Let’s assume something of an attempted cultural purge in higher education leads from reactionary elements in society and state government. What could happen? Ok, predictions are hard and mostly wrong, and therefore often dumb to do. But I have no self-restraint. Seriously, I fail the marshmallow test all the time.
Individual stress and harm: I don’t think about individuals enough, but this pattern of targeted harassment can harm individuals, especially those who are subject to harassment and microaggressions on an ongoing basis based on the identities they hold. While some initiatives hit large groups, such as CRT bans or Florida’s mandated survey on political views, most of what we see follows a targeted pattern. The from Campus Reform and the right-wing media ecosystem to boards of governance and state republican parties. The pressure that puts on individuals can be tremendous and have adverse personal and professional consequences. The fear of being harassed can limit what people do and say, and it can also cause stress and anxiety. The attempted culture purge will have likely have consequences for people’s mental and physical health. These consequences will likely compound because we are coming out of a highly stressful pandemic and political environment that disproportionately affects marginalized communities.
Chilling academic inquiry: Let’s assume that open inquiry is not just a key plank in US higher education values and contributes to the wellness of our society and democracy. If that’s true, it’s clear that harassment can have a chilling effect on things that matter. And the chill can occur without formal censorship (banning books, etc.), which isn’t, by the way, off the table in some places. Free speech advocates have made a lot about undergraduates shouting speakers off the stage. If they care about that, they should be VERY upset about the state and political party harassment. Political parties and state legislators have much more power to shout entire groups of people off the stage than do impassioned undergrads.
Academic freedom could depend on your state: The tenure system and academic mobility are a hallmark of the US higher education system (ok, there isn’t really a higher education system in the US, so to speak, but allow me the imprecision for ease of communication). You could move from Kansas as a graduate student, take a tenure-track job in Tennessee, and later move to New York and always enjoy the same fundamental rights to academic freedom. Course loads, reassures available, and other things are institution (and discipline) specific, but the rights and responsibilities of the job are not, and so you can move about (also, the TIAA system allowed pensions to be mobile in many cases). You can also move about from the public and the (non-profit) private sector without the job changing many interns of basic rights and responsibilities. You might want to live in California because you like the beach and wine tasting. Still, you have substantial (formal) protections for academic freedom even if you live in Alabama (sorry to pick on you, Alabama). Yes, it has ALWAYS been more complicated than that for certain goops of people, at certain times, and in certain places (especially private religiously affiliated campuses). But that is essentially it. And, some might say it’s worked to the advantage of higher education and the country. You don’t have to be a jingoist or apologist for the US or higher education problems to say that the US system of higher education is pretty successful. The US system is emulated internationally.
The conditions of academic freedom, or at the very least, the level of political party or government, and university governance, harassment could depend on what state you are located. States that have certain types of governance boards, especially consolidated ones that have been politically captured as in North Carolina, and states mired in the cultural politics of the contemporary GOP could become particularly hostile to some types of academic work. And hostile to some types of academics. Even the legal provisions of academic freedom remain unchanged, the normative practices could shift with higher education trapped by the onslaught of cultural politics. Even if things at the university level work ok, just the stress of being attached or the increased probability of being attached could mean that academic freedom is limited in substantive terms if not in the abstract.
Variable academic freedom could distort the market for faculty: I am late producing this issue, and I am getting fatigue writing, so I’m going to go the easy route and use a set of my tweets to explain what I mean. Here we go.