Scott Yenor writes for the Martin Center about the limits of academic freedom in higher education.

State legislatures are taking up higher education reform. Sometimes higher education reform consists of attempts to regulate what happens on college campuses, such as laws that prohibit universities from requiring students to believe the tenets of critical race theory. Sometimes, as occurred recently in Idaho, state legislatures cut budgets or impose tuition freezes on universities taken with pernicious ideologies.

However, whenever legislatures question university practices, universities cry that academic freedom is under assault. If legislatures start asking what is going on in the classrooms or in the curricula, professors might start worrying about what they say. If legislatures cut budgets or donors withdraw funds because of concerns about the direction of universities, universities might change direction. All this would compromise freedom of inquiry and the autonomy of universities. Or so the argument for academic freedom tends to go.

How should advocates for higher education reform respond?

If universities would do their jobs, legislatures would not have to get involved. Legislatures get involved because universities have drifted from their core educational missions into political activism. Legislatures should not fund partisan organizations, and universities have become partisan organizations.

Legislatures establish public universities for two primary purposes: to secure the common good of society and to advance knowledge. Academic freedom can support these goals, but it can also subvert them. Legislatures and the public more broadly ought to have at least some say in deciding when claims of academic freedom undermine the common good or compromise the advancement of knowledge.

Academic freedom can be used to justify nefarious conduct. If the universities became staffed with Chinese or Soviet agents aiming to undermine the United States, surely legislatures should not let “academic freedom” trump its need to protect society.