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A Culture of Fear is Emerging in Higher Education


A Higher Education Institution
A Higher Education Institution

This week, I offer insights into a growing trend in higher education decision-making surrounding immanent fear of state legislatures with recent rulings, policies, and laws being enacted. We have seen three examples recently where congressional leaders and state officials have used their positions and platforms to insight fear of prosecution, cancellation, and reprisal among higher education entities. Postsecondary administration is responding by halting services, changing curriculum, sending memorandums, defunding programs, and abruptly disrupting their ecosystems to appease partisan politics without understanding their rights, responsibilities, and legal rebuttals.


"Postsecondary administration is responding by halting services, changing curriculum, sending memorandums, defunding programs, and abruptly disrupting their ecosystems to appease partisan politics without understanding their rights, responsibilities, and legal rebuttals."

 

The most recent example is the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), which halted its In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) services due to fears projected onto them by the Alabama Legislature as a recent bill was passed concerning embryos. The University made a premature decision to halt services based solely on fear and intimidation due to the newly enacted laws. The best course of action would be to delegate general counsel to understand the recent state policies being implemented and to what degree the institution needs to alter its services. They should also seek to determine the unintended outcomes of the new legislation and what areas of their organization will have ripple effects from their decisions made in haste.

 

Another example is the anti-DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) legislation in several states, where the political agenda has dominated the conversation about whether DEI should be permissible in schools. The Chronicle of Higher Education has developed an Anti-DEI Legislation Tracking System as legislation is being discussed. Currently, eight states have legislation implemented related to the Anti-DEI regime. Twenty-five states have either tabled, vetoed, or failed to pass anti-DEI legislation. The issue comes down to the states in limbo, where bills are currently deliberated, and states have already taken unnecessary precautions and eliminated services due to fears of prosecution by the state.


"Twenty-five states have either tabled, vetoed, or failed to pass anti-DEI legislation. The issue comes down to the states in limbo, where bills are currently deliberated, and states have already taken unnecessary precautions and eliminated services due to fears of prosecution by the state."

 

The final example would be college presidents' resignations earlier this year at the urging and immense pressure from congressional leaders. After a congressional hearing where the women presidents’ responses did not seem adequate to meet the expectations of the House of Representatives, they were called “unfit to lead." With fears of university backlash and possible college reputations tarnished, two of the four presidents who attended the hearing decided to resign.

 

The common thread we are experiencing is a culture of fear being perpetuated to control and conform higher education institutions to fit a systemically oppressive structure maintained by those who weaponize their position of power. To clarify, I am not asking that universities disregard these new laws; I am encouraging leaders to understand the context and the extent to which they must adhere to the changes. Laws are not blanket declarations, and we must be clear about where our universities fall on the continuum of state legislation. Of course, it differs tremendously for public and private institutions. However, we must be willing to engage with external constituents, such as state legislators, and dialogue together about what these policies mean for higher education entities.

 

"So, we must be vigilant and make data-driven decisions, not move based on fear. We must be willing to gain clarity, understand these laws verbatim, and determine the best course of action for colleges and universities."

As the higher education context becomes more complex, with more profound levels of scrutiny, we must be willing to uphold the principles of academic freedom and discovery in addition to the robust student experience being provided. Services at colleges and universities are often the central tenants of a community and its residents. So, we must be vigilant and make data-driven decisions, not move based on fear. We must be willing to gain clarity, understand these laws verbatim, and determine the best course of action for colleges and universities. More discussions are to come as we dive into partnership and shared governance with external and internal stakeholders of higher education.


Thank you for reading and sharing this article!


Rebuttals are always welcome,

Jade M. Felder

@felderofficial - X

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