We had a warning on February 24, 2016, when Donald Trump celebrated his victory in the Republican Nevada caucuses and said, “I love the poorly educated.”
Thus say all tyrants. Why? It’s easier to mislead and manipulate the uninformed.
It’s hard to deny that in the last decade we have seen a disturbing tendency of the right wing to undermine education and educators. We see mockery of evidence and expertise, characterizations of those with college and advanced degrees as an elite who look down on others, and, most dangerously, public policy initiatives that undermine the idea that education is a public good — a fundamental principle of democracy.
Have we forgotten that Thomas Jefferson wanted his tombstone to say, “Founder of the University of Virginia,” rather than third President of the United States? He also issued a warning, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”
Not all threats to the free exchange of ideas come from the right, of course. The far left must take responsibility for suppressing professorial speech, preventing politically divergent views from being expressed on campus, attacking academic integrity.
Beyond researching and voting for candidates for national and statewide office, it’s essential for citizens to pay close attention to down-ballot choices.
But it’s important not to be misled by false equivalencies. Until now, very few, if any, of these positions have made their way into statute. Many red states, on the other hand, have passed laws prohibiting speech and encouraging ignorance. Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, courageously calls upon university presidents to speak out on today’s clear threats to democracy:
Academic freedom is being voted on in the midterm elections, but you wouldn’t know it from the gags muzzling the voices of college presidents … Higher education is the great counterweight to government in a free society, and we are responsible for raising up and defending the values we embody in the public square. We must not be intimidated by those who would silence us by denigrating fundamental moral values as mere ‘political issues.’
President McGuire makes clear that we are not being partisan when we fight for the core values currently under attack. The integrity of higher education depends on the clear and forceful defense of “the foundational values that demand consensus to sustain a free society.”
These core values include:
- Commitment to justice and equity
- Commitment to truth, validated by evidence and research
- Refusal to suppress facts about American history
- Open discussion of contentious issues — divisive concepts — as fundamental to the very idea of a university
- Support for voting rights and encouragement for all students and university personnel to vote
- Protection of the health, safety, and security of all students, including undocumented immigrants
When universities abandon core values, society is in trouble. In Germany, voters in the Weimar Republic (1918-33) gave greater attention to inflation than to threats to democracy. Then in the 1930’s, German universities banned Jewish professors. In the 1950’s, U.S. universities fired professors targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for refusing to “name names.” We must do everything possible to stop history from repeating itself.
Most Americans oppose laws that curtail professors’ free speech. But 30 percent of Republicans say the government should be able to regulate professors’ classroom speech, and 50 percent say professors have too much freedom to express themselves in class, according to a recent YouGov poll.
We have to do a better job of explaining to the general public that higher education’s core values are essential to a free society.
Governors have enormous influence — for good or ill — on public higher education
On November 8, Pennsylvania will elect one of two candidates for Governor, one who defends higher education’s core values and has vowed to make public universities more accessible (Shapiro), and one who decidedly does not and has voted against more support for public institutions (Mastriano).
To illustrate the power of Governors, let’s take a look at two sitting state leaders, New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) and Florida’s Ron DeSantis (R). Lujan sees higher education as a public good; DeSantis sees it as a public threat.
In New Mexico, tuition and fees have been cut to zero at all of the state’s 29 public and tribal colleges. Regardless of income, recent high school graduates and returning adults can pursue no-cost higher education. Lujan Grisham believes that funding higher education is a public good worthy of state investment.
DeSantis signed legislation this year to curtail teaching racial inequities in American history or “compelling anyone to believe, among other things, that an individual … bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex or national origin.”
He has threatened budget cuts to institutions that don’t tow the line. Despite faculty opposition, DeSantis has made political appointments to university leadership, including naming retiring Republican Senator Ben Sasse as the sole finalist for the presidency of the University of Florida.
State financial support is an indicator of commitment to higher education as a public good — or public threat
When states cut investment in public higher education and shift financial responsibility to the student, they affirm that education is a private good, unworthy of general tax-payer support.
According to Karin Fischer and Jack Stripling of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Behind these changes is a fundamental shift. Public colleges, once viewed as worthy of collective investment for the greater good, are increasingly treated as vehicles delivering a personal benefit to students, who ought to foot the bill themselves.”
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ranks among the worst states in funding higher education and student loan debt. I’ve written before on the public benefit of forgiving student loan debt
It’s dismaying to watch lawsuits go forward to stop President Biden’s executive action dedicated to the public good. Pennsylvania citizens carry more student debt than most. While I believe that student loan forgiveness will survive the court challenges, I still urge voters to elect House and Senate representatives who will codify this one-time adjustment to years of burdening students with inadequate state investments in colleges and universities.
This July, Governor Wolf signed a budget providing $220 million for public higher education. Wolf called this increase in higher education funding, along with the increase in K-12 support, “an investment in an educated commonwealth and a roaring economy for decades to come.”
Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, issued a warning: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”
Voters should ask whether Governor Wolf’s successor, who will take over in a few months, will continue this commitment. Pennsylvania is a “commonwealth,” which literally means a society founded on law and united by agreement of the people for the common good. Will the next governor of this commonwealth support higher education as a common good?
As Karin Fischer writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
When it comes to public sentiment, there is a wide partisan gulf. Two-thirds of respondents who identified as conservative said paying for college was an individual, not a government, responsibility. Republicans’ lack of willingness to have taxpayers help foot the tuition bill may reflect their outlook on higher education: Just a third of Republican voters in the New America survey said colleges and universities had a positive effect on the country.
School boards on the front lines
Beyond researching and voting for candidates for national and statewide office, it’s essential for citizens to pay close attention to down-ballot choices. After the 2010 census, many conservatives systematically targeted winning seats in state elections — and they succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. “All politics is local,” said former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, in 1994. Voting locally remains even more urgent today.
As Politico reports, “The money, attack ads and mobilization effort going into school board races — from some groups with no geographic ties to local candidates — underscore how education has become one of the prime issues conservatives are increasingly directing their resources in the 2022 election cycle and beyond.”
Pennsylvania — Bucks County in particular— has been targeted as a battleground state on issues of pedagogy, curriculum design, and banning books.
Kudos to Doylestown for their marching during Banned Books week to affirm the right to read everything.
Supporting democracy means supporting free and open education at all levels.
What we can do:
- Vote on November 8 as if democracy depends on it — because it does.
- Don’t let concerns over inflation distract from the real threats to democracy in this midterm election.
- Serve as a poll watcher to protect voters from intimidation.
- Pay attention and vote in local elections. Learn about down-ballot candidates, especially those running for school boards (in districts where they are elected).
- Urge university presidents to speak out on the core values of higher education. Withdraw support from conforming or silent institutions. Don’t enroll or send family members there. Actively back up university presidents who speak out.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
MORE FROM ELAINE MAIMONThe University of Pennsylvania. By Theo Wyss-Flamm