American universities are no strangers to the culture wars, of course. President George W. Bush tussled with biomedical researchers over the use of embryonic stem cells. As an editorial in Nature Medicine put it in 2001, “Newly inaugurated, Bush wasted no time injecting himself into the controversial debate.”
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American universities are no strangers to the culture wars, of course. President George W. Bush tussled with biomedical researchers over the use of embryonic stem cells. As an editorial in Nature Medicine put it in 2001, “Newly inaugurated, Bush wasted no time injecting himself into the controversial debate.” Later, Bush allies at Fox News lambasted professors who criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq as insufficiently patriotic. Republican megadonors Charles and David Koch were among the most notable of those who poured millions of dollars into colleges and universities to support conservative causes, including programs that advanced free-market ideas and “traditional American values.”
The past quarter-century is full of right-wing attacks on higher education. But most of these attacks targeted specific events, ideas, or people. Often these controversies were triggered by the idea that white people, men, Christians, and/or conservatives are marginalized in higher education. Such culture-war flare-ups continue. Arizona State University, for instance, was plunged into controversy when white men displaying pro-police slogans were asked by other students to leave the university’s multicultural center.
But now partisan attacks on higher education have spread beyond right-wing outrage over specific issues. Today, the very idea of public colleges and universities that operate independent of partisan control is under attack.
Leery of public higher education’s autonomy from partisan government, many Republican officials seek to exert more control over state colleges and universities as a way of reducing the influence of nonpartisan institutions and professional expertise. Core principles of academic freedom are at stake. At the University of Idaho, faculty members were advised to remain “neutral” on the topic of abortion and “proceed cautiously” when discussing reproductive health. For faculty members who teach about the topics in medical or social-science classes, the guidance doesn’t just urge them to avoid hot-button issues. It is a clear step toward a state-controlled curriculum.
Attacks on institutional independence extend beyond the curriculum. Florida now mandates public colleges to change their accreditor frequently, a move seen by the federal government as an accountability runaround. Virginia’s newly elected attorney general fired the top lawyers at the University of Virginia and George Mason University on seemingly partisan grounds. A change to governance bylaws in Georgia gives the Republican-controlled state board the authority to selectively relocate the power to grant and deny tenure from the campuses to the state board. According to the American Association of University Professors, the governance change “eviscerates” tenure protections in Georgia.
The contemporary Republican approach to higher education is part of a broader partisan campaign to undermine independent expertise. Anti-intellectualism has deep roots in American political life, and contemporary conservative suspicion of expertise and nonpartisan institutions has been brewing for a while. It’s based on ideological skepticism of government and regulation. Fox News, social media, and conspiracy theories fuel mistrust in independent expertise. Indeed, the conservative movement has worked to degrade Americans’ trust in just about any institution that is not explicitly aligned with the Republican Party — be it government agencies, corporations, health-care providers, the media, or colleges.
Republican attempts to control higher education also seek to erase challenges to partisan narratives. The University of Florida’s efforts to prevent a professor from testifying against the state in a lawsuit challenging a restrictive voting law was illustrative. Florida’s voting law flows directly from the “big lie,” or the baseless position that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. Academic independence, if left unchecked, could question or even threaten this partisan narrative. And that independence from partisan governance is now unacceptable to many Republican-elected officials. On top of this, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a Republican, is set to become the next president of the University of Florida, and State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, also a Republican, will be chancellor of the State University System of Florida — more evidence that party fealty counts in appointing academic leaders.
Attacks on institutional independence and expertise are also rooted in conservative philosophy and legal thought like constitutional originalism. Recent rulings from the Supreme Court are consistent with the goal of limiting the authority of independent expertise in American life. For example, in their majority opinion restricting the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses in West Virginia v. EPA, the court’s conservative majority introduced the “raised eyebrow” doctrine — the court could strike down any regulation that raises an eyebrow. According to UCLA law professor Blake Emerson, “that’s very dangerous because that just depends on the ideological predilections of the judge.”
As with environmental regulation at the federal level, public higher education is a front in the right-wing campaign against independent expertise in the states. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, visibly leads efforts to assert the partisan rule of higher education, but it doesn’t stop in Florida. Prohibiting or limiting instruction about race and gender in the United States has become a campaign priority for Republicans nationwide. According to a database maintained by PEN America, Republicans in state legislatures across the country have introduced nearly 200 “educational gag orders” since the beginning of 2021. Such bills could dictate what is taught in college and university classrooms, directly challenge a cornerstone of academic freedom, and undermine academic independence.
Of course, Democrats are not immune to partisan meddling in university administration. Andrew Cuomo, former Democratic governor of New York, installed a political loyalist to head the State University of New York system, and legislation to limit tenure and assert greater state control over public higher education is circulating in Hawaii. Electing Democratic candidates is no guarantee of higher education’s institutional independence. The difference, however, is that breaking independent expertise is not a central goal of the Democratic Party. It is for the Republicans.