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The Conservative Chill on Academic Inquiry

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Faculty are going to have to lead the fight for the continued exploration of complicated and controversial issues in our research because feckless administrators will cave to right-wing members of state legislatures up and down the line.

The University of Texas at Austin has paused a study on a program that teaches white preschoolers about anti-Black racism, drawing criticism from multiple faculty groups accusing the school of bowing to political pressure.

The research project itself is the target of a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that claims it discriminates against children of color because only white children are participants. The three researchers conducting the study were told to pause their research as UT-Austin administrators conduct a legal review of the complaint.

But some faculty members say the pause will negatively impact the research and will set a negative precedent that could allow anyone “to derail faculty research based on content they may disagree with,” according to a letter obtained by The Texas Tribune on Monday.

“To succumb to political coercion, especially as it relates to scholarship that confronts anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and any other forms of oppression, compromises the central function of a public university,” the letter states. “The University’s actions send a message that risks censoring and chilling professor speech based on viewpoint, running afoul of central tenants of the First Amendment.”

In an email to the university’s provost, the researchers conducting the study said that based on consultation with people who have experience with the Office for Civil Rights and academic freedom experts, “this is an atypical and unprecedented response from a university.”

The UT-Austin Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility also sent a letter to UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell and administrators stating they were alerted by the three researchers that the university’s action potentially violated their academic freedom. The organization said it would be investigating the allegation, according to a copy of that letter obtained by the Tribune.

Going to be a lot more of this coming down the pike. Grim, ugly times.

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