Why aren’t US university leaders pushing back against political attack?

The political maelstrom around US universities’ handling of pro-Palestinian protests reflects a right-wing campaign that is increasingly challenging higher education’s autonomy to determine its missions and run its affairs. Yet the sector appears to have no strategy to hold the line. Paul Basken reports

February 15, 2024
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As an expert on one of the US’ most politically perilous topics, Garen Wintemute knows full well that some types of academic work unavoidably require engagement in partisan arenas.

Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California, Davis, has spent decades investigating gun violence – a subject so emotionally fraught that it has often cost politicians their careers. That spectacle has led many more legislators to just avoid the subject altogether or even to actively suppress it – with the result that research goes unfunded, data on gun sales and usage goes uncollected and the carnage rolls on.

That stark reality long ago left Wintemute among just a handful of academic scientists who kept trying to investigate the realities. His strategies have included lobbying lawmakers and pursuing legal action to force the release of government data. He’s even paid for large amounts of gun-related research out of his own salary.

To Wintemute, there seems no other choice. Studying gun violence is absolutely essential, and confronting the political barriers around it is a necessary part of the job. “I do controversial work. The people in my group do controversial work,” he says.

His stance – that the work of higher education can require an unapologetic confrontation with powerful political forces – isn’t completely unique. However it is a view that is rarely shared – or, at least, rarely enacted – by sector leaders in the US, who tend to confine their political activity largely to a narrow band of lobbying, such as making polite requests for higher budgets.

US university leaders and their associations would run from any suggestion that they try to stop the powerful politicians attacking their sector, according to Robert A. Brown, the immediate past president of Boston University. “I think they would hide under a rock,” he says.

Concerns are rising in some quarters, however, that this old-fashioned limitation is far from adequate in the current moment. In recent years and months, the unapologetic coarsening of US politics is increasingly targeting higher education. Politicians and donors – almost exclusively on the political right – have increasingly used their immense powers in unprecedented ways to browbeat colleges and universities on multiple fronts related to teaching, research, mission and identity.

Some of the more attention-getting antics in recent years include multiple red states banning classroom and campus discussions of societal equity, critical race theory and abortion; Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent three University of Florida professors from testifying against the state in a voting rights case; and the widespread firings and arrests of foreign researchers based on thin claims of illicit Chinese links.

There have also been multiple state takeovers of college and university governing boards, and numerous forced oustings of campus presidents, including – most recently and surprisingly – Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Claudine Gay of Harvard University, after their grilling by Republican lawmakers over their institutions’ responses to antisemitism on campus.

Montage of a gun pointing at man falling back on a bar chart of American flag
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Other university leaders appear cowed by the browbeating from politicians, donors and boards. A case in point is Texas A&M University’s Katherine Banks, who resigned last summer amid faculty pushback against the university’s backsliding over a job offer to a journalism professor to whom conservative activists objected. A few days later, stories emerged that the university had threatened to fire a lecturer, Joy Alonzo, who had criticised Texas’ lieutenant governor, a former talk show host on conservative talk radio with a history of attacking higher education, especially over racial equity. Alonzo was reportedly retained only after the university system’s chancellor promised state officials that he would look into firing her (at the time of writing, she is still listed on the university’s website as a faculty member).

The newer variety of partisan browbeating by politicians and donors is clearly interwoven with historic conservative hostilities to public spending, too, especially in education. This has seen the budgets of many public universities suffer sharp cuts in state funding, leading them to rely ever more heavily on partisan private donors and student tuition fees.

It all feeds a circle that the institutions seem too disoriented to escape: gripes about the cost of tuition, levels of student debt and graduate employability combine with cynical complaints of ideological agendas to turbocharge a hardening conviction on the right that anything other than job-specific training is not a rightful part of a publicly subsidised education. Attempts to protect the nation’s liberal arts tradition as a holistic pursuit of enriched lives and healthy communities are derided as expensive and potentially indoctrinatory add-ons.

Encouraged by the right to see their mission primarily as the generation of corporate value, campuses now routinely measure their research by its commercialisation and their student success by post-graduation salary data, to the exclusion of traditional concerns with human well-being and societal betterment.

The question of how best to respond to such pressure is now “a profound issue for higher education”, says Brown, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology provost, who just retired after 18 years leading Boston University.

Campus resource collection: Higher education’s role in upholding democracy

One aspect of that challenge, Brown says, is the “should”: is there still some clear boundary between academia and politics that universities are wise to never cross? Another aspect is “how” – could academia’s brightest minds somehow craft effective interventions that would address the falling public trust in education and research-based expertise, which seems to be bound up – causally and consequentially – with the right-wing attacks?

