Will a Conservative Backlash Hit Higher-Ed in the Pocketbook?


Left-wing protest at the University of California-Berkeley.

Two weeks ago, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato urged Virginia colleges and universities to be friendlier to Republican legislators. His motives were pragmatic. If higher-ed wants more money from state taxpayers, it might behoove colleges and universities to not treat members of the majority party like lepers when they set foot on college campuses.

Sabato identified a big problem for higher-ed — a problem that came into sharp focus with an important op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. In that essay, John M. Ellis, a professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California-Santa Cruz, argues that higher-ed “is close to the end of a half-century process by which the campuses have been emptied of centrist and right-of-center voices. … More than half of the spectrum of political and social ideas has been banished from the classrooms.”

Whereas in 1969, there were overall about twice as many left-of-center as right-of-center faculty, today, the ratio is more like 10 to one. And in the humanities and social science departments — history, English, and political science — the share of left-of-center faculty already approaches 100%.

Ellis laments the impact of increasing philosophical-political conformity in academia on the quality of thought.

Well-balanced opposing views act as a corrective for each other: The weaker arguments of one side are pounced on and picked off by the other. Both remain consequently healthier and more intellectually viable. But intellectual dominance promotes stupidity. As one side becomes numerically stronger, its discipline weakens. The greater the imbalance between the two sides, the more incoherent and irrational the majority will become.

What we are now seeing on the campuses illustrates this general principle perfectly. The nearly complete exclusion of one side has led to complete irrationality on the other. … Campus radicals have lost the ability to engage with arguments and resort instead to the lazy alternative of name-calling: Opponents are all “fascists,” “racists” or “white supremacists.”

Extremism and demagoguery win out. Physical violence is the endpoint of this intellectual decay — the stage at which academic thought and indeed higher education have ceased to exist.

Beyond lamenting the decay in thought, Ellis makes the connection to parents and taxpayers. “The public pays huge sums, both through tuition and taxation, to educate young people, and except in STEM subjects, most of that money is being wasted. Those who pay the bills have the power to stop this abuse of higher education if they organize themselves effectively. (My emphasis.)

Bacon’s bottom line: Millions of Americans regard higher education in the United States as hostile to their values and political views. Millions of Americans send their children off to college, fearing that they will be inculcated with those antithetical values, and they do so only because they perceive that getting a “college education” is the only pathway for their children into the middle class. Increasingly, they resent paying sky-high tuition, and they resent subsidizing the their childrens’ brainwashers with taxpayer dollars. Given the circumstances, how can anyone be surprised if public colleges and universities find eroding popular support for taxpayer subsidies? Only someone warmly encased in an ideological cocoon — like an institution of higher education — could fail to see the obvious.

In today’s hyper-polarized political and cultural environment, Republicans and conservatives increasingly view higher-ed as the enemy — which, in fact, it often is. Many in higher-ed see Republicans and conservatives as the enemy! Thus, we see in Congress a Republicans move to tax the income of the biggest private college/university endowments, which they see as a subsidy for liberal-progressive institutions. Meanwhile, in statehouses across the country, legislators have been slashing state support for public higher ed.

Here in Virginia, we must bear in mind that John Ellis is part of the California system of higher education which arguably has the most leftist orientation of any system in the country. The shut-down of conservative voices that occurs in California campuses does not occur in Virginia — not yet. (Unless you count the drowning out of ACLU lawyer Claire Gastanaga at the College of William & Mary, in which case the phenomena has reached Virginia.) The political orientation of Virginia faculty and administrators is assuredly far to the left of the population generally. What we, as members of the public, do not know is the degree to that is so. Are Virginia institutions as intolerant as California institutions, just more quietly so? My sense, based on anecdotal data, is that a somewhat broader spectrum of views prevails. But I have no hard evidence to back that up.

Ellis suggests that those who pay the bills might “get organized” in protest. So far, I have seen no sign of a broad-based movement emerging here in Virginia. Board of trustees rubber stamp administrative initiatives. Supine alumni think little beyond the next tailgate party. No one questions the conventional pieties. But university leaders had better beware. But if the general population ever becomes as hostile to higher education as the denizens of higher education are hostile to the general population, political support for state funding could deteriorate faster than you can say, “safe space.”

There are currently no comments highlighted.

Source