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A picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking into a microphone.

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Pundits and politicians feign surprise at polls that show sharply declining support for higher education. The source of this decline, however, is not mysterious. Over the past decade, both hyper-partisan and mainstream media have inundated the American public with caustic rhetoric about universities.

We are ceaselessly told a dystopian tale. Radical students run college campuses through mob justice. Professors no longer teach, but merely indoctrinate. Administrators have eliminated freedom of thought and conscience via so-called witch trials and political tribunals. The tendency to blame universities for numerous civic failings using these fallacious platitudes has become one of the defining features of political discourse in our era.

It is well past time to recognize where such toxic rhetoric originated and whose interests it serves. Conservatives have long argued that colleges are too liberal, pro-diversity measures are reverse racism and public education is too expensive. But the new anti-university rhetoric to which I refer is, in large part, not a product of domestic politics. Rather, it is the language of an international pro-authoritarian movement opposed to centers of learning that model liberal-democratic values.

In The Road to Unfreedom, historian Timothy Snyder argues that a historic geopolitical reversal is underway. Throughout the late twentieth century, Western nations promoted democratic liberalism abroad. But Russia and other formerly Soviet states have reverted to authoritarianism in recent years and now export illiberal, anti-democratic ideas—including hostility toward universities—to the West.

Scholars at Risk, an organization that monitors threats to academic freedom and human rights around the world, characterizes recent censorship of teaching materials and state restrictions on curriculums in the U.S. as part of an international “crisis moment” in attacks on education. Fashionable, revenue-generating diatribes against college students and professors rationalize these attacks in U.S. media while obscuring their connection to rising authoritarian sentiment abroad.

Animus against universities across the mainstream political spectrum should concern defenders of academic freedom and civil liberties. Universities remain privileged and unequal institutions in many ways, but desegregated education has been one of the most successful drivers of both academic achievement and social mobility in U.S. history.

From the mid-2000s forward, anti-university campaigns have accompanied resurgent autocracy in nations that pursued democratic reforms during the immediate post-Soviet era—not to mention such democratically backsliding states as Turkey, India and Brazil. Russia is paradigmatic—the inspiration for an anti-university playbook that circulates throughout the Western world.

Russian universities were among the first institutions in that country to meaningfully explore Western ideas after the Soviet Union collapsed. Exchanges with Western academics who studied human diversity in its full variety, affirmed individual rights and viewed education as an instrument of social progress were revelatory.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies subsequently targeted universities to curtail Western influence and eliminate independent centers of truth.

As Masha Gessen has reported, Moscow State University hosted an infamous sociology conference in June 2008 during which Vladimir Dobrenkov, dean of the sociology department, declared in his opening remarks that “the rights of homosexuals and lesbians … gay parades … sex education in schools” were attempts “to defile our young people” and destroy Russia. Another speaker warned that “homosexuals” create “demographic catastrophe” through pedophilia and criminality. Three months later, Russian ultranationalist Alexander Dugin announced a “Center for Conservative Studies” at Moscow State University to “train a conservatively minded academic and government elite.”

Putin’s suppression of academic freedom and criminalization of LGBTQ+ existence were facets of a propaganda campaign not only in Russia, but also against democratic movements in formerly Soviet states. Student movements and campus activism helped to advance pro-democratic “color revolutions” in the formerly Soviet states of Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Those movements threatened, in turn, to continue undermining Russian hegemony in the region. For the Putin regime, cracking down on universities in Russia and throughout the region became an important tactic in its strategy to crush pro-democratic movements.

The Kremlin-allied Union of Orthodox Citizens called student protests “parades of sodomites” filled with “radical youths” seeking to “foment an ‘orange revolution.’” Anti-university rhetoric from the Kremlin and its proxies included virulently homophobic, as well as antisemitic and racist, propaganda aimed at Western powers.

Suppressions of academic freedom and civil liberties followed the reinvigoration of Russian influence in Ukraine, Hungary and Poland. Throughout the late 2000s and 2010s, the federal governments of Poland and Hungary censored teaching materials concerning many topics, from Polish complicity in the Holocaust to depictions of LBGTQ+ communities. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán parroted Russian propaganda in denouncing allegedly radical and violent ideologies in universities, particularly “gender ideology,” bringing them under state control and forcing the relocation of Central European University’s main campus from Budapest to Vienna.

