Destroying the University to Save It

Photograph Source: Antony-22 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Not long ago, the idea of Republican legislators and trustees dictating the creation of university courses, curricula, and degree programs would have seemed like a right-wing fever dream. But as we’ve seen at New College of Florida, at UNC-Chapel Hill with its School of Civic Life and Leadership, and in multiple states that have sought to ban teaching critical race theory, the dream is becoming a reality. Some observers have described what’s happening as a takeover of public higher education.

The next steps in this process are laid out in a proposal recently put forward by three conservative outfits: the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the National Association of Scholars, and the North Carolina-based James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. The proposal, called the General Education Act, is being offered to Republican lawmakers as “model legislation” for transforming public universities.

Higher-education writer John Wilson calls the proposal “the most radical assault on faculty and academic freedom in American history.” Wilson adds that if the proposal were to be enacted, “lawmakers would force public colleges to adopt a uniform general education curriculum devoted to conservative values, give a new dean near-total power to hire all faculty to teach these classes and then require the firing of many existing faculty members in the humanities and social sciences, including tenured professors.” He’s not exaggerating.

In a nutshell, the proposal calls for a whole new general education curriculum—designed not by faculty but by think-tank ideologues, put into effect by right-wing politicians and trustees, and overseen by quisling administrators who will follow orders and override faculty opposition. Flagship state universities will be the first targets, setting the stage for later adoption of the new curriculum by regional universities.

The audacity of the proposal calls to mind the infamous line, supposedly said by a US military officer to reporter Peter Arnett after the battle of Ben Tre during the Vietnam War, “We had to destroy the town to save it.” Although Republicans don’t want to raze public universities to the ground, they would like to do away with the features—political autonomy, faculty control over curricula, shared governance, tenure—that threaten corporate dominance. These are of course the features that largely define what universities are.

Two principal claims are used to justify this coup-in-the-making. One is that universities have failed to provide students with the historical and cultural knowledge essential to participate competently in civic life—knowledge typically acquired by taking general education courses—and so legislators, regents, and trustees must step in to fix things.

The second claim is that legislators are the elected stewards of the people, and the people want the changes Republican legislators are seeking. Legislators, in other words, are just fulfilling their duty to ensure that public institutions operate in accord with public wishes. Faculty, on the other hand, can’t be trusted because, in the language of the proposed act, they seek to “advance their personal politics under the guise of academic expertise.”

It would be fair to call the claim about students not acquiring the knowledge needed for participation in civic life debatable; the second claim, about serving the will of the people, is false. The further claim—that faculty are nefarious actors who invoke disciplinary expertise to mask political activism—is daft, adjacent to the QAnon zone. In no case is there warrant for the enormously damaging political intrusions on public universities that right-wing Republicans are undertaking.

Power and Powerlessness as Obstacles to Education

It’s true, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that many students are poorly informed about matters relevant to participation in civic life in the US. But this ignorance mainly reflects a failure of education at pre-college levels. It also reflects a deeper failure of the very political system that Republican legislators have tried for decades to game to their advantage.

Why don’t students know more about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the machinery of government, domestic politics, or US foreign policy? Not because they aren’t smart, and not because the information isn’t readily available in the university—in courses, in the library, online. Their lack of knowledge is a product of the same powerlessness that many Americans feel when it comes to politics and civic life in this country.

Students feel powerless to affect a polity that is, as they see it, ruled by corporations and the wealthy, and only nominally democratic. So why bother to pay attention? Many have also been dispirited by the message—continually pumped into our political air by Republican propagandists since Ronald Reagan’s day—that government is the problem, not the solution. So, again, why take pains to learn what’s going on? What difference would it make? Those already in positions of power will do what they want to do in any case.

But perhaps part of what incenses right-wing Republicans about how universities now function, independent of political parties, is that they can in fact help students learn what they need to know to make a difference, and often inspire them to try.

What students can learn in the university is how to read carefully and critically, how to analyze evidence and bring it to bear on an argument, and how to present arguments orally and in writing. Not every student develops these skills equally well, but this is for reasons unrelated to what universities make possible. Students also learn a crucial meta-lesson, one taught between the lines in nearly every social science and humanities course: it is by deploying these skills that one is able to participate in civic and political life and have an effect on the world.

If students fail to learn everything that might lead them to be more engaged in civic and political life, it is not because professors discourage them. On the contrary, encouraging students to take an active interest in the world around them is part of what most professors are naturally inclined to do. If students feel demoralized about politics and civic life, the blame lies not with professors but with politicians who are willing to sacrifice democracy for their own benefit and the benefit of their paymasters.

