Faculty say critical race theory ban threatens academic freedom

Zach Johnson | @ZachJohnsonCW, News Editor

UA faculty discussed potential legislative threats to academic discussions of critical race theory on Tuesday. 

Two prefiled bills in the Alabama legislature seek to punish professors and institutions for promoting critical race theory and adjacent curricula.

Lyndell McDonald, representative for the Faculty Senate’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, preferred to continue the conversation after the senate’s upcoming steering committee meeting on Nov. 9, but a faculty member’s comment prompted a response from Faculty Senate President Chapman Greer. 

Greer told the senate that conversations about legislation against critical race theory began this summer. Greer “strongly recommended” that the senate allow those working in the background to solve the issue. 

“There is work being done that is more indirect than direct, but there are many, many different people working on maintaining academic freedom and making sure that the integrity of what we teach does not get touched if at all possible,” Greer said. 

John Petrovic, a senator from the College of Education, demanded specifics. 

“I don’t appreciate the vagueness,” Petrovic said. “This is an existential threat to everyone in this room.” 

The provost decided to wait on a response until after a bill was passed. Petrovic called the move “cowardice bull—-.”

Greer said she was not at liberty to discuss the “indirect” actions being taken behind the scenes to address the bills but said she fully supports those actions. 

Nirmala Erevelles, a senator from the College of Education, teaches critical race theory. 

“There may be people who disagree with critical race theory, but that is not the issue,” said Erevelles. “The issue really is about whether the faculty can teach theories that make sense that are part of their academic curriculum.” 

The bills, House Bill 8 and House Bill 11, will be introduced in January. The authors of both seek to ban critical race theory and similar curricula, but differ in a few ways. 

HB8 does not outline specific consequences for faculty who teach prohibited “divisive concepts” like critical race theory, while HB11 specifically requires institutions to terminate any faculty who teach these concepts. HB11 also prohibits institutions from distinguishing or classifying students based on race.  

Heather Elliott, a senator from the law school, said her concern is not limited to the teaching of critical race theory. 

“This is about all of our issues,” Elliott said. “I write about Alabama water law, and I’ve had people tell me that if Alabama Power had their druthers, they would stop me from doing it. Alabama Power has a lot of authority with the legislature. What if they went to the legislature and said I can’t teach water law anymore? That may sound crazy, but that’s exactly what’s at stake here.”

Paul Horwitz, a senator from the law school, was surprised by the dissent among some faculty. He said a law that interferes with academic freedom runs contrary to the principles of higher education. 

“If there’s anything on which I’d have thought there’d be unanimity … it would be that where a bill from the legislature threatens fundamental principles of academic freedom.” 

A senator motioned for a poll to be created with help from qualitative research professor Stephanie Anne Shelton to measure the senate’s attitudes toward the bills in question. The senator’s motion to create the poll passed with 93% support among the 73 senators who immediately voted.