A barrier to both, Brown says, is that centuries of institutional survival have taught campus leaders to stick to their traditional roles. “Our first responsibility is to maintain a university that fosters critical thinking, open and free enquiry, and a search for truth – buffering our institutions the best we can from the external forces that would change us,” he says. “If we do, we will attract the right faculty and students and continue to fulfil our mission,” even if most Americans don’t seem to appreciate that, Brown adds. “I know that this approach is not inspirational for those who want us to try to fix the ills of our society, but I don’t view that as the role of the university.”

It’s a common opinion. A clear risk exists that higher education could get sucked even deeper inside the nation’s toxic partisan warfare, reinforcing complaints that universities are just another self-interested party, rather than a cornerstone of civil society devoted first and foremost to a mission of serving students and overall humanity. Yet others argue that universities already are embroiled in that maelstrom, whether they like it or not, leaving their presidents with an inescapable choice between fighting back harder – in ways more commensurate with the heavy-handed methods being employed by their opponents – or allowing higher education to be micromanaged by politicians and donors, with its mission limited to training young Americans to corporate specifications and cheerfully reinforcing social stratifications.

Those leaning more towards pushing back include Lynn Pasquerella, a former president of Mount Holyoke College who has served since 2016 as president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, a collection of more than 1,000 institutions that promotes liberal arts education.

The AACU was formed in 1915 at a somewhat similar moment of crisis for higher education. Then, political pressure to reject what was seen as soft-headed sentimentality arose from mass industrialisation, the creation of land-grant universities, and the resulting rapid enrolment growth.

Montage man with white flag sitting behind lecture chairs with a fist in each one
Getty images montage

Notions of academic freedom suffered in that transformation, and faculty that same year created the American Association of University Professors. Critically important, Pasquerella says, was that the AAUP found common cause and partnership with the AACU (initially known as the Association of American Colleges) to help higher education defend its wider mission.

That model is essential to apply now, she adds. “There certainly needs to be more collective action with respect to the challenges we’re facing,” she says. Academia today is again enduring a “shift away from the notion of higher education as a public good, to viewing it as a private commodity”, she says. “And that corporatisation or commodification of higher education has meant that we really have abandoned the idea that a liberal education – which is a distinctively American tradition – should entail not only training students with workforce skills but also [with exercising] moral imagination and speaking across differences.”

An AAUP faculty organiser, Jennifer Ruth, professor of film studies at Portland State University, shares that perspective. Higher education’s enemies are doing nothing less than arguing that academia “has no role in the production of citizens and the public sphere and the public space”, Ruth says. In the face of such a threat, “it has a right to self-defence”.

US higher education, of course, isn’t completely helpless – at least not yet. Overall, it’s a business sector that still maintains thousands of outlets coast to coast, many with hugely valuable brand names. Many campuses still retain wide operational autonomy. Some are adeptly shifting their centuries-old bricks-and-mortar existences into profitable online versions. Many excel in the horizontal and vertical integration of their products and services. Salaries are high for large numbers of workers, and the prices that elite institutions can charge customers seem almost unlimited. They still enjoy substantial government subsidisation.

And evidence abounds that students and their long-term interests remain the intended priority of most institutions. The community college sector alone educates a third of all US undergraduates, at a fraction of the usual cost elsewhere. Minority-serving institutions also perform minor miracles with shoestring budgets. And campuses at all levels maintain substantial operations aimed squarely at improving their communities and the world at large.

The Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago, the Institute for Public Service at the University of Tennessee and the Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University are among the untold number of campus-based efforts to directly improve governmental competence and functioning. The professoriate remains abundant with individuals who are treasured by their students.

And while many selective US institutions earn persistent criticism for favouring wealthy and well-connected applicants, many others keep striving for ways to overcome the nation’s grievously unbalanced provision of basic opportunity. Public institutions in several states – including Hawaii, Idaho, Minnesota, New York and Texas – offer automatic acceptance to students who meet certain performance criteria in high school.

In sum, the enormous variety of US higher education offers plenty of ammunition to those on both sides of any fair-minded debate over whether the sector deserves a fundamental overhaul. Graduate workers and student athletes demand higher pay, while their classmates bemoan high tuition. Presidents and star professors get robust salaries, yet many could do better in the private sector. Campuses are celebrated for tackling hidden factors driving high student dropout rates, such as high housing and food costs, but sometimes overcharge on meal plans and course materials. And the bottom-line value proposition for US college students escapes any single answer. Students typically arrive unclear about what they want from their college experience, often voluntarily overpay based on institutional reputation, and leave knowing that even the best preparation might not be enough for the transformations of the coming decades.

