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Thursday, May 23, 2024
Humanities Panel
Michael Bernard-Donals, Patricia Brady, Harry Brighouse, Brittney Edmonds and Armando Ibarra speak at the Humanities Now panel on April 10, 2024.

Three takeaways from UW-Madison panel on challenges to academic freedom

Humanities NOW hosted a panel of experts to discuss the role of public universities and academic freedom amid a controversial “DEI deal.”


A panel of experts engaged in a candid discussion on the evolving landscape of public higher education and challenges to academic freedom and autonomy last Wednesday in a session hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Humanities. 

Panelists included professor of rhetoric and culture Michael Bernard-Donals, former UW System general counsel Patricia Brady, professor of philosophy Harry Brighouse, assistant professor of African American studies Brittney Edmonds and Armando Ibarra, a professor in the School for Workers and department of Chican@ and Latin@ Studies. Russ Castronovo, director of the Center for the Humanities, moderated the discussion.

The conversation delved into the pressures facing institutions like UW-Madison — namely attacks on diversity initiatives and their broader implications for university governance — in light of a recent deal between state Republican lawmakers and UW System leaders to cap diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions in return for state funding.

Here are three takeaways from the panel discussion.

Academic freedom and free speech are different, profs say

Bernard-Donals began the discussion by emphasizing the distinction between academic freedom and free speech.

“Academic freedom isn't the same thing as free speech. Academic freedom doesn't give faculty members the right to say any damn thing,” Bernard-Donals said. “It does grant them the autonomy within their sphere with teaching and research [as] determined by their academic peers” 

Brighouse said autonomy is central to academic freedom because it establishes faculty as experts in their field. Many panelists also said tenure — a system of near-guaranteed employment for many university faculty — is crucial for academic autonomy. 

“Tenure brings us the autonomy to manage our own affairs, the curriculum, what and how we teach the content of our areas of expertise, who we hire and who we tenure,” Bernard-Donals said.

In recent years, several state legislatures have attempted to eliminate tenure at universities across the country. In Wisconsin, Republican former Gov. Scott Walker weakened tenure protections for university employees in 2015 and signed the controversial Act 10 in 2011, which weakened public sector unions, including those for university faculty. 

“Many states have seen during this time attempts, sometimes successfully, to legislatively eliminate tenure, limit faculty influence and governance and make the teaching of certain subjects off limits and or target programs deemed as work,” Bernard-Donals said.

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Bernard-Donals said he believes the legislative scrutiny of higher education stems from fear about what professors are teaching.

“More problematically, [the Legislature] also threatens the autonomy faculty have traditionally had and autonomy based on methodological expertise,” he said. “We've spent years honing. It's that expertise, that critical competence. That's the most valuable thing we can add to our students. And maybe just maybe that's what state legislators are most worried about.”

‘DEI deal’ brought hostility, decreased trust

Many panelists discussed the recent “DEI deal” — a deal between the UW Board of Regents and the Legislature exchanging capital projects and pay raises for UW System employees for a realignment moving one-third of diversity positions to more general “student success positions.” Additionally, the deal placed a cap on DEI positions to limit new hires through 2026. 

Ibarra was concerned attacks on DEI initiatives by the Legislature are part of a larger attack on academic freedom and public education as a whole.

“There were many faculty that I spoke to that were outraged, and continue to be outraged, that continue to be concerned about these attacks, not just on DEI but these attacks on academic freedom, these attacks on tenure,” Ibarra said. “What is the future of our profession if we keep going down this road?”

Ibarra said DEI is imperfect but essential for addressing systemic societal failures. He added that, as a researcher who studies inequality, attacks on DEI threaten his work.

Edmonds echoed these sentiments. She said there needs to be more transparency and communication surrounding the university's DEI practices and said a recent lack of confidence in higher education could be attributed to conversations surrounding DEI.

“When the average person hears ‘DEI,’ they're thinking, unconscious bias training, racial sensitivity, training, all these things that have been proven not to work that cost a lot of money, that are boring, and they suck. All they do is increase hostility,” Edmonds said.

Edmonds said she believes people may have a better understanding of what the desired targets and outcomes are of DEI initiatives if the university can better strengthen its communication on diversity programs. 

“Problem number one is communication,” Edmonds said. “I think the university is invested in DEI. What does that mean they stand for? Then. they should start communicating: What are your target outcomes? What kinds of students do you want to welcome to the campus once you welcome them here? What kinds of support will be given to them?”

Edmonds also said she has a lack of trust in both the Legislature and UW-Madison administrators. 

“When I hear about who wants to gain control over the university, it seems like, am I going to be controlled by a corporate administration or by a culture-warring Legislature? And it's hard to tell what the difference is on the ground as a faculty member, if I'm being honest,” Edmonds said.

University independence a long-running issue in Wisconsin

Brady said legislators and politicians have historically interfered with universities, penalizing them for issues surrounding free speech, academic freedom and governance.

She urged audience members to continue putting pressure on legislative leaders to make sure universities maintain independence and academic freedom away from partisanship. 

“I mean, from the very early times, there have been instances where legislators, governors and politicians have attacked the university in various ways. I characterize them most frequently around issues that might be loosely categorized as free speech or academic freedom,” Brady said. “The university needs this independence, needs academic freedom to fulfill its functions.”

Brighouse also engaged in a conversation with audience members and Bernard-Donals about to what degree UW-Madison should be accountable to public and private interests in Wisconsin.

“I don't want to be an institution that is entirely accountable just to private interests. I want my institution to be accountable to the public,” Brighouse said. “We have a special obligation to be accountable to the public as a whole.”

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