The Republican Party’s current campaign against higher education came more or less out of the blue. When Ron DeSantis ran for reelection as governor of Florida barely 10 months ago, his website listed “Education/Banning Critical Race Theory in Classrooms” as only number seven among his priorities, three places behind “Preserving Florida’s Environment.”
DeSantis is now well known for legislative and administrative efforts to control the state’s educators—for instance, his push to ban AP courses in African American history, to prohibit state colleges from using public or even private funds on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) programs, to dismantle tenure protections, and to appoint a right-wing governing board for New College, a public liberal arts school. These and other measures built on DeSantis’s yearslong background of anti-“wokeness” but were officially kicked off only during 2023, as he launched his ill-starred presidential campaign.
Similar measures in other Republican-run states—North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Ohio, Iowa, and most of all Texas—have sprung up in just the past two years. All continue a long historic pattern of conservative political suspicion about “elite” or “liberal” institutions. But compared with other big themes in the modern GOP platform—tax cuts, redistricting and voting controls, court appointments, abortion—they are sudden new objects of attention, without decades’ worth of legislative or lobbying push behind them. Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society have been laying the groundwork for a politicized right-wing judiciary for decades. DeSantis et al. are just getting started.
A sign of how recent the switch has been: An authoritative New America survey called “Varying Degrees” found that only three years ago, in 2020, some 69 percent of Americans felt that colleges “have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” This included majorities from both political parties. Two years later, that overall-approval number had fallen to 55 percent, with almost all of the change coming from Republicans. According to New America, some 60 percent of Republicans now view colleges as actually damaging the country, rather than helping it. Among Democrats, more than 70 percent still view colleges as a net plus.
“For many conservative lawmakers, higher education isn’t simply in the crosshairs,” Karin Fischer, of The Chronicle of Higher Education, writes in an extensive new report called College as a Public Good. “It’s Enemy No. 1 in a new culture war.”
How did this happen? And what can colleges and their supporters, leaders, and constituencies do about it? Time is our enemy on many fronts. But in this case colleges should be heartened in the knowledge that time is on their side—if they use it correctly.
What is old: “The past is not even past.”
America’s achievements are always new; its tensions and tragedies are always old. Look at the headlines in 2023. With allowances for technology and demographic and legal change, you could be reading about 1923, or 1823. Racial inequity and strife. The right balance between the secular and the sacred, between the urban and the rural, between big cities and smaller towns. Between idealistic involvement in the world and self-protective isolation. Between … you get the idea.
One of those constant tensions is America’s view of advanced education. Choose nearly any decade in our national history, and you will find an instance of political action, rhetoric, or censure—almost always from conservatives—directed against what are seen as privileged, dissolute, and disloyal ivory-tower types. Nearly 60 years ago, Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize for his book on the topic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Watch the recent movie Oppenheimer and note the role that UC Berkeley played in national politics from the 1930s onward. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower—who in addition to commanding Allied troops had served as president of Columbia University before becoming commander in chief—led the Republican Party against Adlai Stevenson and the “eggheads” he would bring into public life. And this was even after the vast democratization of higher education through the GI Bill.
“While Eisenhower may not have been the first president to hold anti-intellectual sentiments, he demarcated a shift in the political rhetoric of America’s ideological right,” the scholars Edric Huang, Jenny Dorsey, Claire Mosteller, and Emily Chen wrote recently. “Anti-intellectualism became a common fixture in the subsequent campaigns of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Trump to convey a stance of strong leadership and instinct not reliant on established experts while decision making.”
When I was a teenager in California, Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown hugely expanded the University of California system. Three entire campuses—UC San Diego, Irvine, and Santa Cruz—opened in just a five-year span, or as long as it might take to build one college dorm these days. Soon afterward Brown was turned out of office by Ronald Reagan, who criticized the pinkos and hippies who lazed and pot-smoked their way through those universities.
In the half century since then we’ve had crises over “political correctness” (yesterday’s “cancel culture”), the “Western canon,” Ebonics, and much more. We’ve worried about “safe spaces” and “snowflakes.” We’ve had scandals over for-pay college admission, and court battles over affirmative action. We’ve had more or less a continuation of the trench warfare over higher education that had prevailed for nearly a century but that ramped up with the sudden shift in GOP sentiment over these past two years.
What did change? It was not the cost of higher education, or calculations of its financial return. Those costs keep going up, but not significantly between 2020 and 2022. Nor was it the prevalence or absence of “progressive” courses or teachers. People involved in university life are to the left of public opinion in general—and always have been. (People more interested in money or even entrepreneurship have typically gone into other lines of work.) It’s inconceivable that either the professor corps or the student body could have changed so dramatically between 2020 and 2022 that Republican support for colleges would have a reason for the dramatic fall-off.
So what happened?