On balance, says Timothy Fields, an admissions officer at a top US university, most institutions appear to be seeking the most ethical ways of operating in a political environment that makes it harder and harder for them to pursue their missions.

“Higher education is no different than the business and corporate world,” says Fields, a co-author of The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions. University presidents “want to run their company, and they want to do the right thing by their consumers or customers”. But he also concedes that “there are some schools that kind of skirt the line on making ethical decisions and trying to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace”, sometimes trading off the former in favour of the latter.

For US higher education to find its ethical footing amid sustained attacks on its basic legitimacy, it likely needs its biggest collective voices to step up. But those associations – led by the American Council on Education (ACE), representing the heads of about 1,700 institutions – typically focus on relatively conventional and straightforward goals, such as increasing student aid, state funding for institutions and federal support for research.

As for confronting the toxic partisanship tearing at the fabric of their mission, US higher education leadership has been notably restrained. The ACE says it is aware of the unprecedented size of the challenge it faces, and it has started in recent months to craft a response, creating a division of its government relations office to identify key threats, arrange the necessary resources and wage the appropriate campaigns.

Such campaigns can be hard to coordinate given US higher education’s diversity, says Boston University’s Brown. “They look like trade associations,” he says of ACE and others, “but they actually don’t speak with one voice, and that’s a problem.”

The president of a community college in Michigan, Michael Gavin of Delta College, has made his own effort to encourage pushback from his two-year colleagues, but describes his work for now as largely about creating a space to commiserate.

An ACE spokesman says the group is trying to build effective responses. “Given this diffuse nature and the breadth and diversity of the higher education sector, we are working to strengthen the fundamental engagement between higher education – as a whole – and its state governments, communities and residents,” he says.

A key example of the relative inaction so far is the US Supreme Court ruling last year barring racial considerations in admissions. It was the product of decades of persistent and well-coordinated work to elevate right-wing activists throughout the nation’s judicial system. Although that kind of obsessive long-term approach might become essential for the post-secondary sector, it doesn’t seem imminent.

“They’re very reluctant to fight back,” says Dov Waxman, a professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles and director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. “It’s just not in the DNA of university administrations.”

In fact, in a world where the internet empowers anyone to share their opinion on anything, many top US university leaders – with their campuses full of experts on virtually any topic – have actually been bullied into the belief that they should stay silent on society’s big policy questions, even as conservative critics accuse universities, without any hint of irony, of both failing to permit free speech on their campuses and failing to curtail it.

A chief marker of that surrender is the numerous institutional presidents who last year announced or reiterated their support for the Kalven Report, a 1967 policy statement crafted at the University of Chicago that basically suggests they never opine publicly on any matter of societal concern. That kind of intellectual abdication, Portland State’s Ruth says, is devastating, as it amounts to the belief that higher education “has no role in the production of citizens and the public sphere and the public space”.

UC Davis’ Wintemute came to his position on public engagement through his professional work as an emergency-room physician. His experiences saving lives in Cambodia and the US helped him realise that he could be more helpful by trying to prevent gun violence than trying to help people after they become victims of it.

His personal dedication by now sits beyond question. The federal government is the chief supplier of research dollars across many academic fields, but gun industry lobbyists for years successfully blocked the use of federal money to study gun violence. But instead of giving up, Wintemute donated more than $1 million (£800,000) of his own money to keep his gun violence investigations running.

And with regard to his political pursuits, Wintemute sees higher education – at least in the overwhelmingly progressive state of California – as a clear ally. In the early 1990s, he decided to take advantage of a change in state law that denied guns to people convicted of violent misdemeanours, to document the difference it made. When he could not get access to the gun usage data that he needed for such research, he led an effort – supported by UC Davis – to make the necessary changes in state law. And when that led to lawsuits challenging the data disclosure rules, the university joined him in fighting back.

It’s a major example, Wintemute says, “of the university willing to go to bat for the ability of its faculty to do important research, even when that research challenges vested interests, even when its conclusions might be controversial”.

In other states, and in Congress, lawmakers aren’t as easily persuaded, however. That has left Wintemute contemplating the extent of his own willingness to use political tactics to further an academic goal. He fully understands that gun data from beyond California would offer major gains in understanding gun violence, but he’s not willing to pay the cost of fighting political battles beyond his state.

