State legislatures are increasingly looking to dictate what happens on college campuses, to control what faculty members get to teach and the conditions under which they teach during this pandemic. Those two interventions are deeply intertwined, and they reveal why it is vital to understand higher education as not only a key part of national politics and culture but as a testing ground for authoritarian politics’ encroachment into civic life.

What’s at stake in the current fights over critical race theory and campus mask mandates is both the integrity of the higher education system and the safety of its teachers and students. Refusing to allow teachers to require masking or distancing puts lives at risk. And reaching into a professor’s classroom to say what they can and cannot include on a syllabus compromises the entire project of higher education. Both kinds of interference indicate how far we are in this country from valuing higher education.

A year ago, what state legislator had even heard the term “critical race theory”? Now they scramble to get laws on the books outlawing the teaching of it. In a joint statement, signed by the Modern Language Association and initiated by the American Historical Association, we note that “The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States.”

Few outside our campuses, however — and sometimes few others on campus — seem to see the threat to educational integrity represented by this legislative interference. All we have to do is look at the recent challenges to teaching the science around climate change or evolution to know that higher education is a Balkanized business, and faculty members rarely make common cause across disciplines or campuses.

But the stakes have never been higher. Attacks on critical race theory attempt to mobilize racism and fear, to shift control of higher education decision-making away from shared governance on campus. Instead of faculty members sharing decision-making with university administrators, we’re seeing a model of authority centered on political figures and the governing boards controlled by them. The issue arises directly from last summer’s reckoning with racial injustice. Can we bring up issues about racial inequality, issues about this nation’s past and its present, to be examined in our classrooms? Or are we to be forced to do the bidding of people who want to pretend that the United States was founded on freedom for all and continues to offer equal opportunities to everyone?

Critical race theory comes out of legal scholarship, but legislators are not targeting law school curricula; they are trying to control teaching about race in all disciplines, including literature. And if all of us, in all disciplines, do not stand up to this interference in academic freedom and integrity, we will pay a price in the future.

The question of who will be left becomes all too relevant when university administrations abide by governors’ orders to forbid mask mandates. When the false dichotomy between freedom and mask mandates drives policy on our nation’s campuses, students, faculty members and staff members get sick. And some of them die.

We are seeing faculty members resigning or getting fired over being forced into classrooms without vaccination or mask mandates. Too many policies make part-time faculty members the most vulnerable, giving them the least control over their syllabi, working conditions and future, a trend building for years. And, of course, the staff — residential life, counseling center, tech support, financial aid and more — are often required to be on campus all week, in direct contact with students, masked or not.

Critical race theory is the canary in the coal mine for legislative interference in higher education. But higher education is that canary for the nation, as well. If attempts to exercise control over campuses work, if legislators shift the public’s view of higher education so that its practitioners are seen as “anti-American,” then the fight will move out beyond higher education. Former president Donald Trump and his allies demonized an independent press as “enemies of the people,” and that sentiment has not gone away. What social institution, after higher education and the press, will be next?

Faculty senates and individual faculty members who defend their right to teach about race and faculty senates and individual faculty members who defend their right to a safe workplace are part of a larger defense against something very dangerous that is happening in the United States right now. The freedom to determine what you teach and the right to be safe while you do it are deeply intertwined. We need to make the case for both, together.

Higher ed is just an early target — joining, of course, voting rights and reproductive rights. If you’re not on a campus, don’t feel complacent. They’ll come for you next.

Paula Krebs is Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, a professional group of more than 23,000 language and literature professors and researchers.