Discover more from The UnPopulist
Right-Wing Culture Warriors Want to Kill Academic Freedom to Save the People
But their wrath against campus DEI initiatives is vastly overblown
Shutterstock. Belavusava Alena
Exactly nine days before Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced his presidential bid, he signed SB266, a grab-bag of initiatives designed to weaken left-liberals and their ideas at Florida’s state universities. Among other things, the law stripped all “state or federal funds” for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) initiatives on college campuses. Conservatives have come to regard these programs, which their proponents consider essential to removing artificial barriers that impede the success of groups that have suffered and suffer from discrimination, as a Trojan Horse for the social justice causes of the ultra-woke.
Christopher Rufo, a leading rightwing activist and influential DeSantis ally, was on hand to explain “the basic premise of the legislation,” specifically its anti-DEI provision. “Our public institutions,” Rufo said, “should reflect the values of the public.” More pointedly, “Florida’s farmers and waitresses and truck drivers should not be subsidizing a permanent bureaucracy of left-wing activists who hate them and hate their values but … are of course happy to take their money.”
Vox Populi Arrives on Campus
Virtuous truckers. Parasitic and hostile elites bearing bad values. For populism, that’s hard to beat. This populist spirit animates not only Florida’s new law but also the nation-wide “conservative counter-revolution” in higher education, now unfolding in many red states. That counter-revolution is, as Rufo made clear in his speech at the 2021 National Conservatism Conference, part of a wider conservative attack on a “nihilistic elite” that is embedded not just in universities but also, in his telling, K-12 schools, corporations, and government agencies. This elite, he insists, “is seeking to impose its values onto the working and middle classes to bolster [its] own power.”
For good reasons, however, American higher education isn’t a populist enterprise. In 1915, the newly formed American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, which offered what remains the best explanation of academic freedom in the United States. The Declaration conceded that boards of trustees govern universities—both public and private. But it urged such boards to govern with restraint. For the university to be an “intellectual experiment station,” it needs independence from both the “control of trustees” and “the tyranny of public opinion.” To be sure, universities serve the public. And in “the essentials of his professional activity,” a professor’s “duty is to the wider public.” But, like the federal judiciary, the university serves by keeping its distance from public sentiment. The Declaration maintains that scholars need to follow their “scientific conscience” even when it leads to hypotheses or conclusions “distasteful to the community as a whole.” Trustees and public officials should refrain from policing academic work because “the first condition of [intellectual] progress is complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results.”
Academic Freedom: The Enemy
Boards have typically heeded the AAUP’s call for restraint. The Association of Governing Boards, whose membership includes public institutions, endorses shared governance, whereby boards delegate much of their authority to college and university presidents and faculty.
But Rufo maintained recently at Stanford University, during a discussion with Princeton University’s Keith Whittington, that it was precisely these academic freedom principles that “got us into this mess” and allowed the left to take over universities. So, boards and legislatures should stop being suckered by the “elaborate mythology” that universities should be free of political interference and take back their power. “In a sense,” Rufo assured, “we can do whatever we want.”
Acting on such notions, red-state lawmakers are pushing various ways of bringing universities to heel. Many Republican states have passed or proposed laws against “divisive concepts” to limit what ideas can be advanced in the classroom, sometimes, as in the case of Minnesota Republicans, even by guest speakers or the authors of assigned readings. One such concept targeted for elimination is that “an individual should receive favorable treatment due to the individual's race,” a proxy for affirmative action and reparations. In states that adopt this model, one will run no risk in teaching arguments against affirmative action or reparations but they will run significant risk in teaching arguments for them.
Others have been trying to weaken or end tenure, which protects professors from being dismissed for, among other things, offending powerful people, including politicians like Dan Patrick. Patrick, Texas’s lieutenant governor, has championed ending it altogether. But what if revoking tenure makes it difficult to recruit professors? Patrick has a response: If it drives “professors who hate America” out of the state, then that’s just as well— never mind that it’ll also make Texas less attractive to conservative professors who, presumably, don’t hate America. Texas didn’t get rid of tenure this session, but it has weakened tenure by codifying vague and easily abused standards for revoking it. Nor is Texas alone in targeting tenure.
This Message Has Been Approved by Your Government
Returning to Florida SB266, in its bid to control the curriculum, especially the core curriculum, it not only specifies what universities can’t teach, but what they must. In addition to forbidding “divisive concepts,” it prohibits curricula “based on unproven, speculative, or exploratory content”—whatever that means. It also mandates that core humanities courses include Western canonical texts and that, where applicable, core courses provide instruction on the historical background and philosophical foundation of Western civilization and this nation’s historical documents. In this way, Florida seeks to “promote and preserve the constitutional republic through traditional . . . coursework.”
There is nothing indefensible about requiring students in American universities to learn about the Declaration of Independence or the ideas that inspired it. Nor is it unusual for state legislatures to mandate certain course requirements. What is unusual, but in line with Rufo’s suggestion that “we should repoliticize the universities,” is the extent and specificity of Florida’s plan. As Whittington, no fan of the woke left, himself pointed out at Stanford, Florida is “breaking new ground in insisting that state universities convey the government’s favored message in its classes.”
Even when legislators target administrators rather than faculty, as when they call for the shutting down of the DEI offices responsible for programming, such as outside of the classroom antiracism trainings, efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented students, faculty, and staff, and other initiatives, they engage in a new level of state intervention in university affairs. That should worry even critics of such offices, as Carleton College’s Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder pointed out recently on Persuasion. The attempt to control classrooms may be the most intrusive form of intervention, but heavy-handed efforts to control universities otherwise also compromise their independence and thereby undermine academic freedom.
