Academic Freedoms are Now on the Ballot as State Legislators Seek More Control Over Institutions and Their Experts.

Academic Freedoms are Now on the Ballot as State Legislators Seek More Control Over Institutions and Their Experts.


Last month, President Biden had a very direct message for colleges and universities looking to navigate through the choppy waters of state politics in the face of the recent US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

As Idaho state legislators get to work rolling out its “trigger ban,” President Biden bashed the University of Idaho over its new guidance against offering birth control for students.

“Folks, what century are we in? What are we doing? I respect everyone’s view on this — personal decision they make. But, my lord, we’re talking about contraception here. It shouldn’t be that controversial,” Biden said during last month's meeting of the White House Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access.

Image: White House Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access Meeting

However the new policy by the University of Idaho goes further and advises employees not to speak about reproductive rights at work and warns they could face a felony conviction for promoting abortion, The Washington Post reported.

While President Biden warned other universities to not enact the same policies.

and said that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will look at steps to protect college students and school employees in Idaho or other states where access to contraception is at risk, these events are sparking a larger debate around academic freedom.

With such a polarized political landscape dividing much of the country on key issues such as abortion, should we be worried about what’s next? How do these actions in effect suppress important research and informed perspectives provided by academics? While state governments as critical funding sources for higher education have wielded considerable influence, these more overt actions to sanction freedom of speech is a disturbing trend.

Academics, researchers and staff within an institution require rights and privileges essential to the fulfilment of primary functions: instruction; the pursuit of knowledge and service to the community. Central among these rights is the freedom, within the law, for faculty experts to pursue what seems to them as relevant avenues of inquiry, to teach and to learn unhindered by external or non-academic constraints, and to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion.

Critics argue that suppression of these freedoms, whether by the government, the officers of the institution, or the actions of private individuals, would prevent a University from carrying out its primary functions.

A core principle of scholarship is the freedom to express ideas through respectful dialogue and the pursuit of open discussion, without risk of censure.

Other Universities Have Taken a Different Stance...

Vanderbilt University 

This argument has been supported by other schools and the examples they have set. School officials at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where a near-total ban on abortions took effect within the state in August, coordinated a reproductive-health task force and announced stronger support for reproductive health and parenting, even appointing a new leader to convene these resources for the University, The Washington Post reports. Elsewhere we are also seeing similar support by State University Officials in Michigan where a 1931 ban has been ruled unenforceable by the courts.

The University of Michigan 

In the lead-up to the Roe V Wade reversal, The University of Michigan created an abortion-care task force of experts to reduce the potential impact of a state-wide ban, created by Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan, as reported by The Detroit News.

Coleman wrote “I will do everything in my power as President to ensure we continue to provide this critically important care.” in a statement in June, after the Supreme Court ruling. The president told The Detroit News that "we have a female-dominated institution; we care about our own communities as well as those we serve through clinical care and education," Coleman said. "I am deeply concerned about how prohibiting abortion would affect UM's medical teaching, our research, and our service to communities in need.”

Concerns regarding the imminent crackdown on University campuses on the discussion and offer of birth control to students were expressed by many University officials in the months leading up to Idaho’s guidance on the matter. Dee Fenner, co-chair of the task force and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Michigan Medicine spoke of the clinical and educational impacts of an abortion ban in Michigan, as reported by The Detroit News.

"The most serious consequences will be felt in the university’s clinical care realm, by patients without financial or logistical resources to access out-of-state abortion care — disproportionately people of colour, adolescents and those in rural Michigan," Fenner said. “But the impact will be felt in our classrooms as well, where pregnancy, undesired birth or complications of unsafe abortion may impact educational attainment.”

Another consideration will be the additional “brain drain” that institutions in these states will experience with faculty experts leaving for institutions with less restrictive policies. It also could have a significant impact on recruitment as more students choose schools where their reproductive rights are protected.

Speaking to the Michigan Daily, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, Miya Brado describes the day that it was announced Michigan had enough signatures as “one of the best days ever”, with the hard work “finally paying off.”

We must recognize this fundamental principle and must share responsibility for supporting, safeguarding and preserving this central freedom.

Behaviour that obstructs free and full discussion, not only of ideas that are safe and accepted but of those which may be unpopular, vitally threatens the integrity of our educational and research institutions.

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