Academic freedom, the freedom to approach your topic however you want, is one of the great privileges of academia. This principle is so important that SDSU’s Policy File devotes several paragraphs to the topic, proclaiming that academic freedom is “a core value that underlies [our] teaching, scholarship and creative activity.”
Faculty, not administrators, and certainly not politicians, determine the content of their classes because they possess “the unique ability to apply professional judgments about the quality of the various kinds of scholarship and teaching undertaken by colleagues.” And because each professor approaches their topic in their own “unique” way, students enjoy a cornucopia of approaches and viewpoints.
To be sure, there are limits. You can’t teach Shakespeare in Chem 101. You can’t insult your students or your colleagues. But so long as you teach the subject matter in a reasonable, professionally respectable manner, the classroom is yours to shape as you will.
But all this came to an abrupt halt on June 19 when President Adela de la Torre released a letter to the university co-signed by Provost Hector Ochoa, all the college deans, and Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion (SDSU likes long titles) J. Luke Wood. This missive describes a ten-point plan to further support the African-American community in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and it contains this bomb:
All college deans will ensure that as part of the departmental diversity planning process, each department will review existing coursework and/or develop new curricula to advance racial and social justice, anti-racism, and cultural diversity across the curriculum (emphasis in the original).
Every course must now adopt a particular political agenda. Present courses must be inspected to ensure that they “advance racial and social justice,” etc. All future courses must be designed with this aim in mind.
Faculty, it seems, no longer have the “unique ability” to shape their courses as their professional judgment sees fit. Now, they must bend their teaching so that they advance an agenda they may or may not agree with.
When I asked the signatories how this item comported with academic freedom, they hedged. In private, I was assured I can still teach my courses however I want. Wood said they were merely “encouraging all departments” to review their curricula.
But Wood misrepresents this order. The plan does not “encourage,” it commands. The deans “will ensure” that all “existing coursework” follows the correct political path. There’s nothing optional about it.
Despite Wood’s further assurance that “The curriculum resides firmly within the purview of the faculty,” that is clearly no longer the case. The deans take their orders from the president and the provost, and they in turn tell the faculty what to do. This is top-down management, not “shared governance.”
There are more problems. The letter asserts positions that are highly contested as if they were axiomatic truths, but they are not. Does a commitment to “racial and social justice” include opposing anti-Semitism? Many on the left would say no. Nor is this an irrelevant question, as SDSU came within an inch of inviting noted firebrand and Nation of Islam spokesperson Ava Muhammad to campus.
The letter also assumes that every course must advance these goals, but again, this is obviously wrong. For example, “Construction Materials” or “Fluid Mechanics” are not courses that could easily accommodate a political agenda.
And what about courses that approach their material in an apolitical way? A distinguished professor in my department started his Introduction to Literature course by talking about prosody and enjambment, poetry’s building blocks. Is this approach no longer acceptable?
In his great pamphlet against censorship, Areopagitica, John Milton praised to the skies diversity of opinion. Truth has “more shapes than one,” and forcing everyone to have the same opinion would result in “a muddy pool of conformity.” That is exactly what this order risks.
To be clear, anti-racism and cultural diversity are laudable goals. But so, too, is viewpoint diversity: a core value of Heterodox Academy, an organization of concerned academics whose creed is “Great minds don’t think alike.”
Demanding that all courses, present and future, speak with one voice, all advancing one agenda, with no competing perspectives, is a bridge too far. This is not diversity; it’s intellectual poverty, and our students deserve better.
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He is an expert on Shakespeare and Milton, and is author of the new book Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11.