Knowledge of shared cultural heritage, of history (including Western civilization), and of nuts-and-bolts civics is always desirable. It’s part of understanding who we are and where we came from. In forty years of academic life, I never met a fellow professor who felt otherwise. There are disputes aplenty about details—who and what should be included when teaching about Western civilization?—but belief that a college education should impart this kind of general knowledge is universal.

Yet students need to know a great deal more to participate effectively in civic life today. For example, they need to know about US labor history and how organizing is crucial to making change; they need to know the history of US imperialism and the lies told to support it; they need to know how corporate power is used to distort public discourse and dominate government; they need to know about illegal government spying on activists and protest groups; they need to know how racism has been used to divide and weaken the working class and thereby forestall social change. Knowledge of these matters can empower students as citizens of a would-be democracy. It is precisely this sort of potentially disruptive knowledge that a right-wing takeover of public universities would make it harder for students to acquire.

Opposing the World to Bring It Forward

I understand the critique of hyper-wokeism and virtue signaling that conservatives associate with universities. But it isn’t professors who stoke this overzealousness. It is, rather, a product of idealistic young people, who care about justice, coming together in a place where they can gain status among their peers by out-woking them. This is the familiar culture of youth eager to claim moral authority vis-à-vis their stodgy elders and make the world a better place; it is not the culture of academia or the work of professors, most of whom are more preoccupied with their next lecture or next publication than with politics of any kind.

As studies have shown, the notion that liberal professors indoctrinate students in their classrooms is largely a myth. If some students worry that they’ll be judged harshly for their opinions, it’s not professors they fear, it’s their peers. Professors, for their part, as studies have also found, tend to encourage expression of a wide range of views. Anyone who has ever tried to lead discussion in a college classroom will appreciate why this is the case.

Yes, there are corners in the university where what seems like common sense is turned upside down. One can also find professors in all disciplines who are obsessed with what appear to outsiders to be trivialities. This egghead stuff is easy to poke fun at. Yet it’s exactly the sort of stuff that universities are supposed to enable. If we want scientists and scholars to come up with extraordinary ideas, we need institutions that give them the time, resources, and freedom to do it. If this means tolerating a few eccentricities, the trade-off is worth it in the long run, because the alternative is stagnation.

When public universities become the captives of narrow political and economic interests, they can’t function to nurture creativity in science and scholarship; they are diminished in their capacity to help society keep growing technologically and morally. They become creatures of the state—or, worse, of one political party—and degenerate into ideology mills. This is the result toward which the attempted right-wing Republican takeover of public universities would lead us.

A Right-Wing Populist Fantasy

Do “the people” want politicians to step in and make universities more hospitable to conservative views, as Republicans and their think-tank enablers claim? Does the right-wing effort to take over public universities reflect the will of the citizenry?

While public opinion surveys show that Americans’ confidence in higher education has declined in recent years—owing in large part to right-wing attacks on academia, rising student debt linked to austerity policies (as public funding for universities has been cut, tuition has gone up), and doubt about the economic payoff of a college degree—there is no evidence of a public desire for politicians to stick their noses into the educational gears of universities. The evidence shows the opposite.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Langer Research Associates asked a nationally representative sample of Americans who should influence what is taught in colleges and universities. Only 37% of respondents said “state government,” whereas 68% percent said professors. There was no gap between Democrats and Republicans; the same overwhelming majorities of both groups oppose politicians trying to usurp faculty control of higher education. So there isn’t even evidence that most Republican voters want to see their representatives engineer a takeover of public universities.

The survey also asked respondents whether they thought four-year colleges positively influence students’ “ways of thinking over all.” Here, a partisan divide emerged: 87% of Democrats said yes, while only 52% of Republicans agreed. Republicans were more doubtful about whether college has a positive effect on students’ political views: 26% said yes, while the figure for Democrats was 87%.

What can we take from these results? At least three things: there is no public consensus, no “will of the people,” backing the kind of political intrusion on higher education that right-wing Republicans are undertaking; most Americans, regardless of party identification, think professors, not politicians, should decide what goes on by way of education in universities; and majorities of both Democrats and Republicans think universities have a positive effect on students’ thinking. Other polls have found that most graduates say college benefited them and would advise others to go.

For now, American universities remain the envy of the world, in part because they operate independently of political parties and grant faculty-wide margins of academic freedom. Right-wing Republicans, it seems, would gladly destroy all this in the pursuit of power and profit. That’s the bad news, and it is bad indeed. If there is any good news, it is that many Americans value what would be lost if a right-wing takeover of our public universities were to succeed. What’s left is to act to oppose that attempted capture and try to preserve the intellectual freedom and autonomy that ultimately redound to the benefit of us all.


Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at