AAR Issues Open Letter on Scholarly Inquiry to University Leadership

On Obligations to Safeguard Academic Freedom

September 27, 2022

TO: The Florida Board of Governors, State University Board of Trustees, University Presidents and Provosts in the State of Florida and higher education leaders at large

As Board Members of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) – faculty members who are teaching and researching in all states across the United States and in many international countries – we write to university boards of trustees, presidents, and provosts regarding our professional obligations and commitments to the process of free and responsible scholarly inquiry, including the importance of leading classroom discussions about difficult and uncomfortable subjects.

We write with a sense of urgency to implore you to uphold and publicly defend academic freedom in the educational institutions for which you are responsible. We are alarmed by the recent attempts of state legislatures to limit and curtail what and how classroom instructors may teach their subject matter, including many issues and concepts central to the responsible academic study of religion. We urge you reject the restrictive political agenda that, under the guise of “individual freedom,” seeks to limit free and critical academic inquiry and teaching within our institutions of higher education.

As pointed out in the AAR’s statement on the "Importance of the Academic Study of Religion," "[T]he academic study of religion is essential to preparing students to face the moral, cultural, and political complexities they will confront in life. It is part of preparing educated citizens for the world.” By exploring histories and traditions that may be unfamiliar to students or that involve understandings of the self and the world which are new and different, responsible teaching and learning in religious studies sometimes proves unsettling to students. Recent legislative efforts seek to prevent such responsible teaching and learning. However, engaging difference and diversity is an essential element of critical inquiry and self-reflection. Engaging directly with how religions have been influenced by - and have been influential in - critical developments in our diverse histories (which may include problematic outcomes and troubling legacies to work through) is essential to the education of a responsible citizenry.

As leaders in institutions of higher education, we recognize and support your obligation to safeguard this academic freedom. Academic integrity and scholarly rigor depend on an objective understanding of the history and culture in which religion resides, and is not to be swayed by political climate or parties. Education amidst the existing diversity of students in university classrooms depends on gaining new understandings and developing the ability to engage in critical thinking. Only in this way will our current students be well positioned to effectively engage and work in this diverse world. We urge you to uphold academic freedom and the ability of all instructors to teach responsibly and without fear of state censorship.