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‘An Existential Threat to American Higher Education’

Conservative state legislatures and ideologically-driven boards want to dramatically change America’s colleges.

University of North Carolina,

When Florida Governor Ron Desantis appointed six new members to the board of New College of Florida earlier this year, giving the oversight panel of the public liberal-arts college in Sarasota a decidedly right-wing bent, there was no ambiguity in the message he was sending. But in case anyone had doubts, one of his appointees, Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who led the push to redefine critical race theory, quickly eliminated them.

“We are recapturing higher education,” he wrote on Twitter (now known as X). He also posted an agenda that included eliminating diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; hiring new faculty “with expertise in constitutionalism, free enterprise, civic virtue, family life, religious freedom, and American principles”; and creating a new core curriculum and an academic master plan. Within 120 days, Rufo told The New York Times, the school’s academic departments would look “very different.”

In the months that have followed, Republican state legislatures and governors have made other efforts to overhaul higher education. Texas lawmakers, for example, passed bills that banned DEI initiatives at the state’s public colleges and redefined tenure—lawmakers had considered banning tenure altogether but ultimately reached a compromise—and listed vague reasons a university can fire a tenured faculty member, including “conduct involving moral turpitude” and “unprofessional conduct that adversely affects the institution.” Free-speech advocates fear what that could mean in practice. Texas A&M University suspended and censured a professor after she allegedly made a “disparaging remark” about the state’s lieutenant governor. (She was reinstated after an investigation found no clear evidence of wrongdoing, and the institution’s president resigned.) And in June, the Supreme Court upended more than four decades of precedent when it ruled the race-conscious admissions systems at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to be unconstitutional.

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This year is a defining moment for American higher education, one that will decide whom institutions admit, who will teach those students, and what those professors can teach. For those on the right, it’s a reclamation, clawing back a set of American institutions that they believe have veered too far to the left. But for many administrators, professors, and historians, these changes risk destroying the pillars—shared governance, academic freedom, free inquiry—that have held up the world’s greatest system of higher education for more than a century.

Jerry cirino did not intend to be a higher-education reformer. Prior to running for public office, in 2020, Cirino, a Republican, had for decades led medical-device companies in Ohio. But when he launched his campaign for state Senate, he began scrutinizing the local colleges a little harder. “One of the things I noticed when I was running for senate, in 2020, was that higher education was not going in a direction that I thought it should be going in,” Cirino told me. He mentioned conservative speakers being shouted down at universities and the relative absence of conservative voices on campuses. So he made “taking a look at how we can make higher education better,” as he put it, a plank of his campaign.

“Make higher education better” could mean a lot of things, but shortly after winning his election, Cirino began defining what he envisioned. He became the vice chair of the higher-education committee in the state Senate and introduced Senate Bill 135—a sweeping higher-education-reform bill that, among other things, would require schools to create a formal complaint system for students, groups, or faculty who were concerned that their free-speech rights had been violated. “If a student in a classroom feels their professor is overly liberal and expresses concern about how speaking up is impacting his grades, I wanted to have a process for him,” he said at the time. The bill was signed into law last year, and it achieved several of his aims, he told me. However, he had other things in mind that S.B. 135 did not accomplish.

I spoke with Cirino twice for this story, once in July shortly after the Ohio legislature went on recess for the summer, and again in mid-August, to better understand what about higher education—beyond what S.B. 135 did—he believed still needed changing. “I really was alarmed at the lack of diversity of thought on our campuses—that’s the nationwide view that I had,” Cirino told me. As an example of the lack of diversity, the senator noted concerns about conservative speakers being protested. When I asked Cirino if there were any specific instances he was thinking of in Ohio, he could not think of any, but he cited an event in March at Stanford Law School where a handful of students disrupted a conservative judge’s speech over his stances on transgender people. Cirino’s frustrations echoed those of many Republicans, who often point to a handful of incidents to argue that higher education is too liberal.

Several studies have shown that, across disciplines, college faculties do tend to lean left, but as Samuel J. Abrams, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Amna Khalid, an associate history professor at Carleton College, wrote in 2020, “we should be careful not to assume that the mere disparities in the political composition of campus communities are responsible for shaping campus climate.” Still, the fact that so many professors lean liberal leads many Republicans to say, per a 2021 Pew Research Center study, that colleges have a “negative effect on the way things are going in the country” (nearly two-thirds of Republicans surveyed in the study agreed with this assertion). “In my view, as a legislator looking out for higher education—and we provide a heck of a lot of funding for higher education—I don’t believe it’s our role in the legislature to just write checks,” Cirino told me. “We should also have a little bit of say, so we can have a seat at the table in terms of what kind of job they are doing.”

