University leaders told the Kansas Board of Regents that few courses offer explicit instruction on critical race theory (CRT) but some professors include elements of it in discussions on race and equity, emails obtained Wednesday by The Star show.
Board of Regents CEO Blake Flanders last week requested that the state’s six public universities — including the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and Wichita State University — provide the information in response to a question about critical race theory from Sen. Brenda Dietrich, a Topeka Republican.
Critical race theory is a decades-old academic concept which scholars say seeks to provide a lens for examining how race and inequality impact criminal justice, law, health care, housing and other essential American institutions.
Dietrch’s question came as Republicans nationwide have seized on critical race theory as a threat to traditional understandings of American history. Some educational groups and professors condemned the request, saying it could chill academic freedom.
Legislatures across the country have pursued bills to limit the teaching of CRT in public education. While the Kansas Legislature didn’t take up the issue this year, Missouri lawmakers pushed legislation aimed at banning curricula perceived by Republicans to be CRT. Dietrich said she had no issue with CRT in Kansas schools but wanted more information to give to constituents.
Emailed responses to the Board of Regents show that most schools interpreted the request narrowly. They reported few if any courses with descriptions including critical race theory or gave broad answers with few specifics.
“I do not believe we have any courses specifically on critical race theory,” wrote Charles Taber, provost and executive vice president at Kansas State University.
University of Kansas Assistant Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Jean Redeker passed along the name of just one course, Contemporary Japanese Film. Redeker emphasized in her reply that the course looks at how critical race theory influences filmmaking and film criticism as opposed to teaching the theory with a U.S. focus.
Wichita State University Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Shirley Lefever said students can take courses “that introduce them to a myriad of concepts surrounding race and discrimination including Critical Race Theory to help them learn more about the world around us.”
Pittsburg State University went further than other schools and passed along unattributed quotes from professors describing how elements of critical race theory are incorporated into instruction.
“We teach about issues of diversity in all our classes. It is infused in the curriculum,” one response said before listing examples such as discussion of redlining, discrimination and medical experiments performed on Black Americans.
“I do not officially teach the concept of Critical Race Theory; however, I do discuss the role played by societal structures, class, and race in maintaining social hierarchy,” another response said.
Pittsburg, which forwarded the request directly to faculty members, identified 11 courses that included “some element of Critical Race Theory.”
Antonio Byrd, a University of Missouri-Kansas City English teacher who focuses on Black literature, said it would be difficult to get a full accounting of where and how CRT is taught in any college.
“How exactly are you defining the teaching of critical race theory?” Byrd said. “Is it an entire class for 16 weeks or is it one unit where a professor, say in sociology, teaches about race and racism for three weeks?”
Byrd said CRT can manifest itself in several ways, from full law school courses to less formal instruction and discussion on the impact of race within particular fields.
How much those conversations should permeate into the classroom, Byrd said, remains the subject of debate in universities.
“Even within higher education it can be difficult to bring in conversations about race and racism,” he said. “There is a bit of disagreement if there even is an acknowledgment that we need to teach race across different disciplines.”
When the request became public last week, Board of Regents spokesman Matt Keith said the board frequently receives requests for information from legislators on a broad range of topics.
Emails show Flanders asked Daniel Archer, vice president for academic affairs at the Board of Regents, on June 1 to “poll the Provosts” and “ask what offerings are exposing students to this theory.”
When Archer emailed the provosts 30 minutes later, he placed the request in the context of legislative action on critical race theory, noting that multiple states passed or introduced bills banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools and colleges.
“While there was no bill in Kansas addressing this topic this year, we received a legislative inquiry on whether this is taught at public universities,” Archer wrote. “Can you please tell me if this is taught on your campus?”
Some advocates for professors say the question was inappropriate.
“We are seeing a widespread movement this year to suppress teaching about oppression and race,” said Gwendolyn Bradley, a spokesperson for the American Association for University Presidents said in an email Friday.
Chase Billingham, an associate professor of sociology at Wichita State University, posted to Facebook a letter he said he wrote to university administrators. It called the request an “egregious violation of bedrock principles of academic freedom.”
In an interview Wendesday, Billingham said he was happy with the response from regents institutions administrators.
“Curricular decisions about what to include in university classes should be made by the faculty members who create and teach those classes and I hope that (the university responses) settles the matter once and for all,” Billingham said.
“My major concern would be if this were a stepping stone to that more aggressive action and I very much hope that it is not.”