Do a Majority of Republicans Really Distrust Higher Education?

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tags: higher education, Republicans

John Willingham is the founder of the website PublicUniversityHonors.Com and the author most recently of Inside Honors: Ratings and Reviews of Sixty Public University Honors Programs. He has an M.A. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. 

The results of a Pew Poll conducted June 8-18 revealed that only 43 percent of Republicans believed that higher education had a positive impact on the direction of the country. That percentage was down from 57 percent only two years ago.

While this attitude might continue among Republicans if Donald Trump has something other than a disastrous presidency, it might not be approximated in a successor poll two years from now. The reason: timing is all, and the timing of the Pew Poll could hardly have been worse for the public perception of higher education.

The idea for this piece came after reading an article by Philip Bump for the Washington Post. He found that Google searches for the term “safe spaces” took off in the fall of 2015, hit their peak in fall of 2016, continued strong, and then hit another high in the spring of 2017. (Farther down is a brief history of events that correlate strongly with the Google searches.)

The point here is not to claim categorically that the protests leading up to the poll were primarily responsible for the change in Republican attitudes during a time when Donald Trump himself attacked many American institutions. It is, rather, to suggest that this particular series of extreme protests continuing for more than a year preceding the poll was at least a major factor in the change, and absent these protests, the results might have been significantly different. And they might be significantly different in the relatively near future.

Republican politicians and right-leaning scholars, including Charles Murray, have been critical of higher education for decades, and the Great Recession gave them a handy pretext to cut state funding and attack the humanities. Rising tuition and burdensome loan payments have been with us for years. Even the tirades against political correctness have been with us since at least the Sixties. All of these, shall we say, structural negatives were in place in 2015, yet a clear majority of Republicans still had a good opinion of higher education back then.

One might argue that the makeup of the Republican Party has changed dramatically since 2015 as a result of Donald Trump’s seduction of working class voters. But, as reported by David Graham in the Atlantic, other Pew research suggests that these changes might not be all that significant, given that support for higher ed “slid across all Republican demographics.”

Anti-intellectualism on the right and conservative media coverage of campus protests are likewise “structural negatives” now. But for at least 18 months before the Pew Poll was conducted, campus protests were both extreme and continuous, giving Fox News and other right-wing media all the ammunition they could ask for. Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Rush Limbaugh could not have imagined such a perfect symbol of PC extremism as the Evergreen College fiasco, which occurred at the very time the Pew Poll was being conducted.

Evergreen was the grand finale; but despite some laudable motives, college protesters during the whole seven-month period leading up to the poll accomplished more for the radical right than they did for higher education.

Here is a chronology of the protests that received the most media coverage:

October-November 2015: In the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and with impetus from the Black Lives Matter movement, protests at the University of Missouri led to demands for the president’s resignation, which occurred on November 9, 2015. Philip Bump, in his Post article, also writes that enrollment at the University of Missouri, where protests were the focal point in fall 2015, is now down 35 percent. At about the same time, protests at Ithaca College in New York led to the president saying he would resign in 2017.

October, 2015-May 2016: Yale lecturer Erika Christakis, who also served with her husband as faculty masters of Silliman College Residential Community, issued her Halloween email saying in part: “What happens when one person’s offense is another person’s pride? Should a costume-wearer’s intent or context matter? Can we always tell the difference between a mocking costume and one that satirizes ignorance? In what circumstances should we allow — or punish — youthful transgression?”

For issuing what appears to be an invitation for “critical thinking,” Christakis and her husband would eventually leave their residence and she her teaching position. The full 24-minute video of the exchange between Nicholas Christakis and students, while never without some tension, has a few moments when he or the students might have found a graceful exit. About six or seven minutes were especially contentious and received the most play in the media, including a demand to make students feel “safe”.

(During this same period, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson happily tweeted: “The whole point of voting for Trump is that you disapprove of things like ‘safe spaces.’ ”)

January 2016: Oberlin students protested “insensitive” menu choices, and black students delivered a list of “non-negotiable demands” to the Oberlin president, Marvin Krislov. “The 14-page list of demands at Oberlin was detailed and contained many controversial items,” according to Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed.

“Among other things, it demanded the immediate firing of some Oberlin employees, the immediate tenuring of some faculty members, specific curricular changes, a review and possible revision of the grading system (to be overseen by students), the creation of “safe spaces” for black students in at least three buildings on campus, the creation of a program to enroll recently released prisoners from a nearby prison as undergraduates, divestment from Israel, and a requirement that black student leaders be paid $8.20 an hour for their organizing efforts.”

To his credit, Krislov rejected the demands. “I will not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement,” he said.

February-April 2017: In early February, UC Berkeley students engaged in sometimes violent protests against a proposed speaking appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, then a sensationalist editor at Breitbart. The Yiannopolous protest was the first in a series centered on “celebrities” of the right who were eager to participate. Although the Cal president had approved the appearance in the interest of free speech, protesters beat a Trump supporter and even a Syrian Muslim student who made the mistake of wearing a suit that day.

In April, the Ann Coulter soap opera played out at Berkeley. Would she speak, could she speak, was she asked to speak, she didn’t speak. Sad. Coulter must have camped out in the Fox studios for days during this time, considering how many times she appeared on the network. Does it begin to seem that some conservatives are morphing into talking dog whistles?

March-May 2016: The Charles Murray Chronicles began even before his fateful appearance at Middlebury College on March 6. But when he was shouted down and, especially, when students injured a female faculty member scheduled to debate him, Fox news turned the next couple of months into a gleeful series not only about the foolishness of campus political correctness but also its apparent dark turn to violence. The network even has a repository of campus PC highlights, called “Disgrace on Campus.”

Murray made the most of the Middlebury debacle, appearing on Fox News Insider with Tucker Carlson to speak the sad truth: “What went on inside that lecture hall was a repudiation of what the university is all about.”

The Middlebury mess went on for months. Finally, the school put 46 of he protesters on probation for one term and placed documents of reprimand in the permanent files of 21 others. Murray was then able to say, with some credibility, that the punishment wasn’t enough.

May 23, 2017- least June 5, 2017: So now, immediately before the Pew Poll was conducted, the Evergreen protest occurred. If Middlebury gave the radical right a real opportunity to brand protesters as violent, then Evergreen gave them an example of how protesters at a state university, funded by taxpayers, could demand that students not go to class. Black students had for years been allowed a day of absence from school to discuss ways to make the campus more supportive and to show, by their absence, that their contributions would be missed.

But in June, organizers wanted white students to be the ones to leave campus. Biology professor Brett Weinstein demurred: “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and underappreciated roles … and a group encouraging another group to go away,” Weinstein wrote. “The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”

Events at Evergreen resonated with many on the right who made repeated claims that college wasn’t sufficiently vocational, that public money was being wasted, that administrators were being pushed around, and that, yes, students didn’t even have to go to class—or could be coerced into not going to class.

In the face of these extreme protests, observers far removed from the radical right could lament: “When the Left Turns on Its Own.” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, the author of a widely-read book about colleges, wrote a column on why “These Campus Inquisitions Must Stop.”

Now, halfway into summer, the frenzy has abated. Students are mostly away from campuses. Daily reminders of their discontent are absent as well. One wonders: what if the Pew Poll were taken now? A year from now? So far, the drop in enrollment at Missouri remains an outlier; maybe the worst is past. Nevertheless, we have to wonder whether the campus left will come to realize that many of their protests have been, as Frank Bruni says, “rituals for shaming, not strategies for change.” 

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