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In March, after becoming chair of the Ohio Senate’s higher-education committee, Cirino introduced S.B. 83—the Higher Education Enhancement Act. The National Association of Scholars, a conservative education nonprofit, called the bill a “higher education reformer’s wishlist.” The bill made changes to post-tenure review, banned faculty from striking, and required the elimination of DEI statements in hiring. It also altered how university trustees were appointed and trained. “The governing boards are appointed by the governor … and the senate has advice and consent,” Cirino told me in July. But whereas in the past, the senate’s role had been perfunctory, “we have a process in place now where we will be reviewing appointments in the higher-education committee and deciding whether or not those trustees should be kept in place after the governor makes the appointment,” he said.

“What we’re trying to do is shore up the governance model a bit,” Cirino said, “because we want to make sure that at the end of the day, they are the governing board of the university, and the president works for them; it’s not the other way around.”

Although Cirino argues that his changes simply bring more structure to board appointments, in practice, such moves have tended to bring more politics into university boards, not less. In 2019, caught between a conservative board of governors that wanted to return a Confederate monument to its pedestal and a campus community that wanted it permanently removed, Carol Folt announced that she would be resigning as the president of UNC Chapel Hill; she removed what was left of Silent Sam on her way out. The moment crystallized the new activist posture of boards of trustees, and bills such as Cirino’s could only accelerate that activism.

Critics immediately assailed the bill as an assault on higher education. “The ACLU of Ohio does and always has supported robust free speech, academic freedom, and intellectual-diversity protections on Ohio’s college and university campuses,” Gary Daniels, the chief lobbyist for the group, said during a committee hearing to discuss the bill. “However, we believe S.B. 83 is contrary, not complementary, to these goals.”

Cirino’s bill also bars colleges from taking positions on any “controversial belief or policy”—though the bill makes an exception for supporting the United States when Congress approves a war declaration, or if the college wants to display the American or Ohio flag.

The initial version of the legislation named, as examples, climate change, abortion, and same-sex marriage as areas of controversy, but Cirino stressed that that list was not exhaustive. “What is controversial today might be noncontroversial next year,” he told me. “What we want to guard against is the institutions themselves, as state institutions, taking positions on controversial issues.”

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If a university was not allowed to take positions on controversial beliefs, what did that mean for an institution that wanted to celebrate Pride Month? I asked Cirino.

“If a group of students want to have a parade or whatever, they can do that,” Cirino told me. “If the university takes a position that one lifestyle is better than another or preferred to another or should be given more deference to another, that would be wrong, in my opinion … The students have their First Amendment rights that I will defend whether I agree with them or not.”

In the bill’s most recent version, some of the suggested topics tagged as being controversial have been tweaked. Notably, with generational weather events becoming more and more common—floods that have left cities devastated, tornadoes that have leveled entire towns, wildfires creating plumes that have ruined air quality hundreds of miles away and left skies a dystopian haze of orange—climate change is hardly controversial. Instead, the bill now refers to “climate policy.”

“Even though climatologists view climate change as settled science, there are different ways that you react to that from a policy standpoint and that should get lots of debate,” Cirino told me in August. “And in spite of what some people may say, it is a controversial topic. There are different views about how critical the situation is.” He reiterated that his bill was about having debate: “Nothing can be viewed as closed science, because we’re dealing with an academic community.” Cirino says he wants institutions that serve everyone regardless of their political bent. “I’m not trying to turn our universities into right-thinking institutions; they need to be neutral,” he stressed.

But there is a difference between an institution seeking neutrality for itself and the government dictating what it can and cannot do. For its part, the board of trustees at Ohio State University has said that the institution is already working to ensure a diversity of opinion on campus. In a statement, the board criticized the bill prior to its passage in the senate in May. “We share the General Assembly’s commitment to free speech, open dialogue, and the importance of diverse views,” it wrote. “The university is already taking steps to again emphasize that all viewpoints are welcome and respected on our campuses.”

But Cirino doesn’t trust that colleges will follow through. Universities, he told me, “have a terrible track record of self-correcting anything.”

Despite cirino’s protestations to the contrary, several higher-education historians worry that the current movement in the United States to reconstitute university boards, establish guidelines for what universities can and cannot promote, and restrict faculty speech is exactly how leaders in authoritarian states operate. After all, some prominent conservatives have openly praised nations that have reshaped higher education, such as Hungary—which, as my colleague Anne Applebaum wrote, “is the only European country to have shut down an entire university, to have put academic bodies (the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) under direct government control, and to have removed funding from university departments that the ruling party dislikes for political reasons.”

In August, Rufo, who has led the conservative charge to reorient higher education toward conservative ends, wrote about a trip he’d recently taken to Hungary; its leaders, he argued, “are serious people combatting the same forces confronted by conservatives in the West: the fraying of national culture, entrenched left-wing institutions, and the rejection of sexual difference.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was intentional about how he assigned members to the boards of its colleges, Rufo wrote, appointing “conservative stalwarts to the governing boards of these new institutions, with a mandate to advance a ‘national approach’ to education, rather than continue to serve as centers for left-wing ideology.” Orbán, he added, had introduced a new institution with the intention to “create a new national elite.”

