The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper)Over the last week the Supreme Court decided two cases that have direct bearing on higher education. In the first case the Court ruled that race may not be taken into consideration by colleges and universities when they are deciding which students to admit. In a different case, the Court ruled that President Biden’s student debt relief program is unconstitutional.
Both of these decisions are victories for conservative forces, but together they should be understood as part of a broader right wing assault on higher education. Unfortunately, this assault is just getting started.
The affirmative action decision is, legal pyrotechnics notwithstanding, based at best on the fantastical notion that the US can function like a meritocracy and that grades and test scores are a measure of an individual’s intellect, work habits, potential and ability, while having nothing to do with that individual’s access to quality healthcare, decent housing, good schools, financial support and so many of the other things that are correlated with economic status and race. At worst, the affirmative action decision is a racist attempt to ensure that elite academic institutions return to being overwhelmingly white as they were until only a few decades ago.
The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a student debt repayment program that was extremely modest to begin with will ensure that thousands, perhaps millions, of young people are burdened by debt and that many young people from modest backgrounds decide not to go to college in the first place.
These two court decisions occur at a time when universities have been attacked in right-wing media for years as being bastions of radicalism and places where young people get fed propaganda by radical professors. Seeing Oberlin College or UC Santa Cruz-full disclosure one of my sons graduated from the former and the latter is my alma mater-criticized on Fox or a conservative website is not that big a deal and something that we cannot let bother us. However, the problem is much graver than that.
For several years now, conservative governors have sought to limit or punish universities and professors in their states who they see as too liberal, or in some cases because they do not see the value of higher education outside of the STEM fields. The first major recent example of this was Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin from 2011 to 2019. Walker sought to dramatically cut the budget and eliminate tenure for the University of Wisconsin.
In more recent years no governor has gone after public higher education in his state more than Ron DeSantis. DeSantis has restricted professors’ freedom of speech by barring them from teaching “identity politics” or “distort(ing) significant events. In other words, DeSantis wants professors to teach Ron DeSantis’s version of history or politics rather than, you know, reality. Additionally, DeSantis has sought to limit the ability of state schools to fund diversity programs.
DeSantis is particularly visible because Florida is a very big state and because of DeSantis’s presidential ambitions, but other Republican governors such as Greg Abbott in Texas have pursued similar strategies as well.
DeSantis also has a deep understanding of how government works and what tools he can use to achieve his goals, making him quite dangerous. One example of DeSantis understanding of the intricacies is that several times in his presidential campaign DeSantis has raised the need, in his mind, to change the accreditation process for colleges and universities. Most people, including me, may not be riveted by discussions of accreditation of anything, but the issue DeSantis raises is a hugely important one. Changing the accreditation process could lead to schools being evaluated and certified based on whether their curricula, and their professors, reflect the opinions of DeSantis and his ideological cohort. It could mean replacing the academics who usually are involved with this process with various right-wing zealots who have little understanding of things like research, pedagogy or how universities function, but who are committed to ridding universities of what they perceive as left-wing or dangerous professors and ideas
The right wing view of universities as radical institutions is accurate insofar many professors have left of center political views, but that is largely a reflection of what has happened to the two political parties. Given that the party of the right does not believe studying history deeply, holds on to radically oversimplified and demonstrably false beliefs about important things like American history and has a generalized science, is it surprising that many academics eschew that party?
It is also worth noting that despite the presence of a few radical professors, most universities remain deeply conservative institutions.
If you don’t believe that, look at how almost all major universities respond by efforts of staff or graduate students to unionize. Similarly, many university presidents and other officials spend a good deal of their time courting alumni and raising money for the university. Most of those alumni, who have a real voice in the university, are not exactly radicals.
No discussion of the role of alumni is complete without raising the issue of legacy admissions, a policy that has recently, and finally, confronted some legal challenges. Legacies are overwhelmingly white and in most schools, particularly elite private schools, far outnumber, for example, African Americans. If universities were remotely progressive institutions, they would do away with this system of giving preference to applicants whose parents are alumni, but it is not tough to see why alumni do not like that idea.
The conservative vision for higher education in the US is one where colleges and universities are whiter than they are now, where for most Americans the price of a college education means years, frequently decades, of debt and where professors are prohibited from teaching a reality based curriculum because accreditation has been turned over to right wing ideologues. This is not just a terrible idea for higher education, but it will be very damaging for the future of the country as well.