsin Systems budget over an obscene course reading assignment about gay mens sexual preferences that was required as part of a sociology course titled Problems of American Racial and Ethnic Minorities.
In the most recent salvo in the long war between the university and state lawmakers over academic liberty, Nass said in an email to the Capital Times: Our friends at UW Madison , not happy enough with labeling whiteness as a societal problem , now are assaulting another societal ill men and their masculinity.
Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group dedicated to defending individual rights at US colleges and universities, said: Whether or not criticism of individual courses is warranted, the threat to withdraw funding has a chilling effect on academic freedom.
Once you permit legislators to dictate budgets based on course offerings, you are effectively saying that if it isnt OK with a majority of people as represented by their elected officials, then research and academia can be shut down.
Groups tracking the interplay of educators and elected officials say they are monitoring whether the election of Donald Trump will embolden conservative lawmakers to ramp up their attacks in an effort to exert influence on academic structures.
Cohns group, known by its acronym, Fire, maintains that censorship of academic freedom comes from the two sides of the political spectrum. Censorship isnt a partisan issue, he said. Both sides try to censor who they disagree with.
But with Republican controlling more parliaments, he expects to see more legislative efforts at academic control coming from the right. Nass, Cohn said, had every right to criticize a universitys educational content. But by exerting the power of a legislator, hes doing more damage than good.
UW-Madison administrators have stated their intention to resist political pressure to end the Mens Project, which includes a six-week voluntary discussion program that aims to explore masculinity and the problems accompanied by simplified definitions of it.
Information posted on UW-Madisons Multicultural Student Center website defined media, hook-up culture, alcohol, violence, and pop culture as culture influences distorting ideas of masculinity.
The Mens Project aims help our male students make healthy, positive selections during their college experience, spokesperson Meredith Mcglone said in a statement. Research has shown that expectations around masculinity influence the decisions college humen build they believe they need to act a certain route to be accepted.
Nass explicitly threatened UW-Madison over its whiteness and masculinity programs, echoing previous positions that course offerings will play a role in evaluating the universitys budget. Last week, a Nass spokesman, Mike Mikalsen, said rather than rethinking its spending, the university was asking lawmakers for more nation money.
They continue to believe they can operate as they always have with personalized agendas, Mikalsen said.
But Nasss latest assault has been met with a vigorous pushback from activists. Last week, advocates for survivors of sex and domestic abuse called on Nass to withdraw his criticism.
Patti Seger, executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, has said the lawmaker should be praising the efforts of young men to be part of the solution. Seger told the Journal Times her group planned to explain to the senator why programs like the Mens Project are so vital, especially to the safety of women and girls in Wisconsin.
Wisconsins academia is not alone in facing down conservative lawmakers.
In 2014, legislators in South Carolina campaigned to reduce fund for the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina for assigning materials that handled gay and lesbian themes.
In March last year, Fire reported on pressure facing the City University of New York( Cuny) system to respond to antisemitism on campus resulting from calls by a pro-Israel organization to banish chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine( SJP) from all Cuny campuses. The New York country senate threatened to withhold as much as $485 m in funding unless Cuny responded with a scheme. There is more than a passing concern that the funding threats if not Cunys efforts to quickly respond to the criticism could lead to censorship or have a chilling consequence on campus activists, warned Fire.
In April, Tennessee lawmakers voted to cut the entire $436,000 country appropriation for an office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville promoting diversity. State lawmakers also pushed for legislation to prevent the university from expending school dollars on student-organized Sexuality Week events.
Despite the apparent upswing in efforts to exercise control over academic liberties, many of these are longstanding battles and not inevitably part of a new tendency, said Cohn.
Its been a persistent threat ever since there have been publicly funded universities people have wanted to exercise more control over content than they should probably have.
Critics say there is a substantive discrepancies between a legislature deciding to fund a medical school and wanting to provide a liberal arts education that could suffer gravely when legislators try to interfere with content.
That is a dangerous, big-picture repercussion, larger than whether or not an individual course happens to be a waste of time or offensive to some people, Cohn said.
Nasss attacks on the University of Wisconsins whiteness program were picked up by white nationalists after course professor Damon Sajnani used the hashtag #TrumpKluxKlan to describe Trump and his followers.
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