Carol Symes, a professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is vice president of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Symes spoke with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about a trend of state legislation that is changing U.S. higher education by redefining academic freedom and tenure for faculty members.

Indiana recently enacted a law that allows its state universities to deny tenure and promotions to faculty members who fail to foster “intellectual diversity” or if they are likely to expose students to ideologies outside their discipline. How might such a law impact teaching? 

Academic freedom makes it possible for scholars to pursue research and teaching in their disciplines, wherever the evidence leads them. It does not predetermine what the outcome of that research should be. Academic freedom is protected because it extends to our students and society at large, freeing scholars to ask difficult questions which might challenge established scientific findings, historical narratives or received ideas about values and norms. 

It is not the freedom for scholars to talk about anything, or do anything — those are individual freedoms, protected and limited by the laws we all follow. It is the freedom of inquiry within the confines of our expertise, allowing us to pursue the implications of our research to their logical conclusions based on evidence and our disciplinary training.

Tying tenure to “intellectual diversity” would mean that tenure is not about protecting academic freedom at all. Instead, tenure would become a reward or punishment for one’s perceived political ideology. 

These laws seem to be premised on the idea that I make conclusions about what my research findings will be beforehand — rather than arriving at answers that will be accepted as sound and convincing by fellow historians because I have asked a well-formulated question about what happened in the past, assembled evidence and advanced our understanding of history based on it.

When and how did the concept of academic freedom originate, and how could laws like this redefine it?

Academic freedom, as we understand it, was codified in the 19th and 20th centuries precisely because scholars were being told by their governments that there were certain things they could not study — and that limited the advancement of human knowledge. 

Indiana’s law is reversing those gains by putting a framework around what intellectual inquiry can be. It also presupposes that a given scholar’s position on a spectrum of “intellectual diversity” is fixed and unchanging.

Twenty or more states have enacted similar laws. Is this trend the outcome of broader dissatisfaction with higher education — such as tuition costs?

There is understandable concern about access to higher education because it is increasingly expensive, even at public universities that were founded specifically to be geographically and financially accessible.

Public disinvestment has actually made college more expensive and so made students and parents concerned about its value. That could certainly feed into this general distrust. 

But these problems have not been caused by academic freedom. On the contrary, they have contributed to the curtailing of academic freedoms because fewer colleges and universities can afford to tenure their faculty and thus protect freedom of inquiry.

College campuses are perceived by some as hotbeds of liberal indoctrination. Are these longstanding concerns or are they associated with the current political climate in the U.S.?

These concerns have been growing among conservatives since the 1960s but are being instrumentalized in newer ways because higher education is becoming more diversified. What some view as progress, others perceive as a threat to tradition, so these more diverse academic communities are threatened with the loss of tenure. 

The war between Israel and Hamas that is devastating Gaza has amplified these concerns — making the divisions between societal and campus groups starker. The stakes of the conflict and the complexity of the issues and histories involved are being seized upon to make an argument about what is wrong with universities.

Universities are dynamic crucibles of ideas and experiments that challenge us every single day, in the classroom and our interactions with each other, to question our assumptions. They are supposed to be the places where complex and divisive issues can be debated — which is why protests often arise there. That process of questioning, debate, protest and the very acceptance of uncertainty and complexity should also be protected by academic freedom. 

Higher education is not as venerated as it once was, nor are science and research. Are partisan politics eroding their value?

There is a perception that universities force people to become politically liberal. In reality, universities tend to attract and nourish people who are curious and willing to be persuaded by a predominance of evidence to adjust or change their positions. That is the way universities are supposed to work — and perhaps why opponents of academic freedom do not want them to keep working. 

As a scholar and teacher, I have found it very hard to hold onto unproven or discredited theories when I am constantly asked to think critically about the limits of my own knowledge, am surrounded by colleagues producing extraordinary new insights and confronted every year with a group of 18-year-olds asking new questions.


Editor's Note: This story first appeared on the News Bureau website.