DeSantis's War on Universities Goes Beyond the Influential "Powell Memo"Breaking News
tags: Florida, higher education, academic freedom, Lewis Powell, Ron DeSantis
“We should be appalled,” Roderick A. Ferguson writes in a recent essay in our pages, “that Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration seek to make it unlawful to teach and study intersectionality, the Black Lives Matter movement, Black feminism, Black queer studies, reparations, and Black freedom struggles.” Ferguson, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University, is among the scholars the Florida Republican governor struck from college-level Advanced Placement curriculum, the New York Times reported, part of DeSantis’s Orbanesque assault on his state’s institutions of higher learning.
DeSantis’s interventions are novel, and conservative suspicion toward higher education has never been more intense. As Tom Nichols wrote in his Atlantic commentary on DeSantis, “As recently as 2015, most Republicans, by a wide margin, thought of universities as a positive influence on the United States. Four years later, those numbers flipped, and nearly 60 percent of Republicans saw universities as having a negative impact on the country.” But conservative anxiety about the destabilizing influence of leftist critique harbored by the academy is nothing new. The urtext of that concern, at least in its contemporary guise, is the 1971 “Powell Memo” sent to the Education Committee of the Chamber of Commerce by the late Lewis F. Powell Jr., who would later become a Supreme Court Justice.
That document, as Ferguson writes, expressed particular worry “about the charismatic and prolific nature of certain scholars” — Herbert Marcuse, who remains a preoccupation of some on the right even today, is named. But its major emphasis is far less cultural than the contemporary Republican campaign against higher education. Powell’s primary concern is with “the free enterprise system,” which he imagines is under threat by, among other things, the anticapitalist ideology he takes to be common among professors. He mentions race only glancingly; sexual and social mores not at all.
Indeed, unlike DeSantis and his ilk, Powell was fairly moderate on social issues. As a justice, he joined the majority in Roe v. Wade, and he wrote the majority decision in The Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, which established the legality of affirmative action. But he was also, to an almost parodic extent, a corporate shill. He once argued that tobacco companies had a First Amendment right to have their denials of a link between cancer and smoking treated seriously by the media. And in the 1971 memo, he damns Ralph Nader, whom he calls “the single most effective antagonist of American business,” as a false “idol of millions of Americans.” Nader was then at the height of his fame as a campaigner for stricter automotive safety standards.
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