Published On: Thu, Dec 14th, 2023

What Republicans really want from colleges

The now famous Dec. 5 House hearing where three presidents of elite universities gave unsatisfactory answers to a barrage of questions about antisemitism on their campuses wasn’t the only thing happening in the room that day.

A not insignificant portion of the hearing was an attack by Republicans on diversity and other campus-related issues, topics clearly as interesting to the GOP members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee as the ostensible purpose of the hearing: antisemitism on college campuses and whether the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had done enough to confront it.

How Harvard, Penn, MIT leaders answered — or skirted — questions on antisemitism

“I have a question regarding this idea of segregation,” Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) said to Harvard President Claudine Gay at the hearing. Harvard “now has graduations for Black-only graduates, Hispanics-only graduates and gay-only graduates. How does that bring us together as opposed to dividing us based on color, creed and all the other things? And by the way, is it okay for a White group to say we don’t want other minorities to be part of our graduation?”

Harvard does indeed have separate “affinity celebrations” during graduation for different populations. But that presumably had nothing to do with the focus of the hearing, which was on “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism” and which was announced in a news release with this headline: “College Presidents to Answer for Mishandling of Antisemitic, Violent Protests.”

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) raised a different issue. He asked the three presidents: “I say this respectfully to each of the university professors here today. … What is the percentage of conservative professors at your institutions?” Gay, as well as Liz Magill, who was forced to resign from her presidency at the University of Pennsylvania four days after the hearing, and MIT President Sally Kornbluth all said they don’t keep count.

Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.) asked Gay what Harvard’s annual budget is (about $6 billion, she said), how many faculty and staff the school employs (about 19,000) and how large the university endowment is (just over $50 billion). And he asked all three presidents if their institutions and “others like them deserve to enjoy the benefits of partnerships with our government research investments, student loan guarantees.”

Republicans have long sought to impose taxes on the large endowments of elite universities, and President Donald Trump signed a 2017 law passed by the Republican-led Congress that required dozens of schools with huge endowments to pay a 1.4 percent tax on their net investment income. Republicans are still pushing to increase the endowment tax. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced legislation that would require private universities with 2022 endowments of at least $12.2 billion or state-funded universities with endowments of at least $9 billion to pay a one-time 6 percent tax. Religious colleges and universities would be exempt.

Gay, Magill and Kornbluth were sometimes asked political questions. For example, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, asked each of them if they believed Israel has the right to exist. They each said they did.

Conservative Republicans have long decried higher education in the United States, describing the cultures on most college campuses as being captured by liberal elites who inculcate students with left-wing values and suppress conservative thought. And over time their disdain has deepened.

From 2015 to 2019, the share of Republicans and independents who lean Republican saying that colleges have a negative effect on the country rose from 37 percent to 59 percent, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. By 2022, another Pew poll reported that 76 percent of conservative Republicans said colleges affect the country negatively. Meanwhile, a number of Republican-dominated state legislatures have moved to end what they consider “woke” policies and teachings on campuses.

Democrats on the committee noticed what was happening. “I also want to note that the main point of this hearing should be to identify bipartisan solutions to combat antisemitism, not an excuse to attack higher education, liberal arts education, or important diversity, equity and inclusion work that’s happening at colleges and universities across the country,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore).

Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, noted in his opening statement that discrimination did not begin with diversity initiatives. “This country has a centuries-long history of racism and White supremacy,” Scott said. He also noted that Democratic requests for Foxx’s committee to hold a hearing in 2017 when white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia grounds shouting “Jews will not replace us!” were denied.

“And while my colleagues claim to be committed to combating discrimination on campus, they are also contradictorily and simultaneously stoking culture wars that can be divisive and discriminatory,” he said. “Moreover, House Republicans are proposing significant cuts to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the very office responsible for upholding students’ civil rights and investigating discrimination claims.”

Asked about Scott’s accusation, a committee spokesman said in an email: “What happened on UVA’s campus in 2017 wasn’t led by UVA students, didn’t represent the campus environment, and had nothing to do with the institution we have jurisdiction over.”

Two days after the more than five-hour hearing, Foxx’s committee released a statement announcing it was going to investigate the three schools, calling the now widely mocked testimony of Gay, Magill and Kornbluth “absolutely unacceptable.”