Condemnation of universities in Russia and Hungary generated an adaptable authoritarian rhetoric that has migrated across Europe, the United Kingdom and North America. In every case, the defining conceit is the same: advocacy for equal rights within universities, especially LGBTQ+ rights, and the creation of programs like sex and gender studies prove that faculty and their students are psychologically deluded, politically radical and socially dangerous. This ironic fantasy recasts relatively powerless groups who advocate for democracy, tolerance and free expression as intolerant fascists.

The political uptake of such propaganda in the U.S. has proceeded in plain sight. Christopher Rufo, the senior Manhattan Institute fellow whom Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appointed to the New College of Florida Board of Trustees, was a 2023 visiting fellow at the Danube Institute—a think tank that the Hungarian state funds to disseminate Orbán’s illiberal policies. Conservative politicians cite Orbán’s illiberal constitutionalism, especially its restrictions on academic freedom, as a model for U.S. conservatism. One of the foremost intellectual figures to do so is University of Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen, who describes universities as enclaves of an international cosmopolitan elite that erode traditional families and culture.

Oblivious to its authoritarian origins, liberal and centrist figures helped normalize anti-democratic paranoia about universities throughout the late 2010s in numerous op-eds and media appearances. Apparently, the cynical conceit that universities engender social evils had become too intellectually fashionable to resist. In times of social upheaval, such as the Civil Rights Era and the Vietnam War, resentment toward colleges is typically bipartisan.

Commentators from across the political spectrum thus told a uniformly dark tale. Students and faculty have become too political, too invested in sex and gender identity or multiculturalism, too egalitarian. Students especially, the story goes, did not acquire these commitments honestly. They likely acquired them because parents and schools coddled students into false beliefs and rigid orthodoxies.

This rhetoric normalized one especially pernicious idea above all: Students and faculty who exercise inalienable First Amendment rights, including those of dissent and protest, are engaging in radically oppressive and fascistic activities.

Popular prejudices against universities have generated pretexts for attacks on education in numerous states. Since 2020, a wave of educational gag orders has swept across dozens of legislatures. The targets of these censorious measures mirror those in authoritarian nations abroad. Conservative governments regulate teaching and research while restricting speech pertaining to LGBTQ+ rights, anti-racism, social justice and multiculturalism. Various state legislatures have tightened government control over universities by undermining tenure and faculty governance while mandating state-approved levels of “viewpoint diversity.”

Anti-democratic rhetoric about universities has led to frighteningly authoritarian tactics in recent months alone. In late 2023 and early 2024, televised hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives exploited the serious issue of on-campus antisemitism. In the fashion of Joseph McCarthy, members of Congress demanded firings or resignations of university leaders, insisted on curricular changes, and depicted overwhelmingly nonviolent student activism as inherently violent.

In recent weeks, Republican and Democratic officials alike have encouraged the use of riot police, equipped with military-grade weaponry, to mass arrest and expel predominantly peaceful student protesters across the nation. Multiple officials have called for the National Guard to seize control of campuses. The resemblance to authoritarian crackdowns on universities is unmistakable.

Rapidly escalating state censorship, federal intimidation and armed violence against almost entirely nonviolent student and faculty demonstrators are all flashing red warning signs. Authoritarian sentiment is no longer creeping into the U.S. It has arrived.

Restoring public trust in the democratic value of higher education requires rediscovering the university’s purpose. Principled criticism of universities is necessary. Such criticism, however, should be rooted not in authoritarian tropes, but in healthy and informative deliberation about policies, curriculums, institutional histories and shared governance. We must recognize and reject hyperbole about atypical campus radicals, the private political views of students and faculty, and the imagined social evils of college campuses.

Colleges and universities still evince many faults and inequities, but they are more intellectually and culturally diverse, and more accommodating to free expression and social tolerance, than ever before. That’s why they’re under attack. Defending universities against authoritarian visions of higher education is now more important than ever.

Bradford Vivian is a professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book is Campus Misinformation: The Real Threat to Free Speech in American Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2022).

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