Who’s behind the legislative attacks on higher ed? (opinion)

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Even prior to the highly visible encampments erected by students protesting the excessive violence in Gaza, many colleges and universities already faced considerable turmoil. Starting in 2021, Republicans in state legislatures around the country began mounting a political response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This political backlash, which right-wing provocateur Christopher Rufo called a counterrevolution, focused its ire on educators. K-12 teachers and public librarians faced book bans, gag orders, and accusations of being “groomers,” and Moms for Liberty groups hijacked school board meetings across the country. In this context, legislators also targeted higher education in an effort to ensure that political partisans could play a greater role determining the conversations taking place on campuses.

Much of the reporting on this legislation, such as the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” in Florida or Texas Senate Bill 17 banning campus diversity efforts, focuses on individual bills. It often presents these bills as populist responses within a highly polarized America. However, my recently published white paper, released last week by the Center for the Defense of Academic Freedom at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), demonstrates that a network of well-funded and deeply interconnected right-wing think tanks played a critical role orchestrating this legislative attack on higher education.

The report identifies more than 150 bills introduced across the 2021, 2022, and 2023 legislative cycles, almost exclusively sponsored by Republicans. These bills included academic gag orders designed to restrict the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts” such as “critical race theory” (CRT), as well as efforts to weaken campus diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies and to empower governing boards to circumvent faculty governance in shaping the curriculum. In addition to undermining academic freedom and institutional autonomy, this round of legislation also includes bills that weakened tenure and the accreditation process, two institutions historically designed to protect universities from external and partisan pressures. Twenty-one bills were signed into law, with multiple and reinforcing bills enacted in Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

The report, “Manufacturing Backlash: Right-Wing Think Tanks and Legislative Attacks on Higher Education, 2021–2023,” demonstrates that many of these bills were based on model legislation developed within right-wing think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, and Citizens for Renewing America. I identify a total of 11 well-funded libertarian or MAGA-aligned think tanks that played critical roles marshaling this legislative onslaught. These think tanks have spent considerable resources, energy and effort targeting higher education.

For example, Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has been affiliated with several other right-wing think tanks examined in the report, used his multiple platforms to workshop and then deploy the tactic of weaponizing critical race theory. In 2020, he was concerned that previous terms used to slander academics, like “political correctness,” “cancel culture,” and “woke,” were found lacking in the face of the Black Lives Matter protests. As The New Yorker has reported, to address this political limitation, he manufactured “critical race theory” as the “perfect villain,” promoting the strategy of conflating all discussion of race as examples of a hyperbolic version of CRT. The image he portrayed was divorced from the actual study of critical race theory, or from the actual teaching that takes place in most college classrooms. However, in whipping up a moral panic, he eventually landed himself on Tucker Carlson’s show. And after seeing Rufo’s theatrics, Trump invited Rufo to the White House where he helped draft Executive Order 13950, “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which banned diversity trainings for federal employees.

The language from this executive order has since appeared almost verbatim within more than three quarters of the academic gag orders introduced during the 2021–2023 legislative sessions, and was included in model legislation pushed by the Heritage Foundation and Citizens for Renewing America. As detailed in the white paper, between 2020 and 2022, the Manhattan Institute received millions of dollars from many of the right-wing mega-donors described by Jane Mayer in Dark Money, including the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation ($1.6 million), Searle Freedom Trust ($1.9 million), Sarah Scaife Foundation ($1.7 million), and the Charles Koch Institute ($394,000). When asked why billionaires seems so eager to support his work, Rufo responded: “I ❤️ billionaires.”

The Claremont Institute is another right-wing think tank that has played a critical role manufacturing the culture war backlash against educators. Like the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, Claremont produces a firehose of content designed to whip up moralized outrage over the state of higher education. In the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Claremont’s chairman, Thomas Klingenstein, wrote to Scott Yenor, fellow at Claremont’s Center for the American Way of Life, bemoaning that “Rhetorically, our side is getting absolutely murdered.” Per reporting in The New York Times, Yenor responded that they should work to ensure that terms like “diversity” and “social justice” become “stigmatized so that when people hear it they can act on their suspicions.”

Yenor has since made good on this cynical strategy, using his institutional platform to crank out report after report detailing the supposed prevalence of some nebulous (yet definitely nefarious) “social justice ideology” pervading state universities. Yenor’s reports are often co-written with staff from the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) and have played critical roles advancing anti-DEI legislation in Tennessee, Texas and elsewhere. As demonstrated in my new report, Claremont and IFF are funded by many of the same donors behind the Heritage Foundation.

These are just two examples. But they are not unique. The more one looks at the supposedly widespread outrage over CRT and DEI, and the demonization of educators more generally, one finds the same network of think tanks and mega-donors. For example, as I finished writing this report, Claudine Gay was fired from the presidency at Harvard. Who initiated the strategy of weaponizing plagiarism allegations against her? You guessed it: Christopher Rufo.

Why have think tanks funded by right-wing mega-donors paid such attention to college campuses? One answer is that the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and the increased visibility of queer and trans people, fundamentally threaten the libertarian and conservative ideologies that justify the obscene wealth hoarded by these donors. Since 2020, for example, millions of people came into the streets demanding that governments take action to address the COVID-19 pandemic and structural racism. In recent years, young people have demanded climate action. These demands for collective solutions to social problems threaten the ultra-wealthy mega-donors, who see all collective goods and collective action as proceeding along the road to socialism.

These sensationalized and over-the-top attacks on higher education and academic freedom have meant that me and my colleagues—those of us who teach our students an unvarnished version of American history, who celebrate a plurality of ways of valuing each other and our identities, and who demand massive collective action to address looming crises—are increasingly treated as enemies.

My report demonstrates that the massive political infrastructure built by a handful of mega-donors now specializes in treating me and my colleagues as threats to America. That’s a scary place to be as an educator. And it’s a scary place to be as a country.

Isaac Kamola is an associate professor of political science at Trinity College, in Connecticut, and director of the Center for the Defense of Academic Freedom at the American Association of University Professors.

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