Reining in the real juggernaut of politics: Higher education

By Matt Beienburg - Goldwater Institute

Americans just poured an eye-popping $14 billion into the 2020 elections, making it the single most expensive campaign cycle in U.S. history. Yet for those on the right, all the campaign contributions in the world may ultimately amount to little more than political chump change.

That is, at least, if conservatives, libertarians, and even moderate independents continue funding their own defeat in (particularly higher) education.

Consider, for instance, a few facts:

America spends over $600 billion every single year on higher education, where fully two-thirds of U.S. high school graduates now enroll. Yet despite relying on state funding from Republican- and Democratic-led state legislatures alike, tuition payments from both left- and right-leaning families, and the generous endowments from alumni of all political stripes, colleges and universities look increasingly like currency converters whose exchange rate swaps bipartisan bank notes for credits toward an increasingly singular and intolerant brand of “social justice.” One where intellectual diversity and the fearless deliberation of ideas have yielded to “safe spaces,” speaker shoutdowns, political intimidation, and as recently documented by Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Butcher, radically divisive and politically extreme “critical race theory” teachings. (Even university medical students will be taking “oaths” written by their peers committing to “dismantle” the oppression perpetrated by their colleagues.)

Now, presumably, the folks cutting checks to candidates and campaigns during elections would quickly fold up their wallets in open revolt if their contributions wound up spent in direct opposition to their platform or beliefs — and rightfully so. Yet strangely, many of these same benefactors have willingly made an exception when it comes to underwriting higher education — particularly to whatever institution they once attended — shrugging off the increasingly uniform political dogma demanded of students and staff alike as if it were an unfortunate yet harmless byproduct.

But unlike the barrage of TV spots and text messages that just briefly nudge voters’ perceptions during election season, however, the $600 billion behind higher ed each year buys America’s next generation admission to a political echo chamber of progressive politics, where Democratic faculty outnumber Republicans 10 to 1, where professors have literally tried banning students from criticizing left wing political movements in their essays in class, and where, at schools like Haverford College, a political “education strike” recently featured students harassing and publishing the names and contact information of those who refused to participate (while a student newspaper at the college simultaneously refused to publish viewpoints that did not support the strike).

Yet perhaps things are beginning to change, as conservative academics like Princeton’s Robert George recently issued a call to arms in response to Haverford’s saga:

You want an education “strike” OK I’ll give you an education strike. Alums and other donors to colleges and universities: STOP giving ANY money to schools that capitulate to bullies… Any college or university that capitulates to the bullying of tin-pot Stalinists should close. Having abandoned its defining and justifying mission there is no reason for such an institution to exist. Those who financially support it should direct their resources elsewhere…Let’s stop thinking of ourselves as alumni of this or that particular college. Let’s regard ourselves as alumni of American higher education and reward and support outstanding programs in higher ed wherever they exist – whether or not that’s one’s own alma mater …

Indeed, perhaps it is time to take George’s proclamation seriously: to insist that institutions of higher education earn their funding — and that they do it through a renewed commitment to true liberal (as in open, not simply leftist) principles. And as donors do their part, lawmakers perhaps might begin making clear that the public’s resources are not a political piggybank for university administrators to privilege a single preferred viewpoint. These lawmakers might look to states like Arizona and North Carolina, where the Goldwater Institute’s campus free speech model legislation, for example, has been enacted to protect the free exchange of ideas, and where programs like Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership have co-hosted with the Institute speakers like Robby Soave to confront the rising intolerance on college campuses and renew an appreciation for America’s founding principles.

Regardless of one’s own political views, there is little disagreement that the radical polarization of our politics has eroded the civic health of our communities and nation. But as long as the very institutions meant to open students’ minds instead function as dogmatic proxies of political spending and influence, it may be time to rethink the bipartisan support many of these institutions enjoy at present. Otherwise, those who are pocketing checks from their political adversaries might be forgiven for seeing them as little more than, well, chumps.

By Matt Beienburg

Goldwater Institute

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.