Required Land Acknowledgment Comes Under Fire at San Diego State

Faculty members at San Diego State University will meet Tuesday to reconsider a policy that has raised eyebrows nationwide: a requirement that instructors include a land acknowledgment on their syllabi.

Some faculty members say being forced to include the acknowledgment, which celebrates the legacy of the Indigenous Kumeyaay people on the land that makes up the campus, violates their academic freedom because it forces them to parrot a viewpoint they might not necessarily agree with. A committee of the University Senate has already recommended that inclusion of the acknowledgment on syllabi be made optional.

In 2019, the Senate approved a resolution that created a landacknowledgement statement recognizing that the university’s campus exists on the ancestral land of the Kumeyaay. The next year, the Senate voted to require faculty members to include the land statement in their course syllabi.

Some faculty members have objected to the requirement. Last week, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national free-speech group, had contacted the university after one or more faculty members reached out with concerns over the policy.

In a letter to the university, FIRE urged administrators to drop the syllabus requirement as it “imposes an institutional orthodoxy on its faculty that contravenes the university’s strong commitment to freedom of speech.” The January letter says the university is welcome to shape and “express its own aspirational values as an institution,” but it can’t force the faculty to profess those values.

The acknowledgment takes two forms, an abbreviated statement and a full version. The abbreviated version reads: “For millennia, the Kumeyaay people have been a part of this land. This land has nourished, healed, protected and embraced them for many generations in a relationship of balance and harmony. As members of the San Diego State University community we acknowledge this legacy. We promote this balance and harmony. We find inspiration from this land; the land of the Kumeyaay.”

Jeff Zeman, the FIRE litigation fellow overseeing the case, says he hopes the university will uphold its own commitment to the freedom of speech and will revoke the policy during Tuesday’s meeting of the University Senate.

Formal land acknowledgments are becoming more common in higher education. Yale University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of California at San Diego — which also honors the Kumeyaay people — are among the institutions that have adopted such statements. It’s the mandatory inclusion of the acknowledgment on syllabi that has some professors speaking out.

During the Senate vote to require the acknowledgment, 39 faculty voted in favor, 16 voted no, and 11 abstained. Around 40 members of the University Senate decided not to participate in the vote, according to the Union-Tribune.

Peter C. Herman, a professor of English literature, says he believes many faculty members self-censored during the Senate vote because they feared repercussions. “This doesn’t really affect me, because I’m not up for tenure. I’m not up for promotion. But if I was, would I really risk saying something on this that they might disagree with?” he said. “Would you really do that? I don’t think people are going to be that brave or that foolish. That’s a problem, you know, the way this chills other people’s speech.”

Herman’s objections, he says, hinge on the policy’s mandatory nature. And the text of the acknowledgment itself includes far more than a “simple statement of historical fact,” he said. Among other things, the acknowledgment states, “We find inspiration in the Kumeyaay spirit to open our minds and hearts.”

“You may very well believe that — more power to you,” Herman said, “but you’re imposing that belief on me, and you’re imposing that belief on my students. That is completely unacceptable.”

J. Angelo Corlett, a professor of philosophy and ethics, was at the Senate meetings where the land acknowledgment and syllabi policy were discussed. He says Senate policy is very clear in stating faculty members are entitled to their own beliefs and shouldn’t be forced to include anything in their course syllabi.

“To mandate that faculty include this beautiful land acknowledgement on course syllabi is both a violation of faculty academic-freedom rights to determine by their own expertise the contents of their courses and syllabi, but it also smacks of virtue posturing by SDSU itself when so many non-Indigenous peoples are forced to comply with it in this manner,” he wrote in an email. “It is best to make the land acknowledgement optional for faculty to include in their course syllabus as they wish, and begin to fully respect faculty academic-freedom rights.”

Corlett says he’s never included the land acknowledgment in his course syllabi out of respect for his students and colleagues with differing beliefs. He said he has talked to members of the Senate and thinks the body will likely vote to revoke the mandate.

“It’s the mandate that’s the issue — it’s not anything else,” Corlett said in an interview. “It’s sort of like the Pledge of Allegiance. If you are in an adult context, you shouldn’t be forced to do it — children shouldn’t even be forced to do it in public school, and so that’s the law. You don’t force things like that. You don’t force patriotism on people.”

Michael Connolly Miskwish, the author of the university’s land acknowledgment and member of the Campo Kumeyaay Nation, wrote a statement to the University Senate that was also shared with The Chronicle that the acknowledgment “was presented as a gift, and, as such should only be willingly accepted.” The statement continued, in part: “I would like to see the statement continue in the syllabus as a clear statement from the University Senate so that no individual feels they are being coerced to espouse a view they don’t agree. However, I would rather see no land acknowledgement in the syllabus if the alternative is discord, divisiveness, and resentment.”

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