The Leftist Takeover of College Campuses…
What justifies scrapping the prevailing understanding of academic freedom? Namely, as Rufo claimed at Stanford, U.S. universities have become politically correct orthodoxies more oppressive than those “under Soviet Communism in Hungary.” Rufo learned that during his recent six-week visit to Hungary, an “illiberal democracy” according to Prime Minister Viktor Orban himself, and a laboratory for squelching academic freedom. A “professor in the UK [who] grew up in Hungary” was among Rufo’s informants. But Rufo doesn’t rely solely on Hungarian Brits for his take on American universities. He has also read 1960s leftists like the German sociologist and activist Rudi Dutschke, who proposed the “long march through the institutions.”
Rufo elaborated the full story in an episode of his podcast last August. The 1960s radicals at first believed “they could overthrow Western, capitalist democracies through violent Marxist-Leninist revolution.” But regular folk were too attached to the “American dream middle class lifestyle” to go along. So, Dutschke and his comrades made another plan: “start infiltrating the elite institutions . . . that form the background knowledge of how people think” and, eventually, “seize the bureaucratic institutions . . . involved in managing . . . perceptions.” Rufo reads old Weather Underground pamphlets as the key to understanding “all of the things you might be seeing around you,” which result from ideas “being imposed on you from the top down.”
The long march through the institutions, Rufo claims, has largely succeeded. Radical left ideology, he noted in his National Conservatism conference speech, has “morphed itself in this really insidious and false language of diversity, equity, and inclusion” and is now the “dominant ideology” in “federal agencies,” “public universities” and “the public K-12 system.” In other words, elites today may not be Marxist-Leninists, but they are guided by the dead hand of the commies. And the left’s will to dominate—not by winning hearts and minds but successfully perpetrating a near-complete hostile takeover of the commanding heights of American institutions—now justifies the right’s own “siege” of these institutions.
…Not Quite What the Right Makes it Out to Be
But how dominant is the left in Florida’s state universities? One metric would be the number of students majoring in subjects like women’s studies or black studies, most associated with left wing activism. At the University of Florida, in the 2021-22 academic year, out of 10,884 bachelor’s degrees awarded, 56 were in those two fields. That works out to one half of one percent— just even with plant science.
In the Spring 2023 semester, at Florida State University, 16 of 31,675 bachelor’s degree seekers sought a women’s studies or black studies degree. That’s less than half of a tenth of one percent, just equaling the percentage of brass performance majors. They are outnumbered 43 to 1 by exercise science majors. Unless those exercise science students are there to make sure that the long march through the institutions doesn’t cause lower back pain, left-wing dominance of Florida universities may be less than advertised.
But perhaps Florida’s state universities have been throwing gobs of money at DEI, as one would expect if the left were in the driver’s seat? Thanks to Governor DeSantis, who demanded an accounting of such spending, we know that the University of Florida spends over $5 million per year on DEI programming. That sounds like a lot—until you consider that its annual spending is nearly $4 billion all told. In percentage terms, then, DEI adds up to 0.14 % of the university’s total spending. Likewise, Florida State University spends $2.4 million—or about 0.12 % of its budget—on DEI. Perhaps Billy Napier, U-Florida’s football coach, who earns $7.1 million, and his Florida State counterpart, Mike Norvell, who earns $8 million, are drilling their guys in gender ideology. But if not, the story that Florida’s universities are under the thumb of left-wing ideologues may be an exaggeration. Granted, the impact of the campus left goes beyond direct spending on DEI initiatives, but it is telling that the report DeSantis himself initiated turned up so little.
Conservatives Need Not Apply: That’s a Problem
Yet conservatives aren’t making left-liberal power on campus up. Professors on the “far left,” according to the most recent Higher Education Research Institute survey, are about equal in percentage terms to professors who identify in any way as conservative on our campuses. Faculty politics are lopsided to the point of absurdity at many elite colleges. A recent study of campus activism by Amy Binder and Jeffrey Kidder, sociologists with no conservative ax to grind, indicates that progressive activists, unlike conservative ones, are supported by progressive administrators who think it’s part of their job to “shepherd undergraduates through the process of mobilization.” The “ideological orientations” of progressive students are “supported day in and day out at their schools.” The hiring and promotion process now frequently includes evaluation of a candidate’s commitments to DEI, which can serve as an ideological screening tool.
Colleges and universities haven’t done much to address these problems. Few, for example, trouble signaling in their job ads that they don’t discriminate on the basis of political orientation, much less that they value viewpoint diversity. Whittington, who opposes the Florida strategy, nonetheless agrees that universities are not living up to their end of the bargain of academic freedom and remaining “non-partisan institution[s] of learning.” “We have to clean up our own house,” he says, or face backlash.
But this variant of “this is how we got Trump” cannot excuse endorsing or even going easy on DeSantis and Rufo’s conservative counter-revolution. Rufo wants us not only to recognize that there are big problems in our universities but also to view defenses of freedom of speech and academic freedom as distractions from a culture war that it must win at any cost. But the populist culture war is itself a distraction from and grave danger to the work of universities and the liberal democratic norms under which they have achieved remarkable success.
Speaking in Hungary, which, under Orban’s leadership, has moved from “free” to “partly free” in Freedom House’s rankings, Rufo was asked if the “Orban playbook” is the only option for conservatives looking to compete with “progressive hegemony.”
“I think that’s true,” he replied.
© The UnPopulist 2023