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Culture wars are raging on US campuses. Will they affect research?

It’s been a tumultuous time for higher education in the United States. Since early December, the presidents of two high-profile universities have resigned, both following comments they made during a congressional hearing about the Israel–Hamas war. The resignations are part of a growing politicization of higher education in the country — one that is having an impact on science and could lead to upheavals in the US research community.

In the past few years, conservatives at think tanks and in government, especially in right-leaning states, have pushed through laws and political appointments that they say are intended to reform universities. Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York City and a trustee of Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, told Nature: “For higher ed to survive, for science to thrive, we must restore academic freedom and colour-blind meritocracy in place of identitarian social-justice activism.”

But the interventions have left some scientists looking to move to less conservative states, while others worry that their research and funding could get caught in the crossfire.

Claudine Gay’s resignation as president of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in January and Elizabeth Magill’s resignation from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in December came after they both appeared during a congressional hearing on student protests relating to the Israel–Hamas war. Student protesters chanted pro-Palestinian slogans that are regarded by some as antisemitic. Some politicians, principally right-wing, sharply criticized the university leaders for not unequivocally denouncing such chants, which spurred campaigns for the presidents to step down. Gay also faces charges of plagiarism.

Elise Stefanik, a Republican member of Congress who called for Gay and Magill’s resignations after the hearing, had criticized Harvard in the past and decried “the Ivory Tower’s march toward a monoculture of like-minded, intolerant liberal views”.

The concerns over antisemitism on campuses join a series of other issues that have drawn scrutiny — including diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, transgender rights and an academic framework for studying patterns of bias in society known as critical race theory. These issues have rallied conservatives and lent momentum to the movement to wrestle higher education away from what they see as liberal control. Conservative critics argue that campus antisemitism has grown out of an environment at US universities that focuses on DEI and where social issues are seen through the lens of identity and diversity, oppressor and oppressed.

For conservatives, shutting down DEI efforts in higher education is viewed as a way to protect academic freedom at universities where liberal thinking has become compulsory.

Many in academia, however, see measures to restrict DEI efforts as political interference that is itself a threat to academic freedom. “What we’re seeing is an attempt by the right to convince the public that higher education is broken,” says Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), headquartered in Washington DC. “And they need to fix it by squashing academic freedom.”

DEI staff are not activists, Mulvey insists, and DEI is not a leftist ideology that is being forced on faculty members and students. “DEI is there to help and support students from under-represented groups, students of colour, first-generation students, veteran students with disabilities, all sorts of students,” she says. Responding to critics of DEI, Mulvey says, “I don’t see any evidence of indoctrination in the classroom.”

Harvard University President Claudine Gay attends a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S.

Claudine Gay is a former president of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Credit: Ken Cedeno/Reuters

Divided over diversity

Universities have invested heavily in DEI offices and programmes, especially since the summer of 2020, when protests against the killing of George Floyd spread across the United States. The expansion of DEI has prompted some backlash from the left as well as the right. Leftist critiques tend to focus on whether DEI efforts are effective in achieving their stated goals or whether such programmes have become co-opted by those in power and used as box-checking exercises that deflect calls for more meaningful change.

However, by and large, DEI has been broadly embraced by the scientific community. Many universities across the globe and companies have come out in support of DEI efforts and antiracism initiatives, including Nature. Research leaders have argued for DEI to be used as a tool to counteract pre-existing structural biases that have limited the diversity of science, and thus limited the questions that science asks and the hypotheses that science generates. Inclusion, in this view, is pragmatically good for science as well as a moral imperative.

Florida has gone further than any other state in intervening in public higher education. Early last year, Florida governor Ron DeSantis introduced legislation, which came into effect last July, aimed at stopping “the tactics of liberal elites who suppress free thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination”, according to a statement by his office. Florida banned public-university spending on DEI and directed the state board of governors to report on “any curriculum … that is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities”. That directive could affect science courses that touch on topics such as racial disparities in public health or the history of science.

The legislation prohibits public universities from investing in programmes or campus activities that “promote or engage in political or social activism”. Activism is left undefined in the text, but a draft regulation defines activism as “any activity organized with a purpose of effecting or preventing change to a government policy, action, or function, or any activity intended to achieve a desired result related to social issues”. Interpreted broadly, the law could rule out any activities or even research efforts that seek to mitigate climate change, make birth control more accessible or increase vaccination rates. “The language is vague,” says Mulvey. “It’s deliberately vague, so that people will overcompensate and self-censor, so they won’t get into trouble.” DeSantis’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

In January, Florida removed the course ‘principles of sociology’ from the list of options that students can take to fulfil general graduation requirements. At the board of governors meeting where the vote to remove the course was held, Florida’s education commissioner Manny Diaz said, “While that field was very scientific, at one point, it has moved away from that.” In December, on the social-media platform X (formerly Twitter), Diaz wrote: “Sociology has been hijacked by left-wing activists and no longer serves its intended purpose as a general knowledge course for students.”

In December, the AAUP issued a report chronicling political interference in Florida’s public university system, including anti-DEI legislation, the appointment of political allies of DeSantis to university leadership positions, and the installation of a post-tenure review system that makes it relatively easy for universities to get rid of faculty members.

Some faculty members have left Florida in response to the changes. There are many individual anecdotes, but as yet there are no clear data that show a major exodus — which could take some time to emerge because of the time it takes to fill academic appointments and the difficulty of finding available university positions. An informal survey conducted by organizations that represent faculty members in southern states found that many people are interested in moving.

