Higher education unions say House committee hearings target campus free speech, academic freedom  

Members of unions representing tens of thousands of faculty, graduate workers and others at Rutgers University, the University of California and Northwestern University sent a message to House Republicans on the Committee on Education and the Workforce after a hearing targeting their campuses on Thursday: “Stop the witch-hunt!”

“Dozens of us came down here today from Rutgers University to condemn, in the strongest possible terms, Congresswoman [Virginia] Foxx’s kangaroo court,” said Todd Wolfson, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and an associate professor at Rutgers. “I listened inside the hearing room today in disbelief as I heard members of the U.S. Congress paint an alternate reality of Rutgers, as they smeared my students, my colleagues and my campus.”

“The Ed-Workforce Committee hearings are a witch-hunt that echo some of the worst times in this country’s history, where small-minded politicians are let loose to spread fear and attack those they disagree with,” Wolfson said.

Top officials from Rutgers, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Northwestern were summoned to appear before the committee to face allegations, reminiscent of the McCarthy era, that they should have curbed faculty and students’ freedom to speak out during the spring protest movement at the three universities.

“There is no doubt that [UCLA] Chancellor [Gene] Block’s decision to escalate his response to the UCLA student encampment protest came on the heels of the Ed-Workforce Committee’s call,” said Katie Rodger, president of University Council-AFT and a lecturer at University of California, Davis. “This committee is using these hearings as a thinly veiled platform to continue their political attack on higher ed, libraries and academic freedom.”

Click here to watch a livestream of the press conference held after the hearing on Thursday.

Members of unions and advocacy chapters at all three campuses traveled to Washington to be present at the hearings and show that they reject the House committee’s characterizations.

“Instead of focusing on learning, teaching, inquiry, understanding, analysis and argumentation, which are some of higher education’s primary functions, the committee’s perverse obsession with harsh discipline and bizarre thirst for punishment revealed that their real goal is to shut down, repress, suppress and criminalize constitutionally protected speech and action,” said Mia McIver, a lecturer at UCLA and a member of University Council-AFT.

“We reject these threats,” McIver said. “We will not be intimidated. We refuse to let this committee corrode our work. We have confidence in our colleges and universities. We demand that faculty, staff and students be able to lead our universities without partisan interference. We will continue to protect and defend higher education as a public good.”

Earlier in the week, leaders of the higher education unions and advocacy chapters released a joint statement about the threat the hearings represent.

“We believe this hearing and previous actions of the committee represent an attack on the foundations of higher education and are part of a wider conservative effort to stifle and curtail freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression throughout society,” the statement reads. “Defending our universities at this moment is necessary to defend the basic principles of U.S. democracy.”