The board of officers of the American Philosophical Association is deeply concerned about threats to academic freedom posed by President Donald J. Trump’s executive order of September 22, 2020, which claims to “to promote unity in the Federal workforce, and to combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating” by banning workplace trainings and other instruction aimed at advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion that include what the order calls “divisive concepts.”
The administration has made repeated statements targeting the research and teaching of experts on race and gender, including critical race theorists. In his remarks at the National Archives Museum on September 17, 2020, the President said, “Critical race theory…is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country. That is why I recently banned trainings in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government and banned it in the strongest manner possible.”
In this context, the executive order serves to suppress the evidence-based research and teaching of highly regarded scholars. We draw the attention of the administration and the academic community to three concerns in particular.
First, the executive order crassly caricatures the work of scholars of race and gender. Ideas such as “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and “an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex” are not widely accepted among scholars today. We deeply regret that the executive order appeals to the noble ideal of unity while having the effect of undermining the potential for unity, fomenting division by promoting a misunderstanding of efforts to examine and address prejudice.
Second, though section 10(b) of the order allows “discussing, as part of a larger course of academic instruction, the divisive concepts,” it specifies that teaching these ideas is acceptable only provided that they are not endorsed. This is a blatant affront to academic freedom. The cornerstone of academic freedom is the freedom to endorse conclusions that are supported by the best evidence and best arguments, without interference or influence from the government. We further note that, in another affront to academic freedom, the “carve out” for academic contexts in section 10(b) exempts teaching but not research from the force of the order.
Third, the order’s chilling effect on research and teaching is compounded by the vagueness of its text coupled with the absence of any specifics as to implementation. Faculty and students are already facing new uncertainties and immense pressures related to the coronavirus pandemic, and this Executive Order only adds to those uncertainties and pressures by instituting requirements and prohibitions without sufficiently defining them or outlining whether and how they will be enforced. For example, the Office of Management and Budget directs agencies working to enforce this order to conduct broad keyword searches for terms such as “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” “intersectionality,” “systemic racism,” “positionality,” “racial humility,” and “unconscious bias” to identify programs that may violate the order, without clear instruction on how to evaluate the content of those programs.
President Trump himself has stated, in his Executive Order on Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities of March 21, 2019, “Free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation’s democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity. We must encourage institutions to…avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives, thereby potentially impeding beneficial research and undermining learning.” Yet this latest Executive Order has that very effect of stifling the free flow of ideas and competing perspectives.
Some scholars have already expressed their fears that the Executive Order undermines their ability to confront, and to help their students to confront, some of the gravest challenges that face the United States with courage and integrity. We reiterate our support for our colleagues, their students, and the principle of academic freedom. We also reiterate our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, which are fundamental to our collective ability to offer robust educational experiences and economic opportunity for all.
The following organizations have endorsed this statement:
Middle East Studies Association
Society of Architectural Historians