“Committee members have deep concerns with their leadership and their failure to take steps to provide Jewish students the safe learning environment they are due under law,” the announcement said. “… The disgusting targeting and harassment of Jewish students is not limited to these institutions, and other universities should expect investigations as well, as their litany of similar failures has not gone unnoticed.”

Asked to describe the probe’s goals and scope, a committee spokesman who commented on they condition they not be identified said in an email: “The goal of the committee’s investigation is to bring accountability to colleges who are not upholding a safe learning environment for students. Last week’s hearing with the presidents of Harvard, UPenn and MIT proved that the policies and procedures of those universities — and potentially many others — are failing students.”

Republican leaders are making clear that they see the present moment as an opportunity to use bipartisan disgust about antisemitism on campuses to push ahead their agenda to force colleges and universities to rein in policies they consider far-left and “woke.”

Trump, the front-runner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2024, said in a recent campaign video: “We spend more money on higher education than any other country, and yet they’re turning our students into communists and terrorists and sympathizers of many, many different dimensions. We can’t let this happen.” He then proposed establishing a free online university called American Academy that would be funded by taxing the endowments of large private universities. His contempt for the nation’s schools is nothing new; in his 2017 presidential inaugural address, he said the United States leaves students “deprived of all knowledge.”

Foxx, who has long decried liberal policies on college campuses, told the presidents at the hearing: “For years, universities have stoked the flames of an ideology which goes by many names — anti-racism, anti-colonialism, critical race theory, DEI, intersectionality, the list goes on. This value system taught in universities is absolutely foreign to 99 percent of Americans. It centers the identity on immutable racial and sexual characteristics. It presents a delusion that the color of one’s skin and expression of one’s chromosomes sort society into classes of oppressed and oppressors.”

In a Sept. 25, 2023, op-ed in the Washington Examiner, she wrote:

On one hand, liberals have joined the conservative outcry against campus hall monitors who sanctimoniously police university classrooms for violators of anti-racist and woke gender ideology. On the other, progressives defend their illiberal tactics and wither at the thought of state legislatures and governors stepping in to strengthen the values of the First Amendment.

The tension is at the heart of United States politics. Have institutions, including the university system, been so thoroughly captured by anti-American and illiberal ideology that the government must step in to restore viewpoint diversity, free thought, and free expression?

She concluded by saying that Congress is “obliged” to take action to “uphold the First Amendment rights of students and faculty.”

Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed reported that Foxx, in an interview, had said it was “exactly the right time” to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965. The law — which governs a range of federally funded higher education programs — is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, but the last time it happened was in 2008. Congressional Republicans then introduced the Fairness in Higher Education Accreditation Act, which would amend the Higher Education Act to bar accreditors of institutions of higher education from requiring that the schools “support or commit to supporting the disparate treatment of any individual or group of individuals on the basis of sex, race, or ethnicity.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced the legislation in the Senate, said in a statement: “Wokeness should not be mandatory. I am proud to introduce the Fairness in Higher Education Accreditation Act, which would protect free speech on college campuses and seeks to prevent a politicized Department of Education from further forcing diversity, equity, and inclusion policies into higher education.”

Meanwhile, a number of Republican-dominated state legislatures have moved to restrict the autonomy of the leaders of higher education. In a recent report on the subject, PEN America found last month that since January 2021, 99 higher education “gag orders” — which restrict curriculum and classroom discussion on specific topics including racism and gender — have been introduced in 33 states, with 13 becoming law or policy in nine states.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this year that Republicans in state legislatures began an assault on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to recruit faculty and students of color. They introduced 40 bills in 22 states, with seven becoming law. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who declared that Florida is where “woke goes to die,” has aggressively pushed policies and signed laws restricting what teachers at all levels can say about race, racism, gender and other issues. He moved to transform the New College of Florida, a progressive public liberal arts honors college, into a home for far-right conservatism.

At the moment, Foxx and fellow Republicans only hold the House and can’t pass legislation on their own to overhaul higher education, but that could change if the 2024 elections bring a Republican president, Senate and House.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told Inside Higher Ed that the Dec. 5 hearing disturbed her.

“Many things were troubling, but one of the aspects that was most troubling is that much of the questioning seemed intent on presenting a monolithic portrait of American higher education as liberal indoctrination. I think this has the potential to have a profound and lasting impact on higher education.”

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