Rufo praised the Hungarian government for the way it had inserted itself into established institutions, arguing that he suspected “that the real reason many left-liberals hate Hungary with such fervor is that its government has adopted their premise that the state has an abiding interest in managing and shaping society and used it to pursue goals opposed to theirs.”

It’s difficult to put moments into perspective as you’re living through them. But to John Thelin, an emeritus professor at the University of Kentucky who has made a career of studying higher education’s history, the efforts of Rufo, as well as of Cirino and politicians like him, have placed higher education at a crucial juncture—one that challenges not only the way universities are currently constructed, but also their core tenets, including academic freedom and shared governance.

“We’re talking about the character and essence of our universities for at least the next generation,” Thelin told me. The various governmental efforts to reform higher education—regarding admissions, curriculum, tenure, oversight—are sort of like the New Deal, he said. Typically, when an academic invokes the New Deal, they mean to suggest a positive, dramatic innovation. That’s not what Thelin meant, though: “I see it more as an unraveling.”

In 1915, the American Association of University Professors established a committee to take up the question of academic freedom. The panel was formed in response to threats across the country: At schools including the University of Utah, Wesleyan University, and the University of Pennsylvania, professors had been fired for teaching material that boards disagreed with; presidents had been fired as well. The cases were too voluminous to handle, so the committee dealt with the most pressing ones and established principles for others to follow. The resulting document came to be known as the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure; the principles were updated and reaffirmed in 1940.

The panel aimed to enhance the dignity of the profession and reinforce the purposes of universities: promoting inquiry, advancing knowledge, instructing students, developing experts to serve the public. But the committee members were particularly worried about the boards that govern institutions of higher education. “The board of trustees is the body on whose discretion, good feeling, and experience the securing of academic freedom now depends,” said one president the committee spoke with. They saw the boards as a weak point in the protection of a university’s independence, and some people argue that those concerns now read prophetically. The takeover at New College began with a changing of the guard at the board level. For years, state leaders in North Carolina, Florida, and elsewhere have been remaking university boards to reflect the conservative priorities of state officials.

Eddie R. Cole, an associate professor at UCLA who studies how college presidents have shaped policy, believes that the principles laid out by the AAUP are being eroded, and that the public affront has to be met with equal force. “When you see a group of elected officials moving in a certain direction that’s counter to what we’ve understood higher education to be, that warrants a public response,” he told me. Administrators typically try to work behind the scenes with lawmakers and state officials, Cole said, but in the present circumstance, that’s unlikely to be enough: “Maybe conversations are happening behind closed doors, but you still need the public aspect of it too. You need to let your broader campus community know, let your state know, let everybody who has an eye toward the university know where the institution stands.”

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John Thelin was more blunt. “This is redefining. So many values and principles and policies that were hard-fought to gain are being eroded before our eyes,” he told me. “And if there isn’t some vigilance from our presidents, they’re going to just evaporate before us over the next couple of years.”

In a 1916 essay, John Dewey wrote, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” It’s an idea that animates liberal education. And Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, told me that she worries that if the attacks on the sector continue, and higher education’s central tenants are upended, other democratic institutions will not be far behind: “If we’re not able to train students to engage in civil discourse by modeling it, then we no longer have a system of liberal education as it was meant to be.”

Cirino argued that his goal is also to model civil discourse. When I asked him, during our conversations in both July and August, what that looked like, he pointed to a hypothetical conversation between a professor and a student about the Holocaust.

“What we’re saying simply is that different sides of issues, like the Holocaust-denier thing that I mentioned earlier, should be given open discussion,” he told me in July. He was referring to a question that he’s gotten several times since his bill first came out: What should professors do if a student continues to present dissenting views about the Holocaust? Earlier this year, Cirino was admonished by a colleague, State Representative Casey Weinstein, after he refused to unequivocally say that Holocaust denialism is outside the realm of legitimate classroom debate.

“There’s no question that it happened, but if I were teaching a class, and somebody came up and said they doubted whether it really happened the way everybody had reported it, the choice for the professor is that you can throw that student out of class, you can fail them, you can tell the other students to harass them, or you can persuade the student with the preponderance of evidence that the Holocaust happened,” he told me. “You may or may not convince the student, but that’s the kind of dialogue that should be happening.”

Of course, there are other options: The professor could have the student come and speak with them during office hours; a conversation intended to persuade a single student about the reality of a human atrocity does not need to occur during class, and certainly not if it risks legitimating Holocaust denial. But in Cirino’s formulation, even if a conversation verges on devolving the classroom into a glorified debate forum where one side is arguing with facts and the other with one of history’s most harmful conspiracy theories, as long as the argument remains respectful in tone if not in content, it should be had.

Adam Harris is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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