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With the 2024 presidential race in its early stages, some college leaders have raised concerns about candidates that they see as a threat not only to higher education but also to democracy.
They have outlined those concerns in op-eds, public testimony and statements—some vague, others pointed. The leading Republican candidate in early polling—former president Donald Trump—has drawn criticism in the past from many higher education associations and leaders, whether for his hateful rhetoric or his role in instigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
But this year many college presidents have remained conspicuously silent in the face of conservative attacks on higher education across the country, which have included everything from removing books and imposing curricular restrictions to defunding diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and going after accreditors. Meanwhile, those speaking out argue that if elected, Trump—and fellow GOP candidate Ron DeSantis, who as governor of Florida has imposed his conservative vision on the state’s public education system—pose a threat to the core values of higher education and would endanger U.S. democracy.
In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, many higher education leaders condemned the attack as an assault on democracy, propagated by disciples of Trump driven by his false claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Some higher ed leaders named and blamed Trump; others spoke generally about threats to democracy and the need for respecting the will of voters. But since Trump launched his 2024 presidential bid, many of those same voices have remained silent.
Other higher education leaders have spoken out on the issues and candidates that concern them. And a rare few have been especially candid.
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University since 1989, has made her case against Trump—starting well before he announced his latest re-election bid—and DeSantis in op-eds, blog posts and panel appearances. Her concerns about the latter are relatively new, emerging alongside the dramatic changes he has imposed on Florida’s public education system. But she has tangled with Trump before, publicly accusing presidential adviser and Trinity graduate Kellyanne Conway of lying, which prompted criticism from Conway and other conservatives. In a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed, McGuire suggested that Trump is both a menace to democracy and a worrisome role model for others eager to follow in his footsteps.
“Trump represents a clearly antidemocratic movement, a very authoritarian movement, and he has been the source of inspiration and encouragement for others who will pick up the mantle and run with it, perhaps even more fiercely and in an even more threatening way,” she said.
McGuire expressed a similar opinion of DeSantis, who has reshaped higher education in the Sunshine State through an aggressive legislative agenda that has restricted instruction on certain topics; established posttenure review for faculty; defunded diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at state institutions; and forced a conservative reconstruction of the New College of Florida.
“He has already proven himself to be a threat to democracy in the way he has been governor of Florida. I don’t recall a time when I’ve ever seen a governor act in a more outrageously authoritarian way, imposing his personal views and predilections on the state,” McGuire said. “His interference in higher education is one of the most antidemocratic actions imaginable.”
DeSantis’s actions prompted Loyola Marymount University president Timothy Law Snyder to write in an op-ed for The Miami Herald earlier this month that the Florida governor fundamentally misunderstands today’s generation of students. Snyder argued that legislative efforts to upend alleged indoctrination were ill informed and out of touch.
He expounded on his views in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.
“This notion of higher education brainwashing our students is dangerous,” Snyder said. “Because it misrepresents higher education and its purpose, its people, its practice. It misrepresents the rising generation and makes them look like empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.”
He added that DeSantis is attempting to impose his own views while also stifling dissent.
“DeSantis is a threat to democracy. Democracy requires that our voices are not just heard but they are considered legitimate, no matter our levels of disagreements,” Snyder said.
Asked if he considered Trump a threat to democracy, Snyder said, “When we look at some of the outcomes associated with his work, and certainly with his statements, one could conclude that. However, I don’t see it as direct as the case is with DeSantis and laws that have been passed.”
Not surprisingly, public college presidents, who may face the wrath of legislators for speaking up, have been far less vocal in airing their concerns about the top Republican contenders. But not all have remained silent.
Phil DiStefano, chancellor of the University of Colorado, Boulder, recently told Inside Higher Ed he is worried about the state of U.S. democracy. He cited the front-runner status of a candidate who disputed the outcome of the 2020 election. DiStefano, who also expressed concerns about threats to democracy in a State of the University speech last year, suggested college leaders haven’t been vocal enough about attacks on higher education, pointing to recent legislation in Florida and Ohio that many critics argue endangers academic freedom, tenure and other core tenets of higher education.
