ATLANTA – A Georgia lawmaker is trying to find out whether any of the state's public universities are teaching about white privilege or oppression, part of a larger national debate over how colleges should teach about American history and race relations.
University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley asked the system's 26 colleges and universities on Jan. 21 to research the information after state Rep. Emory Dunahoo, a Gillsville Republican, submitted questions on the topic to Wrigley following budget hearings.
Some faculty members are bristling at the questions, saying they intrude into a professor's academic freedom and are part of an effort by Republicans to impose their vision of history and social relations. Conservatives, though, say they're fighting left-wing indoctrination by professors.
Dunahoo denied he has any preconceived notions and said that he won’t come to a conclusion until he receives responses from his request.
“These questions come from my constituents in the district who want to know what’s being taught to their kids at college," he told The Times of Gainesville on Friday.
Dunahoo sent Wrigley three questions. They include:
1) Are any classes within the Georgia public school system or the University System of Georgia teaching students that possessing certain characteristics inherently designates them as either being “privileged” or “oppressed?”
2) Are any classes within the Georgia public school system or the University System of Georgia teaching students what constitutes “privilege” and “oppression?”
3) Are any classes within the Georgia public school system or the University System of Georgia teaching students who identify as white, male, heterosexual or Christian are intrinsically privileged and oppressive, which is defined as “malicious or unjust” and “wrong?”
Some presidents and provosts are examining course titles and syllabuses to answer the question. In at least one case, at Douglas-based South Georgia State College, some professors were asked directly.
“We are a state agency and are always responsive to the elected representatives of the people of Georgia,” said university system spokesperson Aaron Diamant.
While Dunahoo's email mentions public schools, state Department of Education spokesperson Meghan Frick said neither Dunahoo nor any other lawmaker has contacted the agency with the concerns.
Dunahoo’s request was first reported by the Ledger-Enquirer.
Dunahoo's district includes the Gainesville campus of the University of North Georgia, but his request got a cool reception there from some professors.
English professor Matthew Boedy, who is also the state conference president of American Association of University Professors, described Dunahoo as a university supporter who addressed one of Boedy’s classes about carrying guns on campus in 2017.
But Boedy said he's never encountered such a survey before and fears it's designed to intimidate professors. He said discussions of whether white Americans benefit from their racial status and whether African Americans are subject to systematic barriers are “totally appropriate” for discussion in the right classes.
“The request is an attack on higher education,” Boedy said. “It perpetrates a pernicious agenda. I don’t know why a state representative who won his district by 40 points needs to throw red meat to his base, but this echoes national conservative discourse that has been laughed from the public square by historians and other experts.”
Boedy is referencing in part the 1776 Commission created by President Donald Trump to study the teaching of American history. That group labeled “identity politics” as “fundamentally incompatible with the principle of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.” It also called for a “wholesome education” that “passes on the stories of great Americans from the past.”
That report brought widespread derision from historians as document rooted in politics. But Republicans in other states are stepping in to push their views. In Arkansas and Iowa, lawmakers have introduced bills that ban use in classrooms of the 1619 Project, a series of essays published last year in The New York Times Magazine that argued that slavery and its consequences are the central thread of U.S. history. Governors in South Dakota and Mississippi have called for “patriotic education.”
The university system's policy manual declares that regents are “unalterably opposed to political interference or domination of any kind or character in the affairs of any University System of Georgia" and says that “as public institutions of higher education, USG institutions must promote open ideas and academic freedom on their campuses.”
Political meddling could be greeted negatively by outside accreditors, as it was in a famous 1941 incident. Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge that year engineered the removal of University of Georgia education dean Walter Cocking after Talmadge vowed he would remove anyone teaching “communism or racial equality” at a state college. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked the accreditation of all of Georgia's then-segregated state colleges for whites, citing “gross political interference." In part because of the ensuing uproar, Talmadge lost the 1942 governor's election to Ellis Arnall.