Paula Krebs: Bill would interfere with setting standards for what students learn

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 14, 2023

By Paula M. Krebs  

State legislatures across the U.S. are scrambling to pass laws that give them control of higher education in their states. With HB 715, North Carolina is copying the tactics of the governor and legislature in Florida, putting decision-making for state colleges and universities into the hands of state legislators instead of professional educators.

About two weeks ago, I was speaking on the campus of the University of North Carolina about how colleges and universities can help undergraduate students understand the value of language and literature courses and majors for careers after graduation. The faculty members at my talks were interested–they care about their students succeeding after graduation. But they were also a little distracted. They had just learned of the filing of HB 715, which would, among other things, eliminate the possibility of tenure for anyone hired at UNC or any North Carolina public institution of higher education.

The faculty members with whom I talked know what the various provisions of the bill would do to their departments’ ability to meet the needs of students of North Carolina. They worry that they will no longer get to set the standards for what their students learn. They worry that all their experience and expertise will be set aside – that ultimately they will not be able to design their own courses, create their own assignments, or advise their own students to make sure they graduate with the skills and insight they need to succeed in a wide range of careers. HB 715 encodes the idea that the legislator, not the educator, is the decision-maker about higher education. The fact that faculty members are experts in teaching the material for which they were hired no longer seems to be enough.

It’s not clear why legislators would want to take on the job of running universities and colleges instead of letting the people who work at those institutions do it. Under the proposed legislation, the North Carolina legislature would determine the amount of “instructional time” for classes, would decide on proper class size, and would review faculty research to decide its value.

In higher education, professional associations such as the Modern Language Association or the American Chemical Society or the National Communication Association set the standards and guidelines by which different academic fields measure themselves. We work with faculty members and administrators from all over the country to determine optimal sizes for language and writing classes, to gather the best practices for converting an in-person course to an online one, to set standards for working conditions for faculty members, and to help departments know what other departments are doing.

It’s not just professional associations that help universities meet standards, though. Peer review is at the heart of higher education: people who are trained in a field evaluate each other’s work. For academic departments, experts from other universities are called in at intervals (usually of five or seven years) to evaluate a department and recommend changes so they can make sure they are providing the best education in French or history or philosophy.

Colleges and universities decide what is important, what counts, in consultation with experts across the country. In science, other scientists read your research and decide whether it is legitimate, publishable. And it’s the same for the humanities and the arts. We publish or exhibit or perform what our peers have assessed as good, important, valuable. We mentor and give feedback and, ultimately, judge each other. That system works – evaluation by experts. Why would we replace it with a system in which a state legislator decides the value of research in anthropology or physics or German literature?

State politics should not determine how the students of North Carolina are taught or by whom. Nor should it determine what academic research is legitimate and what isn’t. We wouldn’t want legislators making decisions about how to conduct medical education–we trust the experts for that. Neither should we want legislators  making decisions about history education or literature education or social work education. Leave education in the hands of educators.

Paula M. Krebs is executive director of the Modern Language Association, the professional association for language and literature faculty members, and can be reached at