COMMENTARY: The Hijacking of Public Higher Education

When political advocates impose their preferred perspectives and outcomes on higher education, the result subverts its historical purpose. It is a hijack, and it is happening … Now.


What I have just described is happening in so-called “Red States” across the U.S.–North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, and Louisiana, for example–and it’s happening in other locales, too (Ohio is an example). Still, one can make the case that Florida is the pack leader.

Consider what Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, said on June 1, 2024, at New College, as reported in the June 4 edition of the News-Press under the headline, DeSantis: Universities have become ideological indoctrination sites.

Referencing what he called “leftist and woke ideology,” the governor remarked: “I believe the root of this issue can be traced back to the corruption of universities and academia, a foundation that has allowed toxicity and ideology to permeate various aspects of our society.”

That politically charged language starkly contrasts with my fifty-five years of experience in higher education at four institutions of higher learning across as many states, forty of which were spent on the faculty and as an administrator at a major state university. That is why I view the governor’s assertions as a baseless characterization of higher education, promulgated with political intent–to discredit the current system so that “reform” is necessary.

If only the claims were true….

Professor Marshall Poe noted recently in Real Clear Politics thattypical faculty members are not ‘Leon Trotsky-types,’ political radicals who view students as revolutionaries in training. Instead, they are scholarly geeks driven by a love of learning in their academic subjects. “What I cared about,” Poe continued, “is history, researching and teaching it.”

Replace and fill in history with any other specialty, and that–more than any other matter–is what draws faculty to the professoriate. That is why I know from experience that what Professor Poe asserts is true.

Every time I read or hear that faculty seek to proselytize young people with Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter, or any other idea-set that is target practice for the Right, I laugh, yes, laugh. For every ten faculty members I know, perhaps one or two would be able to offer a credible definition of the very “concerns” about which they are being charged. By “credible,” I mean being a scholar of the subject matter, including being known for it in peer circles.

I also laugh in response to the countless accusations that “liberal indoctrination” is replacing the teaching of, and the demand for, critical thinking among students. Why laugh? The exercise of critical thinking should lead easily to the conclusion that the accusations from the Right are bunk.

So, as I see it, it is ludicrous to contend that the higher education system—public higher education, especially—has a “political agenda” and that there are droves of faculty across the country hell-bent on converting young people into Leftist acolytes.

Furthermore, wisdom associated with years of experience has taught us that higher education institutions (not just faculty) should not take public stands despite increasing calls to do so (especially–and ironically–coming mostly from the political Right).

Why? Hard lessons were learned in the 1960s amid campus protests associated with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and urban unrest. The University of Chicago’s position is noteworthy–not only the stand but how it was crafted. Professor Harry Kalven, Jr., a distinguished First Amendment scholar, chaired a committee at the request of the University of Chicago president, advising the chief executive and the school’s trustees about how UC should respond.

The eponymously titled report, The Kalven Report (1967), included this passage: “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself a critic.” Those words have passed the test of time, referenced fifty-plus years later in a commentary that included these words: “By not tethering itself to a particular position, the university will welcome the fullest range of views—and reap the benefit of the wisdom produced by the resulting debate.” (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, 2023).

The bottom line is this. The current level of politicization of higher education surpasses anything I have witnessed, and I do not see a diminution in either the approach or its pace. What is at stake? Higher education’s core mission. The false claim that higher education is currently a liberal delivery system sets the stage for it to become a conservative delivery system. How ironic is that?

The truth is that higher education was never designed to be a delivery system for any political persuasion and should never be. That is not what higher education is for and what a college education should produce.

Governor Ron DeSantis at New College on June 1, 2024: “As proud as we are of the steps we’ve taken (in higher education), you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Those are frightening words, indeed.

____________

Another version of this commentary was published on June 16, 2024, in the Fort Myers (FL) News-Press. Politicization of higher education alarming (news-press.com)

One Response

  1. Roger Barbee June 15, 2024

Leave a Reply