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Student Leaders Pushing Back Against Anti-CRT Bills

Policy and Advocacy Public Policy Division
February 28, 2022 Brent Marsh University of Mississippi Main Campus

The tumult over Critical Race Theory, or CRT, has been sweeping across most corners of the U.S. for some time now, initially surfacing at the local level in school board meetings and,over the past year, emerging as a hot-button issue in state legislatures. Opponents of CRT-related curricula and programs applauded former President Trump's (now defunct) October 2020 executive order banning "divisive concepts" in federally funded programs. Obviously, media coverage has been widespread, with CRT and related anti-racist educational initiatives being either extolled or vilified depending on the politician, the pundit, or publican. (Yes, bar owner. I'm assuming this is a hot topic at all the local establishments.) 

So, what is Critical Race Theory? No doubt astute NASPA public policy blogpost consumers like you are well-versed on the topic, but to be thorough, a definition seems apropos. Education Week has defined CRT as follows: 

Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. 

The basic tenets of critical race theory, or CRT, emerged out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others. 

Opponents of CRT might describe it in similar terms as Trump's 2020 executive order, as outlined in the Inside Higher Ed article linked above: "Prohibited concepts under the order include that 'one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,' that the U.S. 'is fundamentally racist or sexist' and that 'an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.'" Proponents, on the other hand, such as law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, an original scholar of the theory, emphasizes why the CRT lens is instructive: "'Let’s pay attention to what has happened in this country, and how what is happening in this country is continuing to create differential outcomes so we can become that country that we say we are.'" 

By June 2021, 16 states had introduced or passed anti-CRT bills. So far in the 2022 legislative season, no less than 22 bills have been filed at the state level seeking to restrict CRT-related curricular efforts, while other attempts are underway to erode or eliminate tenure processes (e.g., Texas lieutenant governor vows to end tenure over CRT instruction concerns) over this issue. Additionally, there are 115 anti-CRT bills still pending from the 2021-2022 legislative cycle that, if passed, would have impacts on K-12 education, higher education, and/or state agencies or state contractors.  

Students and faculty across the country have rallied against state legislative efforts to eliminate CRT instruction, and campus governance bodies have passed resolutions decrying the efforts as an affront to academic freedom -- strategies not dissimilar to heavy-handed measures in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes.  

On Tuesday, February 22, 2022, I had the good fortune to observe student leaders in the Associated Student Body (ASB) at the University of Mississippi (UM) propose and unanimously pass a resolutioncondemning Mississippi Senate Bill 2113.A February 10, 2022 article in the student newspaper articulated concerns voiced by students and faculty alike. The same night as the ASB vote, the UM Faculty Senate passed its own resolution decrying SB 2113, which passed out of the Mississippi Senate on January 21, 2022, with 32 in favor, 2 opposed, and 18 not voting, of whom 14 were Black lawmakerswho walked out during the vote. As of this writing, SB 2113 is still active after transmission to the Mississippi House of Representatives.  

The UM ASB Senate resolution reads as follows:  

A RESOLUTION OF THE ASSOCIATED STUDENT BODY SENATE CONDEMNING THE MISSISSIPPI STATE SENATE’S PASSING OF MISSISSIPPI SENATE BILL 2113, WHICH INHIBITS STUDENTS’ AND FACULTY’S ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH. 

WHEREAS, public institutions of higher education are granted academic freedom and expected to facilitate civil discourse, while also maintaining avenues of research and study, that surround sensitive, uncomfortable, or theoretical topics;  

WHEREAS, the Mississippi Senate Bill 2113 undermines the quality and a fundamental purpose of public higher education, which the University of Mississippi has financially invested in to bolster its merit and reputation in the past decades; 

WHEREAS, the bill’s ambiguous language and intent allows for the government to withhold academic funding for even undefined grievances as vague as “compelling students to personally affirm, adopt or adhere to” certain opinions on sex, race, religion, ethnicity, and national origin (Mississippi, Congress); 

WHEREAS, according to The Creed of the University of Mississippi, “I believe in academic freedom,” the University has a vested interest in protecting the academic freedom of faculty, staff, and students (UM Creed);  

WHEREAS, Mississippi Senate Bill 2113 limits students from learning, exploring, researching, and challenging different viewpoints in academic settings, thus devaluing our educational experience in comparison to other public institutions; 

WHEREAS, Mississippi Senate Bill 2113 limits freedom of speech and expression in the classroom and if left in place, will further restrict students at the University of Mississippi and in the state of Mississippi; 

WHEREAS, “Critical Race Theory,” according to the University of Mississippi’s Law School Course Catalog, refers to a course subject, commonly taught in law school, that “dissects the social construction of race's impact on our legal history and conducts a study of the American Jurisprudence's treatment of racial and social issues” (“Law 743: Critical Race Theory.”); 

WHEREAS, a bill such as this has large implications on the state and nation as a whole, setting a precedent that the Mississippi Legislature has a right to legislate academic materials that inhibits the thoughts and freedom of students; AND, 

WHEREAS, the University of Mississippi has public, historical connections to slavery and racial injustice, necessitating that avenues of contextualization and discussions about race relations in a classroom setting should be accessible without the fear of breaching Mississippi Senate Bill 2113 and suffering legal/financial repercussions, due to the vagueness of the legislation. 

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT THE ASSOCIATED STUDENT BODY SENATE CONDEMNS THE PASSAGE OF MISSISSIPPI SENATE BILL 2113, WHICH INHIBITS STUDENTS’ AND FACULTY’S ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH. 

During floor debate, ASB senators passionately and professionally shared their concerns (6:20 - 19:25 minute mark) regarding the impact SB 2113 would have on the student experience. One student related a story from a recent class session, in which the faculty member shared, in essence, "if SB 2113 were to become law, we couldn't hold this in-class discussion." A graduate student in UM's well-regarded Higher Education and Student Affairs program intimated that much of the existing curriculum would require a complete overhaul if SB 2113 were passed, as topics like diversity, equity, inclusion, and systemic injustice are central threads running throughout the program. Another senator astutely mentioned that UM landed #11 on F.I.R.E.'s recently published 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, a point of pride for the University but one that he said might be eroded by passage of SB 2113 due to the bill’s threat to academic freedom.  

I am proud of the student leaders who authored, debated, and ultimately passed the resolution unanimously. I suspect many of you are similarly proud of your students for similar displays of advocacy, critical thinking, and leadership. We have before us the honor and privilege of supporting and encouraging them to use their voices to speak up about legislation that would alter the quality and richness of the higher education experience they are seeking, and that of students who will follow them. Please let the NASPA Public Policy Division know how we can assist you in this regard.  

You can use the Kimberlé Crenshaw's #TruthBeTold campaign resource to track anti-CRT legislation. More generally, higher education bills can be tracked at the Education Commission of the States 2022 Education Policy Watchlist