Edward Helmore

Monday 9 January 2017



With the University of Wisconsin facing the latest in a series of political attacks, educational advocates fear ‘a chilling effect on academic freedom’


‘It’s been a persistent threat ever since there have been publicly funded universities – people have wanted to exercise more control over content than they should probably have,’ says an academic freedom advocate. Photograph: Alamy

Educational watchdogs are warning that newly emboldened Republican leaderships at the state level are ramping up pressure on universities to curb programs they claim “advance the politically correct agenda of liberal administrators and staff”.

The latest row over academic freedom erupted at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in December when a Republican state senator, Steve Nass, launched an attack on the chancellor and regents over an undergraduate program on masculinity that Nass claims “declares war on men”.

The latest assault follows threats from conservative Wisconsin legislators last month to cut funds from the university for offering a course on race relations titled The Problem of Whiteness.

Last July, lawmakers threatened to cut the University of Wisconsin System’s budget over an “obscene” course reading assignment about gay men’s sexual preferences that was required as part of a sociology course titled Problems of American Racial and Ethnic Minorities.

In the most recent salvo in the long war between the university and state lawmakers over academic freedom, Nass said in an email to the Capital Times: “Our friends at UW Madison, not happy enough with labeling ‘whiteness’ as a societal problem, now are attacking another societal ill … men and their masculinity.”

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group dedicated to defending individual rights at US colleges and universities, said: “Whether or not criticism of individual courses is warranted, the threat to withdraw funding has a chilling effect on academic freedom.

“Once you allow legislators to dictate budgets based on course offerings, you are effectively saying that if it isn’t OK with a majority of people as represented by their elected officials, then research and academia can be shut down.”

Groups tracking the interplay of educators and elected officials say they are monitoring whether the election of Donald Trump will embolden conservative lawmakers to ramp up their attacks in an effort to exert influence on academic structures.

Cohn’s group, known by its acronym, Fire, maintains that censorship of academic freedom comes from both sides of the political spectrum. “Censorship isn’t a partisan issue,” he said. “Both sides try to censor who they disagree with.”

But with Republicans controlling more legislatures, he expects to see more legislative efforts at academic control coming from the right. Nass, Cohn said, had every right to criticize a university’s educational content. But by wielding the power of a legislator, “he’s doing more harm than good”.

UW-Madison administrators have stated their intention to resist political pressure to end the Men’s Project, which includes a six-week voluntary discussion program that “aims to explore masculinity and the problems accompanied by simplified definitions of it”.

Information posted on UW-Madison’s Multicultural Student Center website defined “media, hook-up culture, alcohol, violence, and pop culture” as cultural influences distorting ideas of masculinity.

“The Men’s Project aims help our male students make healthy, positive choices during their college experience,” spokesperson Meredith Mcglone said in a statement. “Research has shown that expectations around masculinity influence the decisions college men make – they believe they need to act a certain way to be accepted.”

Nass explicitly threatened UW-Madison over its whiteness and masculinity programs, echoing previous positions that course offerings will play a role in evaluating the university’s budget. Last week, a Nass spokesman, Mike Mikalsen, said rather than rethinking its spending, the university was asking lawmakers for more state money.

“They continue to believe they can operate as they always have with personalized agendas,” Mikalsen said.

But Nass’s latest attack has been met with a vigorous pushback from activists. Last week, advocates for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse called on Nass to withdraw his criticism.

Patti Seger, executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, has said the lawmaker should be praising the efforts of young men to be part of the solution. Seger told the Journal Times her group planned to explain to the senator why programs like the Men’s Project are “so vital, especially to the safety of women and girls in Wisconsin”.

Wisconsin’s academia is not alone in facing down conservative lawmakers.

In 2014, legislators in South Carolina campaigned to reduce funding for the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina for assigning materials that dealt with gay and lesbian themes.

In March last year, Fire reported on pressure facing the City University of New York (Cuny) system to respond to antisemitism on campus resulting from calls by a pro-Israel organization to banish chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) from all Cuny campuses. The New York state senate threatened to withhold as much as $485m in funding unless Cuny responded with a plan. “There is more than a passing concern that the funding threats – if not Cuny’s efforts to quickly respond to the criticism – could lead to censorship or have a chilling effect on campus activists,” warned Fire.

In April, Tennessee lawmakers voted to cut the entire $436,000 state appropriation for an office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville promoting diversity. State lawmakers also pushed for legislation to prevent the university from spending school dollars on student-organized “Sex Week” events.

Despite the apparent upswing in efforts to exercise control over academic freedoms, many of these are longstanding battles and not necessarily part of a new trend, said Cohn.

“It’s been a persistent threat ever since there have been publicly funded universities – people have wanted to exercise more control over content than they should probably have.”

Critics say there is a substantive difference between a legislature deciding to fund a medical school and wanting to provide a liberal arts education that could suffer gravely when legislators try to interfere with content.

“That is a dangerous, big-picture consequence, larger than whether or not an individual course happens to be a waste of time or offensive to some people,” Cohn said.

Nass’s attacks on the University of Wisconsin’s whiteness program were picked up by white nationalists after course professor Damon Sajnani used the hashtag #TrumpKluxKlan to describe Trump and his followers.



Link :https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/09/university-of-wisconsin-masculinity-program-republicans