Navigate to News section

Is the Backlash to Universities Becoming Real?

Taxpayers, politicians, and employers are realizing that campus leftism has gone too far. The question is whether it’s too late to stop it.

Richard Hanania
May 10, 2024
Police officers arrest a demonstrator during a protest against the war in Gaza at Emory University on April 25, 2024

Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images

Police officers arrest a demonstrator during a protest against the war in Gaza at Emory University on April 25, 2024

Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images

In 2019, Ron DeSantis appointed Brian Lamb, a former point guard at the University of South Florida, to the 17-member board of regents for the state university system. The Florida governor, when he made the pick, was clearly thinking more about his athletic accomplishments than his ideological principles, as Lamb soon afterward became head of diversity and inclusion at JPMorgan Chase. It therefore probably shouldn’t have been surprising when, after the death of George Floyd, Lamb sent a memo to all presidents of public colleges in Florida demanding they “prioritize and support diversity, racial and gender equity, and inclusion” and telling them that they would be held “accountable for policies, programs, and actions” in this area.

Nonetheless, in May of last year, DeSantis signed a bill banning DEI across the state system. By January, the board of regents voted to implement that law. DeSantis was first, but since his DEI ban, eight other governors have signed similar bills. While the culture war has been part of American life since the 1960s, the past few years have been a turning point, with Republican politicians finally becoming willing to rein in university administrators.

For conservatives and moderates, it’s easy to be disillusioned by recent anti-Israel protests at universities across the country. For many of us, the moral outrage we feel toward open displays of sympathy for Hamas is tempered only by disgust toward college kids who are still masking outdoors and worried about potentially dying of banana allergies. But there are signs that this isn’t 2020 anymore. At the University of Texas, President Jay Hartzell has been roundly praised by Republican lawmakers for taking a tough stand toward protesters at the incipient stage of their activism. As one professor at the school told me, “They did the right thing. They didn’t let us become Columbia or UCLA.” In Florida, DeSantis came out and threatened students with possible expulsion, which might have stopped much of a protest movement from getting off the ground in the first place. The president of the University of Chicago not only refused to let protestors take over campus but denounced the entire idea of encampments as inherently coercive. And although not directly related to the protests, in the midst of these disturbances MIT became the first elite private school to ban DEI statements in faculty hiring and promotion, showing that the “Summer of Floyd” effect that once seemed to push all prestigious institutions in the same direction may be fading.

These are signs that changes are afoot. They’re not taking place at the same pace everywhere, and some departments, fields of study, and universities might be sinking deeper into a left-wing monoculture. Nonetheless, there is at least variation in how institutions are behaving, which appears to be the result of two processes. First, Republican politicians have actually started paying attention to what is going on at university campuses and, more important, become willing to do something about it. More subtly, at the same time there has been a great discrediting of higher education, particularly elite universities, and this inevitably affects the decisions of employers and potential students. Higher education is heavily regulated and propped up by massive government subsidies, making it far from a perfectly functioning market. Yet some market forces do exist, and there are clear signs that they are having an impact. Instead of a university monoculture, if we’re fortunate, in the coming years we’re going to see more cultural fragmentation, and this will create opportunities for institutions to act in accordance with their own self-interest and reject more and more aspects of DEI ideology.

First, the case for pessimism. Universities have been drifting toward radicalism for two generations now with practically no pushback from the outside, until very recently. Things are not that much better in K-12, as many parents learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, both through finally being able to observe lesson plans up close due to remote learning and the hysterical reaction to the pandemic itself that led to school closures and mask mandates that clearly went on for too long. College students support diversity goals over free speech, and there is no silent majority among faculty in favor of classical liberal norms. With prevailing opinions like these within such institutions, it can be difficult for even the most determined administrators and politicians to effect serious change.

At the same time, it would be wrong to declare the battle over before it has even been fought. DEI bans, perhaps the most significant pushback we’ve seen to what has happened at state schools, are no more than a year old. The evolution of DeSantis between his appointment of a former DEI bureaucrat to the board of regents in 2019 and his abolishment of DEI across the University of Florida system four years later tracks the movement of conservative thinking more generally. Historically, for campus culture, it hasn’t mattered much whether Republicans or Democrats had power in state capitals. Legislators authorized the funds, governors signed the bills, and universities got the benefits of government funding without any of the oversight. It’s not as if Republican politicians were in favor of affirmative action or research on “decolonization.” Rather, the idea that they would use the government to actually do something about it and infringe on the institutional prerogatives of universities was all but unthinkable.

Many on what’s been called the “New Right” argue that conservatives have historically been uncomfortable with the exercise of power. But this is not the whole story. A simpler explanation for what took so long for Republicans to act is that politicians did not consider campus leftism to be a major priority, and neither did their voters. As recently as 2015, 68 percent of Democrats and no fewer than 56 percent of Republicans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. By 2023, those numbers were down to 59 percent and 19 percent. This means that until the past few years, even if you were a Republican legislator in a red state, the majority of your voters had little problem with the university system, and there was no pressure to break the longtime norm of cultural autonomy for academic institutions. At the time, it might have seemed that the anti-woke advocates of the early 2010s—from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and other free-speech advocates to internet trolls and Fox News daytime hosts—were merely howling at the moon, but as it turns out, they were shifting the foundations of public opinion.