Evidence suggests that this was another manufactured right-wing crisis, like the nonstop Fox and Newsmax stories about the menace of trans athletes in college sports. The NCAA reports that there are more than half a million “student athletes” at U.S. colleges. The current Fox and Newsmax roster of “unfair” trans competitors in swimming, track, basketball, rowing, amounts to a few dozen people, and this after the NCAA cleared the way for transgender competition back in 2010. Of such hyped “threats” a right-wing panic is born. The crisis is “real”—but it’s false, and will be overtaken by time.
So too with the current right-wing “war” on higher ed. Higher ed will win. If it stays the course.
What is new: A base that is shrinking …
What does staying the course look like? It involves reckoning with two trends—both long term, but one more visible to the political world than the other.
The visible trend is the emergence of education as another of the great axes of political alignment. Race is of course a major divider; and gender; and age; and urban-versus-rural location. But education has joined that list.
A half century ago, in the Republican era that stretched from Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president Richard Nixon, through Ronald Reagan and his vice president George H. W. Bush, the GOP base had a substantial “country club” component. Most of those GOP leaders were well educated, and not ashamed of it. Richard Nixon had gotten his law degree from Duke. His vice president Gerald Ford had been not only a star athlete at Michigan but also a graduate of Yale Law. Even Reagan, of Eureka College, surrounded himself with advisers from Princeton (James Baker, George Shultz), Yale (Ed Meese), Harvard (Caspar Weinberger), and other pedigreed venues. There was a brake on how pitchfork-like you could sound in blasting these places and their values. Meanwhile the Democratic Party, with many Ivy-educated leaders of its own from FDR onward, had its national electoral base among minority groups and working-class whites.
That balance had shifted by the time of the second President George Bush, who narrowly carried the votes of noncollege whites over Al Gore in 2000. From that point on, a small gap in political alignment has become a chasm. As Donald Trump was preparing to run for reelection, Gallup reported that “the 25-percentage-point edge in non-college whites’ preferences for the Republican Party (59%) over the Democratic Party (34%) thus far in 2019 is the largest in the past two decades, and is up from a 20-point gap in 2014.”
At the same time, the college-educated vote was shifting in the opposite direction. As recently as 2016, the white college graduate vote was evenly split between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Four years later, white college graduates went for Joe Biden by more than a dozen points.
It sounds too simple to put it this way, but the shift means that Republicans may see little political risk in attacking out-of-touch “woke” academics. Thus we have the spectacle of Ron DeSantis (Yale and Harvard Law) and senators like Josh Hawley (Stanford and Yale Law), J. D. Vance (Ohio State and Yale Law), and John Kennedy (Vanderbilt, University of Virginia Law, and the Magdalen College at Oxford) doing just that. Inflammatory GOP rhetoric may explain how a gradual, long-term shift in partisan attitudes toward higher education became the seismic disruption that New America found between 2020 and 2022, with a large majority of Republicans now seeing colleges as harmful to America.
This polarization is obviously a problem for the country and its colleges at the moment. The longer-term problem for the Republican Party is that with each passing election, a larger and larger share of Americans have college degrees, and a smaller and smaller share do not.
… and one that is expanding: Colleges as the new economic drivers
The less discussed but equally important trend is the ever-growing importance of colleges and college towns as linchpins of economic opportunity and advancement. In her new report for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Karin Fischer assembles many academic studies and journalistic accounts documenting the central role of higher education institutions in community, regional, and statewide economic progress.
In times of economic turmoil, colleges are relatively stable anchor institutions. Factories come and go; most colleges stay put. As Fischer puts it, “Around every college campus, there is a network of businesses to meet its needs: to feed and entertain students, to house professors and care for their children, to make sure the internet works and the trash gets collected.”
Community colleges are an exception to the partisan divide over higher ed. According to the New America survey, some 85 percent of Americans, a majority in both parties, believe that community colleges are succeeding in their main role, which is to match people who need opportunities with the opportunities a continually changing economy can open up. As for research universities, their role in spinning off innovations and businesses has been evident from the time of the land grant universities onward. “Researchers estimate that for each new patent awarded to a college, 15 jobs are created in the local economy,” Fischer writes. If you want to boost your region’s economy, the best step would be to establish a research university there 100 years ago. The second-best step would be not to drive that university’s students and faculty away now.
“What’s the matter with Florida?”
Why do these findings matter? Because they highlight the modern college version of what Thomas Frank called the What’s the Matter With Kansas? paradox. In his book with that title nearly 20 years ago, Frank examined why mainly lower-income white voters—Kansans, for his purposes—supported candidates and policies that “objectively” harmed their economic interests. Poorer rural people voted to cut taxes for the rich; families who depended on public education voted to cut funding for their schools.
If he were writing the book today, he might examine the aftermath of COVID-19. This summer researchers at Yale reported on evidence that the “excess death rate” during the pandemic had a strong partisan skew. Among registered Republicans—in Ohio and Florida, for the Yale study—the excess death rate was far higher than among registered Democrats.
Or Frank might write about the new Republican campaign against higher ed. It might not be killing their voters literally. But it is darkening their future prospects. In the biggest sense, colleges and universities are increasingly the key to community and regional success. But, as Charlie Mahtesian recently pointed out in Politico, they’re also an electoral threat to a Republican Party seen as anti-knowledge.
