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A photo of Minouche Shafik, president of Columbia University, during the House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on Columbia’s response to antisemitism last week.

Minouche Shafik, president of Columbia University, testifies during the House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on Columbia’s response to antisemitism last week.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik was adept at dodging the trick questions from Republican members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week, but her attempts to placate them touched off a maelstrom on campus that rapidly spread to colleges and universities across the country. By opting not to push back on the McCarthyism of the committee’s MAGA Republicans, Shafik and her colleagues failed in their duty to defend “the fundamental requirements of academic freedom”—in the words of a draft censure resolution that the Columbia University Senate is expected to take up—a failure that legitimizes further attacks on individual scholars and higher education generally.

To demonstrate her support for Jewish students, Shafik called in the police to arrest pro-Palestinian protesters. That raised the ante, triggering even more protests at Columbia and beyond, to the delight of MAGA extremists. In response, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has called for President Biden to deploy the National Guard to occupy college campuses across the nation—a move reminiscent of the National Guard’s deployment to Kent State University in 1970, with tragic consequences. House Speaker Mike Johnson echoed the idea of bringing in National Guard troops during a visit to Columbia’s campus Wednesday.

Meanwhile, having already successfully defenestrated Harvard University President Claudine Gay and University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, Congressional Republicans are now demanding Shafik’s resignation—proof that nothing a university president could have said or done would have satisfied them.

Higher education is under assault by the MAGA Republican right, and trying to appease them is a losing strategy. The surge of antisemitism on college campuses since the start of the war in Gaza has provided the MAGA movement with a convenient excuse to intensify its war on higher education—a war that began long before the Hamas terrorist attack of Oct. 7 and is being waged on many fronts.

The House hearings on antisemitism were designed from the outset to be a political show trial with higher education in the dock. In a private Zoom call, committee member Representative Jim Banks, Republican of Indiana, revealed the Republicans’ real agenda—to defund elite institutions of higher education that MAGA Republicans consider “woke” by cutting off their federal student loan funding and taxing their endowments. The committee’s December hearing on antisemitism at Harvard, Penn and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Banks explained, was just the first step. The committee has embarked on what The New York Times described as “an aggressive and expansive investigation into institutions of higher education in America, targeting the academic elites they have long viewed as avatars of cultural decay.”

Anti-intellectualism has long been a staple of the Republican right, from Senator Joe McCarthy’s hunt for communists in academia to Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, mocking the “effete corps of impudent snobs” to Florida governor Ron DeSantis denouncing today’s “woke” professors. But the attack now underway is not just political posturing. It is more organized, more sustained and more far-reaching than ever before. And higher education’s leadership is not prepared for the emerging attacks.

The assault on higher education is a key front in the Republican right’s campaign to undermine the institutional pillars of democracy. Attacks on the press, the judiciary, the civil service (aka the “deep state”) and elections have gotten more attention, but colleges and universities are no less essential to sustaining a democratic polity. Higher education’s central mission is to create new knowledge based on evidence, which requires academic freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression, all of which are anathema to a MAGA movement built on conspiracy theories and lies.

Across the nation, Republican-controlled state legislatures are using the power of the purse to starve state universities of resources and attack the cornerstones of higher education: academic freedom, tenure, shared governance and the commitment to a diverse academic community. Three years ago, the Florida legislature adopted a law requiring public universities to report on “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” in the curriculum and giving students the right to record faculty lectures to enforce this stricture. Signing the law, Governor DeSantis called the state’s colleges and universities “intellectually repressive environments.”

At the same time, a self-styled “conservative watchdog” group, Campus Reform, encourages students to report “liberal bias and abuse,” and then publishes articles about the professors accused. A survey found that 40 percent of the faculty publicly named in Campus Reform articles reported receiving threats of violence, including death threats. Another 10.7 percent reported receiving hateful, harassing or otherwise unwanted messages. The fear and anxiety these attacks generate have a chilling effect that impedes the discussion of controversial issues in the classroom—and that’s the intent.

Tenure is the guarantor of academic freedom, enabling faculty to pursue new knowledge without fear that politically motivated retribution will cost them their livelihoods. It, too, is under attack in the Republican-controlled statehouses.

Widely publicized cases at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Texas A&M University exemplify the use of political litmus tests in evaluating faculty. In both cases, well-qualified, nationally recognized Black female candidates were denied tenured appointments after senior administrators were pressured by conservatives who objected to the candidates’ writings on race.