Of course, any DEI ban must be implemented at the university level, and as is often the case in public policy debates, here the devil is in the details. But there are signs that a virtuous feedback loop between conservative media is shining the spotlight on what universities are doing and on the Republican politicians taking steps to counteract them. To take a telling example, after Texas banned DEI programs, the Claremont Institute released a report showing that some universities in the state were doing little more than moving around personnel and changing the names of offices. Whether influenced by this or not, in late March, Texas state senator Brandon Creighton sent a letter to university chancellors and regents, demanding information on how they were complying with the DEI ban, threatening their funding if performance was unsatisfactory, and inviting them to hearings in May. Days later, the University of Texas, which was previously thought to be dragging its feet, announced it was firing about 60 people with DEI positions. Texas did not simply pass an anti-DEI bill and go to sleep. We have moved into an era where conservative legislators not only enact laws but also follow up on them and appoint the right people to positions of power. In a battle between universities and elected officials in which both sides are focused, the one that controls the purse strings has the upper hand.

Until the past few years, censorship policies were being implemented and DEI bureaucracies were growing, whether a public university was in California or Oklahoma. Now, politics appears to matter. The left can spin this as an attack on academic freedom or democracy itself, but the idea that universities are serious institutions worthy of autonomy has become laughable over the past decade. Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, was on the hiring committee for his department the years before and after the election of Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2022. He notes that under Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, faculty needed to go through stringent DEI trainings just to be part of the recruitment process, with what Caplan calls a “commissar” overseeing them and monitoring professors for opposition to DEI orthodoxy. The next year, after McAuliffe’s loss, the trainings were laxer, and Caplan couldn’t tell whether there was even still a commissar or not. He notes that while these changes might have been unrelated to the 2022 election results, “the general view was that with a non-woke Republican governor, the GMU administration was nervous about blatantly announcing and enforcing leftist orthodoxy.” As University of Texas finance professor Richard Lowery told me in an interview last year, traditionally Republicans have appointed top administrators who were either donors or “a guy who can go around and show up at the country club and smile to the rich guys” while keeping things quiet by giving the radicals on university faculties whatever they wanted. Youngkin, in contrast, has followed DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in appointing opponents of DEI to the state board of regents, one of which privately promised “a battle royale for the soul of UVA.”

In a battle between universities and elected officials where both sides are focused, the one that controls the purse strings has the upper hand.

Of course, the most elite universities are not public schools in red or purple states, but private institutions in some of the most left-leaning parts of the country. Although this may change once a competent Republican is in the White House, for now there is little hope of using government directly to shape the institutional culture at these schools, and to do so would arguably be an abuse of power, despite the history of civil rights law having been utilized to force these places to become woke in the first place.

Yet even on this front, there is some good news. Elite universities depend on their reputations. In the signaling model of education, employers value a top degree not because students actually learn more at an elite school, but because the diploma is thought to represent a certain level of intelligence and competence. Yet the decline in the reputation of top universities that shows up in public opinion surveys also seems to be influencing the business world. A recent Forbes poll shows that 33 percent of those making hiring decisions are less likely to employ Ivy League grads than they were five years ago, compared to 7 percent who are more likely. At the same time, 42 percent say they’re more likely to hire state school grads. Moreover, to the extent that students are chasing prestige instead of purely pecuniary rewards, the reputations of these schools clearly matter to professors, administrators, and current and potential students. It’s hard to measure cultural shifts, but it is perhaps not insignificant that the idea of an African American Studies degree at Columbia is now a punch line on SNL. Last year, while applications to Harvard and Brown fell, those to Southern colleges increased by 42 percent, indicating that the events of the past decade are affecting where young people decide to go to school.

Hence, we see certain colleges pulling back on the worst excesses of the past few years, and others going in a completely new direction. All eight of the Ivy League schools made standardized tests optional during the pandemic. Already this year, Dartmouth, Yale, and Columbia announced that they are going to be mandatory again. If kids aren’t learning much, then the admissions process is all there is to signal to potential employers that hiring a graduate of an elite school is worthwhile.

The Ivy League schools that have brought back standardized tests are following the lead of MIT, which did so in 2022. Under the leadership of President Sally Kornbluth, the school also recently banned DEI statements in faculty hiring and promotion across all departments, indicating that it is trying to distance itself from the culture that has taken over similarly prestigious schools. The New York Times notes that, as a school famous for the quality of its scientific courses and research, MIT “has been in the forefront of pushing back against measures that some say could dilute the rigor of its education.” President Kornbluth in effect adopted the perspective of critics of diversity statements in explaining why she banned the practice, saying that “compelled statements impinge on freedom of expression, and they don’t work.”

A decade ago, the University of Chicago articulated an institutional “commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” FIRE lists 108 institutions or faculty bodies that have either endorsed the Chicago statement or a similar text. As long as students have choices about where to go and employers can decide whom to hire, there are going to be consequences for taking DEI ideology too far.