Some college leaders have invoked criticism of DeSantis in battling legislation proposed in their states that seems inspired by Florida. When Louisiana was considering a bill that would have collected information from public educational institutions on such topics as critical race theory, DEI and social-emotional learning, Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, bristled.
“The little man in Florida does not drive policy in Louisiana,” he told lawmakers in public testimony, an apparent nod to the legislative war DeSantis has waged against DEI offices. (Sullivan was unavailable for comment due to travel obligations, a spokesperson said.)
Officials with the Trump and DeSantis campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.
The Risks of Speaking Out
Faced with near daily demands to speak up on various issues and injustices, college presidents have to be selective in choosing which topics to engage on. Some presidents, like McGuire, enjoy the support and encouragement of their boards, giving them the freedom to discuss even the most contentious subjects. Others, especially public college presidents, must tread lightly lest they outrage their overseers.
“We have to be selective,” Snyder said. “We also have to understand that we’re between a rock and a hard place in these situations, because if we speak out on an issue, criticism will roll in all the way up to the death threats. Yet if we don’t speak out, we are seen as being complicit with or at least OK with whatever is occurring around us, and that’s always a tension for us.”
In addition to criticism and potential death threats, college leaders may face the loss of state funding, he noted, or damage to their reputation or careers if lawmakers seek political recourse.
Snyder acknowledged that as president of a private college in California, he has much greater latitude to speak out than public college presidents in Florida, who may face retaliation for voicing their views. (All 40 of Florida’s public college presidents have stayed silent on DeSantis’s higher education agenda, even when offered anonymity to discuss concerns with Inside Higher Ed.)
The status of Trump and DeSantis as active GOP presidential candidates creates additional risks for the college leaders who condemn them. First, it reinforces the notion held by many conservatives that higher education is a bastion of liberalism. But it also raises the specter of the head of a nonprofit—as many colleges are—stepping into a fraught partisan race. And in the event that the GOP candidate wins, college presidents may then find themselves forced to work with an administration whose leader they blasted.
Even major education associations—including those that invoked Trump’s name in their condemnation of the Jan. 6 insurrection—have avoided directly commenting on Trump or DeSantis.
The American Council on Education offered a blanket condemnation of attacks on higher ed.
“Partisan efforts to dictate curriculum, restrict access to knowledge, interfere in teaching or intrude in the daily operations of institutions, driven by political concerns, are harmful to all students and we oppose them regardless of who is proposing them. ACE and PEN America collaborated on a resource guide for higher education leaders to make the case against elected officials imposing restrictions on what is taught and how and to emphasize the importance of ensuring that all members of the campus community feel comfortable airing varying perspectives across campus and in the classroom,” Jon Fansmith, senior vice president for government relations, said in an emailed statement. He also pointed to a statement ACE helped organize “stressing the importance of free and open academic inquiry on our campuses.”
And he emphasized the work of colleges in preserving civic life, adding, “Any efforts to undermine American democracy are antithetical to our mission and we will always oppose them.”
The Association of American Universities did not comment directly on the leading Republican candidates, either, pointing instead to statements supporting academic freedom and diversity. A spokesperson said by email, “As a 501c3 we are very careful about commenting on partisan political campaigns.”
The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities did not respond to a request for comment.
While speaking up may be costly for presidents, McGuire argues it’s a worthwhile risk at a time when the core values of higher education are under attack. She believes that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential components of democracy. If college leaders are unwilling to battle over such essentials, she said, they’re too comfortable in jobs that offer generous salaries, benefits and social standing—and are therefore complicit in the attacks.
“The fact that so many presidents are so silent is disturbing. I wonder what they think their jobs are? We’re not concierges. We are supposed to represent academic and intellectual freedom,” McGuire said.