Disenfranchising the faculty is a prerequisite to pushing higher education toward “right” thinking. The Republican right’s attempt to control what is taught in the classroom is packaged as an antidote to liberal dogmatism and a shield against “divisive concepts” that may make students uncomfortable—predominantly conservative students. Republican-sponsored prohibitions on teaching critical race theory are so intentionally broad as to preclude an honest account of the history of race relations in the United States. Since 2021, Republicans in 10 states have succeeded in imposing such “educational gag orders” at the higher ed level. In 2022, the lieutenant governor of Texas proposed revoking the tenure of any faculty member teaching critical race theory.

When public college boards try to resist such pressures, they can simply be replaced. In January 2023, Governor DeSantis appointed six conservatives to New College of Florida’s 13-member board. The new board promptly fired the president, appointed a political ally of DeSantis and upended the college’s focus and mission. The goal, according to DeSantis’s chief of staff, was to create the “Hillsdale of the South,” modeled on a private conservative Christian college in Michigan. The Board proceeded to revamp the curriculum with no input from the faculty, about 40 percent of whom resigned.

That same month, Dave Boliek, chair of the Board of Trustees at UNC Chapel Hill, announced plans for a new “School of Civic Life and Leadership” with a goal of 20 dedicated faculty positions—a decision made with no prior faculty consultation. The initiative, Boliek said, was “to try to remedy” a lack of “right-of-center views” on campus. About 700 Chapel Hill faculty wrote in protest, calling the decision “a clear violation of the established principle that faculty, not politicians, are responsible for a college’s curriculum.”

Model legislation crafted by the right-wing Civics Alliance, if adopted, would require the formation of similar schools focused narrowly on the “Western liberal arts tradition” in every public university, and charge these newly created schools with delivering the majority of the general education curriculum.

Meanwhile, the Republican-appointed Board of Governors of the State University System of Florida ordered that sociology be dropped from the core curriculum because, as Florida’s education commissioner, Manny Diaz Jr., put it, “Sociology has been hijacked by left-wing activists.”

The Republican right has also targeted diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs designed to help underrepresented students achieve academic success and foster cross-cultural and racial understanding. These programs support students who feel marginalized or discriminated against based on religion, racial and ethnic group, nationality, sexual orientation and disabilities. Were they not so demonized by Republicans, DEI staff could help bridge the gulf between Jewish and Palestinian students on campuses right now.

Ten states, including Texas and Florida, have banned DEI programs at state universities, and similar legislation has been introduced in 18 other states. Wisconsin’s Republican state legislature held funding for the university system hostage, demanding—and ultimately receiving—cuts in DEI programs. In the U.S. Congress, the same House committee that interrogated Shafik and other Ivy League presidents is launching an investigation of university DEI programs.

This pantheon of attacks on higher education is just the prelude. As Steven Brit describes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, MAGA Republicans are preparing a full agenda of measures for a second Trump administration to subdue higher education by threatening cuts to funding, tasking the Department of Justice to launch investigations and pushing for the elimination of academic programs they find objectionable.

The MAGA Republican assault comes at a moment when colleges and universities are especially vulnerable, facing rising costs and falling enrollments as the college-aged population shrinks. Many leaders in higher education are intimidated by the onslaught. In a 2022 Chronicle survey of 150 college presidents, 80 percent reported being reluctant to speak out on national issues for fear of the controversy it might generate.

That number has surely increased after the forced resignations of Presidents Gay and Magill from Harvard and Penn, respectively. If the presidents of these two great universities can be ousted, who is safe? Certainly not the academic leaders of public universities accountable to the will and whims of politically appointed boards and elected officials. Not a single one of Florida’s 40 public university presidents was willing to speak about DeSantis’s higher ed policies when contacted by Inside Higher Ed last year.

Yet the only way to blunt this onslaught is for college presidents, board members and national associations to take on the attackers in the public square, calling out their cartoonish caricatures of college campuses and reminding the public that America’s extraordinary success as a nation was made possible by an educational system, public and private, second to none—a system that has produced more Nobel laureates than any other and remains a magnet for talented students from around the world. Leaders in higher education and their political allies need to defend their institutions from those who would subordinate fact to fiction, knowledge to ideology, and freedom of inquiry to political orthodoxy. The real enemies of higher education today are not inside the university: they are the ambitious far-right politicians, torches in hand, banging at the gates.

William M. LeoGrande is a professor of government and Dean Emeritus at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Scott A. Bass is a professor of public administration and policy at the School of Public Affairs and Provost Emeritus at American University.

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