It may be too much to expect Harvard or Yale to ever stop being important institutions. Yet one should not exaggerate their impact on American life. As of 2023, only 11.8 percent of Fortune 100 CEOs went to an Ivy League school as undergrads, and 9.8 percent held an Ivy League MBA. A 2021 analysis found that only 14 percent of senators and 8.6 percent of House members received a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League school, and the numbers are only slightly higher when considering all degrees. This means that, depending on how one defines elites, the vast majority of them have never been students at top universities. It is not true that Ivy League admissions offices “pick our ruling class.” They just choose a small portion of them, and one must assume that some of those they let in who later become influential would have achieved elite status anyway. While top colleges produce a disproportionate share of the people who run the country, the political system and business world are free enough to leave quite a bit of room for merit. This restricts the freedom that top institutions have to engage in social engineering. Going from educating about 12 percent of Congress to a number closer to half of that would be a disaster for top universities, and institutions that ignore standardized tests will see a drop-off in real-world influence. Heavily reliant on both powerful people feeling affinity toward them and donations from alumni, universities have an incentive to pick the students who are best suited to succeed in the real world. There is no guarantee that any particular school will not go off the deep end, but as long as there’s cultural variation and the real world creates incentives for merit-driven decision-making, there will be at least some currents pushing against left-wing ideology.

The Republican shift toward taking a more active role in reining in higher education and institutions like MIT and Chicago emerging as centers of active resistance against the dominant leftist culture could not have happened without universities overreaching. Movement conservatives have chafed at the left-wing bias of higher education for decades, but most people are not paying attention to most things most of the time, and it wasn’t until these institutions took things to another level that the rest of the public, most of all Republican voters, caught on. The iPhone era also ensured that conduct that would have previously slipped under the radar could make its way across the world. The blowup over insensitive Halloween costumes at Yale involving Nicholas Christakis would have been nothing more than an anecdote buried in The Wall Street Journal or the book of some conservative activist if it had happened in 1995. Yet in 2015, the video of a gaggle of students screaming at a sociology professor because Halloween costumes made them feel unwelcome went viral, highlighting the gap in aesthetics, values, and morality between elite colleges and the rest of American society. It was perhaps only a matter of time before the public became disgusted with the universities, and those footing the bill for this insanity started asking what their tax dollars were actually supporting.

It was perhaps only a matter of time before the public became disgusted with the universities, and those footing the bill for this insanity started asking what their tax dollars were actually supporting.

Over the next decade, universities are going to have a choice to make. They can either continue to remain beholden to a minority of activist professors, students, and administrators, or they can follow schools like the University of Chicago and MIT and forge a different path. When directly under the control of Republican lawmakers and governors, their choices will increasingly narrow. But private universities and even state systems under Democratic control will have to grapple with the question of what kinds of institutions they want to be. Along the way, they will be resisted by students who have already been programmed by the media and K-12 schools into accepting anti-Western narratives, and by professors and administrators who have little else going for themselves other than their self-images as defenders of the oppressed.

Perhaps the greatest danger is that universities adjust to new realities by making superficial changes to their rhetoric and behavior that lull their critics into complacency, the pressure lets up, and things largely continue as before. Another possibility is that the younger generation is so far gone that it really doesn’t matter what those outside the university do, at least in the short to medium term. Today, as many schools have adopted the Chicago statement or similar principles, most of the fear students have of expressing nonstandard opinions is likely a result of social pressure from other students, along with the possibility of subtle forms of discrimination like being graded more harshly.

In places where conservatives are locked out of political decision-making, there is probably less reason for hope. The University of California system is a perfect example of why. In 2021, it banned the use of standardized tests in admissions, even for students who would like the option to submit their scores. Admissions appear in many cases to have been turned upside down, with schools going out of their way to select students on demographic variables and potential for activism. Diversity statements have been required for all tenure-track faculty positions since 2018, and in January a lawsuit seeking to abolish them was dismissed. While private schools in the state do exist, and going out of state is always a possibility, in practical terms many students will always consider the vast public university system to provide their most realistic and affordable options. Given the absence of political pressure and the monopoly-like status of the University of California system, here there is probably little to be hopeful about, at least until the norms of academia change more generally.

Yet California is a unique case, and there may be reasons for optimism elsewhere. Until the past several years, nearly all universities were sleepwalking in the same direction, toward larger and more oppressive bureaucracies, speech codes, and a coddling of students. But higher education became too comfortable with its status in American society and allowed the radicals to take over at a time when Republicans were shifting to the right and smartphones and social media made it impossible to ignore what was happening in some of the most important institutions in the country. We have seen the first indications that accountability may be on its way, in the forms of legislation and reputational damage among the private sector, disgusted voters, and the politicians that represent them. Yet what is bad for higher education as a whole creates new possibilities for institutions to succeed through the use of merit-based standards in admissions and hiring and living by values that are more consistent with those of the rest of American society. It remains to be seen how many universities will take advantage of the opportunity now available to them.

Richard Hanania is a writer living in California.