Republicans Miss an Opportunity

In theory, conservatives and liberals should have an equal concern with the state of higher education in America today, because all involved in politics should want an informed citizenry. In practice, however, liberals tend to ignore higher-ed reform. The race/class/gender triumvirate that dominates the contemporary academy translates into African-Americans, unions, and feminists in the political realm–and these three groups are vital to the Democratic Party’s base. Among the Democrats, only the party’s (dwindling) band of strongly pro-Israel figures would have political cover to address the effects of the groupthink, “diversity” atmosphere on today’s college’s campuses.

This political reality leaves Republicans as the only party likely to seriously champion higher-ed reform. Conservatives, it would seem, have an additional incentive, since the overwhelmingly left-leaning nature of social sciences and humanities faculty has given rise to the not-implausible concern that conservative ideas get short shrift on campus.

While education issues played almost no role in the 2010 elections, the unprecedented Republican gains at the state level provided an opportunity for at least a few state legislatures to exercise their oversight roles and inquire into whether their state’s public colleges and universities were actually fulfilling their stated goals of training the next generation of citizens. Are the interests of all citizens best-served by the kind of racial preference admissions schemes on display in the Fisher case in Texas? Do trustees or administrators need to play a greater role in the personnel process, to provide some semblance of balance and to make sure important topics or fields aren’t simply excluded by the groupthink atmosphere within most college faculties? What sorts of protections will ensure that students who pay good money to get a college education actually receive value for their dollar, and that students’ rights are honored even by professors who, for ideological or pedagogical reasons, view many of their students with contempt?

These, and similar, questions have no easy answers, but are at the core of what troubles higher education today. They also have received almost no attention from any of the newly GOP state legislatures. Instead, Republican legislators have focused on two issues of vital importance to the GOP base but either irrelevant or harmful to educational quality—hostility to mainstream science, and gun rights.

Republicans’ difficulties with academic scientists first emerged in a problematic fashion with Virginia AG Ken Cuccinelli’s attempted investigation of former University of Virginia climate change scientist Michael Mann. Since the election, the focus has fallen more on evolutionary biologists. The National Center for Science Education reports that anti-evolution bills have been introduced in nine state legislatures. By far the most significant came in Texas, where State Rep. Bill Zedler has sponsored a measure to hold that “an institution of higher education may not discriminate against or penalize in any manner, especially with regard to employment or academic support, a faculty member or student based on the faculty member’s or student’s conduct of research relating to the theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.” It would be hard to come up with a more obvious threat to academic freedom than a state law that would direct personnel actions based on the outcomes of a science professor’s research. It’s almost as if the AAUP’s Cary Nelson managed to persuade Zedler to introduce the bill as a way to discredit Nelson’s conservative critics.

Among higher-ed issues, only gun rights have rivaled evolution in receiving attention from Republican state legislators. According to this column from John Lott, 12 state legislatures are currently considering measures to allow students and professors to carry concealed handguns on campus.

While I can see the theoretical merits to both sides of the argument, I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other as to whether campuses should allow concealed weapons. One thing is clear, however: that of the major (or even minor) problems facing higher education today, guns on campus would rank nowhere near the top (or even the middle) of the list.

As with the crusade against evolution, ending campus concealed-weapons bans plays well with the Republican base—just as ignoring the deleterious effects of the race/class/gender dominance of the academy plays well with the Democratic base.

But the fact that guns and creationism have been the chief college-related concerns of the new GOP state legislatures should deeply disappoint those who might have hoped that the political wave of 2010 could yield to creative legislative measures to improve higher education. And, given that the 2012 elections—at least outside the South—are likely to yield strong Democratic gains in state legislatures, it’s unlikely that GOP promises to tackle the more pressing higher-ed issues will be redeemed in the future.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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