Again Florida is the test case and poster child. “DeSantis War On ‘Woke’ Leads to Faculty Brain Drain at Florida Public Universities” read a headline from the investigative site Florida Bulldog this spring. The Tampa Bay Times also used “brain drain” in a recent headline. The Times story cited record-high levels of faculty resignations and departures from Florida universities, and quoted a report from the American Association of University Professors saying that “some candidates were turning down Florida offers with nothing else lined up.” Similar accounts abound. Meanwhile DeSantis’s nemesis Gavin Newsom of California keeps directing resources and expanding access to the nation’s leading public university system, and California, for all its travails, keeps attracting students and professors, and leading innovations for the nation’s economy.
Great universities depend on their appeal to teachers—and students—from locations far beyond their home base. Here too a Know-Nothing Florida is paying the price. According to a recent study by Intelligent.com, one of eight Florida graduating high school students say they won’t consider college within the state because of DeSantis-era policies. Meanwhile the central problem of the University of California system is too many applicants from too many places around the world. Another Oppenheimer reference: Think of the constellation of talent gathered at Caltech and UC Berkeley as portrayed in the film. Imagine how hard it would be to assemble them—or their counterparts who were curing diseases, inventing microchips, founding new companies, exploring the universe—in a state whose motto is not “Eureka” but “Where woke goes to die.”
Be not afraid
What’s the matter with Florida at the moment might boil down to Ron DeSantis, and his crass willingness to sacrifice his state’s future to his own culture war campaign. What’s the matter with the GOP’s larger anti-education campaign is that it can do a lot of damage before it ultimately fails.
It will fail because it’s based on a losing bet—that a party can permanently ride the grievances of a shrinking minority—and because it’s at odds with the long-term sources of economic, cultural, and civic development. Someday historians will see the anti-college campaign as the death throes of a doomed movement, like the last stages of the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s.
But someday could take a long time. What can the college community—leaders, teachers, neighbors, students—do in the meanwhile?
They can be confident and calm, knowing that they’re in a high-stakes tactical struggle but that the strategic prospects are bright. Time is indeed on their side. And they can remember three guiding principles for the many elements of their response. I mention them in summary and shorthand.
1. Disagreement is mainly theoretical. Progress is overwhelmingly practical. This pattern occurs everywhere, and is a centerpiece of modern resentment-based politics: Things “out there” are really terrible! Even though the things you see around you are mainly doing okay. This has been the dark guiding genius behind Fox News for decades. Rile people up about threats and mayhem somewhere, so they think the calm outside their doors is a fortunate anomaly.
It applies to the economy, and to education. The extensive New America survey showed people feeling much better about the colleges they knew firsthand, from their own communities, than they did about the distant “woke” hellscapes they kept reading about. What does this mean for college leaders? It almost never pays off to tell people, “You’re wrong.” Instead it’s a matter of a new emphasis on the practical, the sane, the community-minded, the inclusive realities of the best modern colleges.
2. Never pull up the ladders. Keep talking about a bigger tent. Yes, these are two different images, and clichés. But they embrace one crucial reality: Even people who “don’t like” colleges mostly dream that their children and grandchildren will go to one. I don’t have New America polling data to back this up. But I do have nearly a decade of traveling smaller-town America with my wife, Deb, talking mostly with people who themselves lacked college degrees. And this is the story the Monthly’s improved college rankings have told.
Ask people what they don’t like about the weirdos and lefties who now run colleges and they’ll tell you—as their grandparents might have complained about the weirdo hippies at Berkeley in the 1960s, and their grandparents might have grumbled about the privileged, prissy “college boys” in the era of Stover at Yale. But ask them what they hope for their own grandchildren, and the doors opened by higher education are almost always high on the list.
Colleges need to present themselves as holding the doors open, expanding the tent, making sure the ladders are available to people who couldn’t reach them before. Making college sustainably affordable is obviously number one on this list. Number two is making people aware that 99 percent of American colleges are not Darwinian struggles-for-survival in the admissions process but in fact have room for nearly all. Colleges have often portrayed themselves as citadels, and with reason. For now they should emphasize their nearness and accessibility, not their distance from normal life.
3. Town and gown: We’re in this together, for the long run. The third imperative for the turbulent years ahead is to make sure that colleges emphasize their commitment to the surrounding community—and, more importantly, that they make that commitment real. In previous reports in this magazine—from Indiana, Pennsylvania, Maine—we’ve given examples of what this means. In her Chronicle report, Karin Fischer offers many more: for example, local purchase plans, which direct the vast purchasing power of colleges to aspiring business in their local areas. More and more college leaders are making this a trend.
The Republican war on colleges boils down to the idea that colleges are them—one more object of suspicion, resentment, riling-up, and punishment.
America’s higher ed establishment should show day by day why the colleges view America, and the larger public should view America’s colleges, as crucial parts of us.