GOP dis­dain of Amer­ica’s col­leges rep­re­sents a cri­sis

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Fredrik de­boer

Only 36 per­cent of Repub­li­cans, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, be­lieve col­leges and univer­si­ties have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on the way things are go­ing in the coun­try, ver­sus 58 per­cent who say they have a neg­a­tive ef­fect. Among Democrats, those fig­ures are 72 per­cent and 19 per­cent, re­spec­tively. That find­ing rep­re­sents a cri­sis.

For it to be a cri­sis does not de­pend on you hav­ing any con­ser­va­tive sym­pa­thies. For this to be a cri­sis re­quires only that you rec­og­nize that the GOP is one of two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Amer­i­can life, and that Repub­li­cans’ lack of faith in higher education will have prac­ti­cal con­se­quences.

Fur­ther, it helps if you rec­og­nize that, in the present era, Repub­li­cans dom­i­nate Amer­i­can gover­nance, with con­trol of the House, Se­nate, pres­i­dency and cru­cially for our pur­poses, a sig­nif­i­cant ma­jor­ity of the coun­try’s state­houses and gov­er­nor’s man­sions. They also have built a ma­chine for state-level po­lit­i­cal elec­tions that en­sures that they will likely con­trol many state leg­is­la­tures for years to come.

As an aca­demic, I am in­creas­ingly con­vinced that a mass de­fund­ing of pub­lic higher education is com­ing to an un­prece­dented de­gree and at an un­prece­dented scale. Peo­ple en­joy telling me that this has al­ready oc­curred — that state sup­port of our pub­lic univer­si­ties has al­ready de­clined pre­cip­i­tously.

But things can al­ways get worse, much worse.

And given the end­less con­tro­ver­sies on col­lege cam­puses in which con­ser­va­tive speak­ers get shut out and con­ser­va­tive stu­dents feel si­lenced, the pub­lic re­la­tions work is be­ing done for the en­e­mies of pub­lic education by those within the in­sti­tu­tions them­selves.

Who’s to blame for the fact that so few Repub­li­cans see the value in univer­si­ties? The con­ser­va­tive me­dia must ac­cept some re­spon­si­bil­ity for en­cour­ag­ing its au­di­ences to doubt ex­per­tise; so must those in the main­stream me­dia who am­plify ev­ery left­ist ker­fuf­fle on cam­pus and make it seem as though trig­ger warn­ings are now at the cen­ter of col­lege life.

But aca­demics are at fault, too, be­cause we’ve pushed main­stream con­ser­vatism out of our in­sti­tu­tions. So­ci­ol­o­gists Neil Gross and Solon Sim­mons have found that about half of pro­fes­sors iden­tify as lib­eral, ver­sus only 14 per­cent who iden­tify as Repub­li­can. (At the time of their study, in 2006, only a fifth of Amer­i­can adults de­scribed them­selves as lib­eral.)

In “What’s Lib­eral About the Lib­eral Arts?” Michael Berube de­scribes and de­fends a phi­los­o­phy of non-co­er­cion and in­tel­lec­tual plu­ral­ism that isn’t just an in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity, but an ac­tual ethos that he and other pro­fes­sors live by. I grew up be­liev­ing that most pro­fes­sors lived by that ethos. I don’t any­more. And when I sug­gest it’s a prob­lem that aca­demics are so over­whelm­ingly lib­eral, I get as­ton­ished re­ac­tions. “You ac­tu­ally think con­ser­va­tives should feel wel­come on cam­pus?”

In my net­work of pro­fes­sional aca- demics, al­most no one rec­og­nizes that our lop­sided lib­er­al­ism presents a threat to academia it­self. Many would re­ply to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s find­ings with glee. They would tell you that they don’t want the sup­port of Repub­li­cans. My fel­low aca­demics won’t grap­ple with the sim­ple, prag­matic re­al­i­ties of po­lit­i­cal power and how it threat­ens vul­ner­a­ble in­sti­tu­tions whose fund­ing is in doubt. That’s be­cause there is no pro­fes­sional or so­cial in­cen­tive in the academy to think strate­gi­cally or to en­gage with the world be­yond cam­pus.

In­stead, all of the in­cen­tives point to­ward af­firm­ing one’s po­si­tion in the aris­toc­racy of the academy. There are no reper­cus­sions to ig­nor­ing how the univer­sity and its de­part­ments func­tion in our broader so­ci­ety, at least not in the hu­man­i­ties and, for the most part, not in the so­cial sci­ences ei­ther.

Univer­si­ties make up a pow­er­ful lob­by­ing bloc, and they have proved to be durable in­sti­tu­tions. I don’t think you’ll see many flag­ship in­sti­tu­tions shut­tered soon. But an ac­cel­er­a­tion of the de­pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of the univer­sity teach­ing corps through part­time ad­juncts? Shut­ter­ing de­part­ments such as women’s stud­ies or sim­i­lar? Pass­ing harsh re­stric­tions on cam­pus groups and how they can or­ga­nize? That’s com­ing, and our own be­hav­ior as aca­demics will make it eas­ier for re­ac­tionary power, ev­ery step of the way.

Our pub­lic univer­si­ties are un­der mas­sive pres­sure and at im­mense risk, and those who should be de­fend­ers of pub­lic univer­si­ties still don’t un­der­stand that they’ve cre­ated the con­di­tions for their de­struc­tion.

Fredrik de­boer is a writer and aca­demic at Brook­lyn Col­lege in the City Univer­sity of New York.

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