Neuroscientist Elizabeth Leininger has already left. She once taught at New College of Florida in Sarasota, a small public institution with a left-wing reputation, where more than 10% of its bachelor-of-science graduates went on to earn doctorates, the 13th-highest rate in the country. Leininger attributes the high rate in part to a curriculum that focuses on undergraduate research and independent study. “There’s a lot about the structure of New College that is a little bit hippie,” Leininger says. “But it turns out that structure was really excellent for training scientists.”

New College of Florida was thrown into upheaval in January last year when DeSantis appointed several members to the board of trustees, who proceeded to give the university an ideological overhaul in what one trustee described as “the opening move in a conservative counter-revolution”. Immediately, all DEI initiatives at New College ceased. Soon after, the college’s president was fired and five faculty members were denied tenure owing in part to “a renewed focus on ensuring the college is moving towards a more traditional liberal arts institution”, according to a memo from Richard Corcoran, who was appointed as New College’s president. The faculty members who were denied tenure included two chemists and an oceanographer. They were all applying one year early, so they could reapply next year, if they choose.

“Science thrives if we make sure that everybody has a place in it, and that everyone feels like they can be a scientist,” Leininger says. “I didn’t want to work at a place that wouldn’t allow me to reach all of my students and teach inclusively.” Leininger had begun looking for a new position as soon as the new trustees were appointed in January. By July, she was gone.

Troubles in Texas

Although other states have not adopted as many changes as Florida, similar stories are playing out in other conservative-leaning states. On 1 January, a law came into effect in Texas prohibiting public universities from maintaining DEI offices or using DEI statements in hiring processes. In a statement, the bill’s sponsor, state senator Brandon Creighton, said: “The days of political oaths, compelled speech, and racial profiling in university hiring are behind us.” Anti-DEI laws have also been signed in North Dakota, North Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee.

The Texas bill, SB 17, does specifically state that the ban is not intended to apply to “academic course instruction” or “scholarly research”, but uncertainty about the laws is leading to self-censorship, as some had feared. When the law came into effect, psychologist Idia Binitie Thurston, who was then at Texas A&M University in College Station, was working on an internal grant application with colleagues involved in diversity studies. Her proposed research project would have followed families with adolescents in Texas and looked at how a large number of factors — including the experience of racial discrimination — affect adolescent health.

She says her team asked Gerianne Alexander, the university’s associate vice-president for research, if their research focus would be a problem, given the new policy. When they received what she describes as a “non-specific, non-reassuring” response, the researchers decided to scrap the proposal. “Our concern was: can we mention inequities?” Thurston says. “Can we talk about these kinds of issues?”

Alexander said she did not recall her communication with the team, adding that, “the university administration has communicated to faculty that SB 17 does not pose restrictions on research. There would be no reason to not seek internal or external support for research on any topic”.

Not long after that interaction, Thurston left Texas to take a position in Boston, Massachusetts. She says she is committed to continuing her work, in part so her data can inform debates on whether specific interventions taken to reduce social and racial inequities are effective. “We have to find places where we can do it, and do it,” she says.

Another target of right-wing activists has been diversity statements, in which job candidates explain their approach to integrating diversity, equity and inclusion in their classrooms and laboratories. The use of diversity statements in hiring is seen by many conservatives as an ideological litmus test — a kind of leftist loyalty oath. Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who opposes DEI policies, told Nature that “many schools screen STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] faculty applicants based on the enthusiasm evinced for diversity, equity and inclusion in their mandatory DEI statements. Such enthusiasm has no relation whatsoever to scientific breakthroughs and is a form of thought control.”

That’s not a perception shared by Leininger. “Our job as professors and scientists at public colleges is to serve the public,” she says, and that means helping students who meet the university’s admittance criteria to “realize their academic potential”. Diversity statements help to identify teachers who can do that, she says, by assisting hiring committees to select candidates who are “aware that not all students have the same academic opportunity” and have some ideas about how their teaching could connect with students from various backgrounds. “That’s not indoctrination,” Leininger says. “That’s just being a good teacher.”

More recent moves, stemming from the controversy over antisemitism, go beyond dismantling DEI programmes. In December, New York representative Michael Lawler had added an addendum to a budget bill, which must be passed to fund the government’s operations. The Lawler amendment would remove federal funding from public institutions of higher education “that authorize, facilitate, provide funding for, or otherwise support any event promoting antisemitism”. Lawler says his bill is not political interference. A spokesperson for Lawler said, “This legislation is not about political oversight of campus activities. It is about ensuring the safety of students on campus.”

Lawler’s office told Nature that this bill would apply only to funds from the US education department and not from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But Tobin Smith, a policy specialist at the Association of American Universities (AAU), says the bill’s language could also be read as applying to grant funding from other federal agencies, such as the NIH, a crucial funder of university research grants.

Barbara Snyder, president of the AAU and a former president of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says Republicans are putting the reputation of the US research enterprise at risk. “It would be incredibly short-sighted — with long-term negative consequences for all Americans — if policymakers were to put these cutting-edge, life-saving research efforts in jeopardy simply to make a political point,” Snyder says.

Although antisemitism is currently the issue around which right-wing activists are organizing their efforts, the next focal issue could be scientific, according to Isaac Kamola, a political scientist at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, who studies conservative campaigns to reshape higher education. “Next year, it could be an issue of climate change, the science around electric vehicles, medicines, COVID,” Kamola says.

In fact, Ohio legislators have proposed a bill that could limit the teaching of “controversial beliefs or policies”, which includes climate policies.

Mulvey says that the overall campaign to shape what is studied and taught is likely to affect some scientists directly. As a researcher herself, who studies “completely abstract mathematics”, she says all scientists should be concerned. “Political interference in higher education is simply disastrous to the academic mission of the university, and the mission of higher ed as a public good in a democracy.”

Fonte original Nature.com

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