It is not hard to figure out why the testimony of three prominent college presidents this week spurred a broad backlash.
The leaders of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (not in the Ivy League, but close both physically and in estimation) were asked whether public comments “calling for the genocide of Jews” would run afoul of their institutions’ rules about harassment. Their answers could very charitably be described as cautious — but were more often and understandably derided as tone-deaf, insufficient or dangerous for the schools’ Jewish students. Donors and alumni have expressed outrage, as has the White House.
This was not the week’s only development in the intersection of higher education and politics, however. An assessment from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and reporting from the Chronicle of Higher Education both delineated the extent to which the efforts of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to reshape education in his state have constricted educational opportunities, spooked instructors and threatened academic freedom. Those reports, despite affecting far more students, attracted much less attention.
Beyond the undisputed saliency of questions about antisemitism in the moment, there’s an obvious reason for this difference. And that reason undergirds DeSantis’s efforts in the first place.
About 57,000 students attend Harvard, Penn and MIT. Florida’s state university system, by contrast, educates more than seven times as many students. The system’s flagship, the University of Florida, by itself educates more students than the three schools whose presidents appeared in front of that House committee this week.
What’s going on in Florida? The AAUP report summarizes the situation as follows:
Interviews with dozens of people involved with the state university system, including educators, students and former administrators, offered insight into the effects of DeSantis’s attempts to reshape how higher education in Florida is conducted. The AAUP report points to legislative and executive efforts that changed the leadership and structures at state universities, uprooted efforts to expand diversity, and limited or blocked certain subjects, particularly about race. It notes that even beyond formal constraints on the institutions, leaders at the schools are apparently deferential to the rhetoric and whims of political actors.
The Chronicle’s article includes a quote from Wilson Bradshaw, a former president of Florida Gulf Coast University.
“These aren’t just ‘political statements,’” he said. “These are actual policies that can have a negative impact on what we’re trying to do with our educational systems.”
The challenge to the schools isn’t simply that instructors are leaving — many of them, the Chronicle reports from interviews, out of concern about “DeSantis’s hyperpoliticized stewardship of the state” — but also that the atmosphere reduces the number of instructors who might otherwise want to fill those positions.
“I think they are finding it harder to replace departing faculty than they originally imagined,” Matthew Lepinski, a former professor at Florida’s New College, told the Chronicle. New College has been a particular target of DeSantis’s, with the governor overhauling its leadership, including appointing the right-wing activist and writer Christopher Rufo as a trustee. Changes followed quickly.
There’s no real mystery about why this is unfolding in Florida. As University of Florida professor Jeffrey Adler told the AAUP committee that was evaluating the state’s changes: “My responsibilities to my students far outweigh Governor DeSantis’s presidential ambitions.” DeSantis is seeking the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination and, as he does, he is seeking to demonstrate how he would wield executive power from Washington. And here we are.
But it’s worth pointing out why this is a focus for DeSantis. Why is he trying to reshape higher education in Florida? What’s the problem he’s ostensibly trying to fix?
There are at least two clear, overlapping answers.
The first is that DeSantis, like many on the right, believe that colleges and universities deserve specific blame for the generally liberal political views of younger Americans. Young people are more liberal than older people, and young people are also more likely to have attended college. So it has become an article of faith on the right — despite a dearth of supporting evidence — that colleges are turning young people into liberals. And that, therefore, colleges need to be overhauled and their instructors scrutinized and purged.
This idea is not limited to colleges, it’s worth pointing out. The right regularly assumes that those who don’t share its politics must have been brainwashed somehow by someone. It seems likely that this is, in part, a function of the increasingly closed information universe in which the political right sits, the “epistemic closure” of right-wing media and rhetoric in which assumptions are often unquestioned and unchallenged. If every observer you track agrees with you about an issue and every source of information you consume is in consensus, anyone who disagrees must somehow have fallen victim to some liberal Svengali. Like a professor, say.
The other reason DeSantis is targeting higher education is that college education often serves as a proxy for being in the “elite,” a member of the nebulously bounded class of Americans that is viewed with disdain (or worse) by the political right. That’s particularly true of those who attended schools such as Harvard, a school whose name is functionally synonymous with elitism. House Republicans brought Ivy League presidents to answer questions about antisemitism in part because of reported incidents on their campuses and in part because they are ready-made punching bags for the Republican base.
That incidents at the schools were the subject of attention in the first place is a reflection of the fact that these universities are a disproportionately great focus of attention among those who wield power in the United States, often because powerful people attended those schools and tend to vastly overweight the importance of things happening at their alma maters as a result. That includes alumni such as House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y., Harvard ’06) who led the questioning on Capitol Hill.
There is no question that it is important that no one, including college students, be subjected to violent threats or attacks on the basis of their identity. (That holds for instructors too, of course; one former University of Florida professor who decamped for Drexel University told the AAUP committee that, after Florida began passing legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community, “[t]he state didn’t seem to be a good place for us to live in anymore.”) But it is also important to recognize how DeSantis is using right-wing politics to reshape a university system that educates more than 400,000 students.
The Chronicle’s report describes the effects of those shifts on Jess Daigle, who enrolled at New College just before DeSantis made it a focus of his attention (and just as the governor’s presidential campaign was gearing up). The changes at the school upended her path to her degree — in the noncontroversial field of marine biology.
She and her father attended a subsequent board meeting, where her father lamented the “mass exodus of distinguished professors” and the ripple effects of the changes.
“Police escorted both of them from the meeting,” the Chronicle reports, “after Jess Daigle shouted out from the audience during a discussion of the college’s finances.”
A lesson in its own right.