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The Right-Wing Attempt to Control Higher Ed

The Right-Wing Attempt to Control Higher Ed

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Brendan Cantwell and Barrett J. Taylor
October 10, 2022
Expertise and institutional independence are on the ballot this fall. Partisan culture wars have spread beyond specific people, ideas, and events. Now the target is public higher education itself.
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.
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