Opinion | Why Liberal Academia Needs Republican Friends

Here are a few snapshots from higher education in America:

Under a new provision in state budgeting, public universities in North Carolina will cease funding distinguished professorships in the humanities, reserving them for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The furor around elite universities over their responses (or non-responses) to Hamas’s massacre in Israel has now inspired a group of white-shoe law firms to collectively demand a stronger response to antisemitism from leading law schools.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, in his continuing higher education wars, is trying to shut down pro-Palestinian student groups whose national chapter supported Hamas’s attacks.

A new survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression found weak student support for free speech on campus, and the weakest support among the most liberal students; meanwhile the schools whose students were friendliest to the discussion of unpopular views included the right-leaning Hillsdale College and the self-consciously classically liberal University of Chicago.

And finally, Donald Trump is reportedly poised to promise the establishment of a national public online university, entirely free of wokeness, to be funded with a tax on Harvard-scale endowments.

All these stories are linked to one reality: The trends shaping higher education’s upper tier over the last generation have reached an apparent limit, and we are entering a period of scarcer resources and sustained political conflict.

The first trend hitting its limit is the big higher-ed expansion — more buildings, more amenities, more administrators — that was made possible by a glut of students, in the millennial generation and from overseas, and also by easy credit and low interest rates.

The second trend is the ideological transformation within the liberal university and the liberal arts — the shift from an environment where left-of-center ideas predominated but with a certain degree of diversity and free debate, to the Trump-era environment of default progressivism and D.E.I. loyalty oaths in hiring.

These two trends have created a situation where colleges are overbuilt for an age of declining birthrates and increasing global tensions, and much more out of step with crucial financial sources of support: for private schools, their donors; for public universities, Republican state legislators.

For the richest universities, this is a challenge but not yet an outright threat; elite law schools need to appease elite law firms, donors need to be mollified, but if you have a multibillion dollar endowment, you can ride out a certain degree of discontent. (Pending Trump’s endowment tax, at least.)

But just down the ladder from the Ivy League you have a lot of schools, big and small, that are going to be squeezed by shrinking pools of applicants no matter what, and especially squeezed if their funders decide that they don’t like supporting an ideological monoculture.

Whether that squeeze takes the form of DeSantis-style censoriousness or the defund-the-humanities push evident in North Carolina’s budgeting, the left-wing professoriate should have seen it coming. Here I’m going to quote from a social media rant from Tyler Austin Harper, a professor at Bates College and a man of the left:

How did anyone think we could get away with being nakedly ideological for years without any chickens coming home to roost? Universities have always been tacitly left-leaning and faculty have always been openly so, but institutions have never been this transparently, officially political. Almost every single job ad in my field/related fields this year has some kind of brazenly politicized language

… Our society desperately needs the humanities, and a functional public higher education system more broadly. And at the very moment we’re under sustained assault, some of us are still pouring fuel on Chris Rufo’s bonfire.

Rufo being, of course, the anti-woke activist and writer who has helped lead DeSantis’s effort to remake Florida’s public liberal arts college, New College, in the mold of a school like Hillsdale.

But in that example lies the crucial point that liberal academia needs to recognize. In the squeeze that’s coming, it faces two different schools of conservative critique. One is more censorious but ultimately indifferent to the humanities, happy to see universities function like trade schools, educating for employment and letting the liberal arts wither.

The other imagines using the levers of politics and money to rescue the humanities, not destroy them — whether that means building up the kind of conservative pedagogy you see at great books schools and classical high schools or just seeking a world where the University of Chicago rather than Harvard is seen as the elite-academic ideal.

Republican politicians can be pushed in either direction; DeSantis has tried to play both parts. But it seems clear to me that academia should strongly prefer to negotiate with the conservatives who think the humanities need reform but should be saved — as opposed to just watching their programs get defunded and go dark.

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