That’s for others to pursue, Wintemute says. “My role, frankly, is to show the world what’s possible when you have the data,” he says.

Pasquerella says she well understands the hesitation among university leaders and other academics to engage more directly with their political adversaries and the danger of being punished for doing so. But the seriousness of the challenge across higher education – especially for people such as Gay, who did nothing more than bring their race and gender along with them to their jobs – means it’s time to push past that reluctance, she says.

Otherwise, she says, US higher education may have to admit that it’s not truly serious about fixing its most important shortcomings, in areas that include racial and wealth inequities, or about protecting the value that universities promise students and society beyond offering employment-related training.

And fighting in the political arena can be done strategically, without higher education leaders adopting the kind of vitriol thrown around by their opponents, Pasquerella says. “We have to get out into the communities and serve as anchor institutions…and have conversations with those in the communities who are most sceptical of what it is that we do,” she says. “That’s where we’ve fallen down.”

Another expert, Alvin B. Tillery Jr, believes that the controversy over Israeli-Palestinian protests has pushed US higher education to an existential decision point. “It really is an alarming moment, I think overall for higher ed,” says Tillery, who is professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University.

The Republican representatives who grilled Gay, Magill and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth in Congress portrayed themselves as defending ethics by pushing back against campus antisemitism. Many others have doubts about the sincerity of their concern. Either way, the embarrassing spectacle of the presidents of three such prestigious institutions failing to defend themselves illustrated the degree to which even the top ranks of US higher education are far from ready for the fight they have on their hands if they plan to meaningfully defend the sector and its role in US society.

The three presidents had agreed voluntarily to attend the Capitol Hill gathering, yet came with no apparent plan to fight or even deflect the ambush tactics that predictably awaited them. That was especially surprising in Gay’s case given that Harvard hired a major public relations firm after she was criticised for her initial response to the 7 October attack in Israel.

Tillery doubts the leadership of US higher education will change course in any major way. But he does see hope elsewhere. Across the country, he notes, students have pushed past the cynical partisan interpretations and misinterpretations of their protests against violence in the Middle East and insisted that US society listen to them. This is part of an essential tradition of student protesters leading the nation’s moral conscience in areas that include human rights, pay equity and environmental protection, Tillery says.

And while polls suggest that students do want college teaching to improve their employability, there is also strong evidence that they value it for its own sake, recognising that a good job is not the sole determinant of a good life.

Students can’t entirely do the job of their university leaders, Tillery says, but they are likely to keep refusing, in a variety of important and effective ways, to accept the dilution of what higher education should mean to them and their lives.

That determination can be heard among undergraduates such as Eden Getahun, a social studies major at Harvard, who is aghast at the failure of her university’s governing board to stand up for its first black woman president in the face of racist and vitriolic attacks on her character.

“When I first came to Harvard,” Getahun says, “I naively thought I would be surrounded by people who were driven to serve, and that the liberal arts education provided would guide students on this journey…Instead, I have found that Harvard is not only subject to, but bolsters the neoliberal scheme of training students to desire a six-figure salary over any passion to do good.”

Nevertheless, while the university doesn’t instil it, “some Harvard students are able to remain true to themselves and understand the obligation we have to those who do not share the privileges that we do,” Getahun adds.

And that understanding, Tillery says, offers a “glimmer of hope” that the nation’s increasingly multiracial youth will act to preserve the mission of higher education in ways that higher education itself seems unable to do.

“It’s going to be saved by the students,” he says, “and that’s what makes me optimistic.”

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Reader's comments (1)

1. "University leaders," whoever that might be, are in fact "pushing back" but doing in poorly and inadequately 2. what do legislators and gun control have to do with "university leaders pushing back..."? 3. what does "isn't completely unique" mean? Can anyone translate this? 4. what is a "more attention-getting antic"? as opposed to a "less..."? 5. Critical race theory and "discussions of societal [social?] equity" are not the same thing 6. "cowed" does not mean "resigning" 7. how does one "feed a circle"? Anyone? 8. What, where, and how is "the should"? 9. What is the relationship/comparison between 1915 and 2024? I have never read such ignorance of the history of higher education in THE 10."U.S. higher education, of course, isn't completely helpless." Help, please. Editor? Anyone? 11. Given the pressing issues of the moment, what is Basken writing about? trying to say? I do not know. Can any other readers help me? Anyone actually "expert" on higher education?