The Trump administration has pressed higher education hard.
This year, the Department of Education issued guidance to guarantee due process in campus sexual misconduct cases, and to prevent campuses from defining sexual harassment in such a way as to punish speech protected by the First Amendment. The DOE has also said that public universities risk their federal aid if they don’t abide by the First Amendment and private universities risk it if they don’t keep their own free speech and academic freedom promises.
At least three institutions are already under investigation. Some universities have also been under investigation regarding the misuse of funding dispersed under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which covers certain international studies and language programs. The DOE warns that many activities sponsored by deeply politicized programs in Middle East Studies may run afoul of Title VI by having nothing to do with “the security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States in a complex global era.”
Colleges and universities are no doubt dreaming this holiday season of rescindments and rollbacks from Santa Joe. It will take some time to get things off the books, but soon enough, it will be back to business as usual.
That would be unfortunate.
Colleges really have too often been cavalier about free speech and due process. Too often, faculties and administrators have been indifferent to, where they have not actively pursued as a matter of policy, the hitching of programs to partisan politics.
Those who care about our colleges and universities should attend to an apparent yawning gap between Democratic and Republican views on higher education. Granted, this gap can’t be neatly attributed to the actions of colleges and universities alone. It is no doubt widened, in part, by hyperbolic portrayals of campuses lost to activism. Nonetheless, colleges and universities do often adopt the language and priorities of the left. Why shouldn’t Republican and conservative onlookers—whether they are alumni, potential donors, or legislators—take them seriously?
I detect little appetite for soul searching in higher education, or even prudent regard for how real and perceived identification with one (relatively narrow) part of the political spectrum makes those institutions vulnerable. In 2018, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt suggested that colleges and university presidents were beginning to wise up, that if “a small group of universities” were to adopt a “different sort of academic culture,” in which freedom of inquiry was more clearly and uncompromisingly understood to be the aim, “market forces” would “take care of the rest.” That is to say, Haidt and Lukianoff think there is an alignment between what colleges should do for the sake of their missions and what most people want out of them.
Although quite a few colleges and universities have adopted the excellent Chicago Statement on Free Expression, we have not seen the kind of revolution of good sense Haidt and Lukianoff hoped to help along.
Better hurry up.