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Phase Two of the Right’s War on Universities Has Begun

Institutions of higher education have been a perfect target for right-wing populists, but now these neo-nationalists seek to not just badmouth the academics there, but to purge them, too

The rise of right-wing political leaders, and the fervent nationalist supporters that carry their influence, is happening around the world — from the U.S. to Turkey to Hong Kong and beyond, in a worrying array of political systems and social environments. 

Although each demagogue uses a unique agenda and rhetoric as they vie for power, there’s often common threads in the institutions and people that leaders with fascist leanings target most. Stateside, we’ve seen Donald Trump and his family tree of extremist followers attack universities and academics as hopelessly biased founts of false knowledge. Again and again, right-wing ideologues like Betsy DeVos and Josh Hawley have implied that America’s colleges merely brainwash students with leftist propaganda, and sway public policy with corrupted research. 

There’s nothing new about this play — after all, flipping the script on higher education, and the “elites” that operate within it, is a shot of populist energy at a moment when voters are increasingly accepting of right-wing rage. That’s exactly why keeping a sharp eye on the state of higher education is critical, as John Douglass, senior research fellow and professor at University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, argues in his new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities.

Neo-nationalism (or “new nationalism”) is characterized by a few different political trends that have risen in the last two decades: Nativist movements fueled by populist anger (such as Brexit in the U.K.); the rise of right-wing agitation in pursuit of a national “identity”; and the increasing influence of autocrats who want to consolidate power. Again, it’s not just an American phenomenon: Along with the U.S. and U.K., the book comprises 11 papers by a dozen authors, covering Brazil, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Singapore and Turkey.

Douglass argues that higher education is a “proverbial canary in the coal mine” that can help gauge the extent to which civil liberties and trust in social institutions are under attack across broader society. “Universities, for example, provide a clear window into the extent of civil liberties allowed in a nation-state,” he explains. “The composition of their student bodies reflects the socioeconomic stratification of society. Their utilitarian role as the primary source of skilled labor, and often as a significant player in applied research, provides insights into the composition and future of economic development.”

There’s a delicate balance in helping fortify academic institutions from the different ways that neo-nationalist actors attack universities, whether it’s belligerent protests by people who want to intimidate educators, political influence that censors research and speech or the erasure of leaders who want to maintain integrity and independence. “Universities shouldn’t be partisan institutions, with patrician presidents and academic leaders,” Douglass continues. “So that also adds complication and limits on how they can influence or promote democracy in an American society that’s politically divided, and with a political party that sees advantage in attacking scientists and other academics.” 

I asked Douglass for his thoughts on why this is happening, how shifts in the American electorate carry the rise of neo-nationalist rhetoric and what can be done to inure institutions of higher education from right-wing attacks. 

Why did you decide to look into the intersection of neo-nationalism and higher education? And how would you summarize why the tension is growing here? 

The number of nationalistic autocratic and autocratic-leaning governments and their leaders are increasing in number, and universities are always in the mix. 

Freedom House, an NGO that monitors global freedom, has chronicled a long-term decline in democratic governments “broad enough to be felt by those living under the cruelest dictatorships, as well as by citizens of long-standing democracies.” Based in Sweden, V-Dem uses an extensive database that estimates that some 68 percent of the world’s population live under autocrats and autocrat-leaning governments — up from 48 percent in 2010. 

To varying degrees, universities are feeling the brunt of this rise in neo-nationalist movements and governments, usually led by powerful political demagogues. For the purpose of generating populist support and solidifying authority, we’ve entered an era in which universities are often attacked as hubs of dissent, symbols of global elitism and generators of biased research; where academic freedom is being more overtly suppressed, faculty and administrators fired and jailed and university governance and management altered to insure greater control by autocratic-leaning politicians.

Along those lines, how has the growth of right-wing nationalist and conservative criticism of universities as “liberal” institutions in America impacted real-world educators? 

There have been both direct and indirect impacts. During the Trump administration, restrictions on student and faculty visas, and the messaging that the U.S. was increasingly hostile to immigration, resulted in a reduction in international student enrollment and difficulties with faculty recruitment — a pattern that was accelerated by the onset of the COVID pandemic. Trump also attempted to end DACA and threatened draconian budget cuts to the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and agencies like the CDC rationalized, in part, by the costs for the huge tax cuts his administration eventually achieved. These budget cuts to science were thwarted by a bipartisan coalition, but the messaging was clear.

Battles over free speech, pitting pro- and anti-Trump groups, including antifa supporters, led to demonstrations and confrontations on many campuses, often leading to violence by both sides. This raised tension on campuses regarding free speech and cost millions in dollars for security on a scale not seen since the 1960s.

But in some form, Trump’s attacks on America’s higher education community can be interpreted as simply a play to his right-wing supporters — his political base that included in 2016 a large block of voters with no college experience. Reflecting a general decline in the trust in government and public institutions, a 2017 poll found that 58 percent of Republicans thought that “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country.” Ergo, being critical of higher education helped get Trump elected president. 

What was the influence of Trump — and his political cohorts and sympathizers in Congress — and the “fake news-ification” of academic knowledge on higher education? 

Trump leveraged the growing perception by conservative voters that universities were bastions of the Radical Left, intolerant of conservative views and, worse, bent on indoctrinating their children. He repeatedly portrayed American universities, like the campus in Berkeley, as hypocritical in their devotion to free speech and the quest for knowledge. That they were, instead, politically correct police states and producers of politically biased research and teaching.

Perhaps the most enduring impact of Trump’s attack on higher education [is his portrayal] of science and academics as hopelessly biased on issues such as climate change and even the international collaboration to diagnose and generate vaccines for COVID. 

Today’s factual relativism adds to the degradation of public institutions, creating obstacles to the identification of real societal and environmental challenges, and the search for solutions with likely lasting effects.

Why are we seeing parallel issues around right-wing neo-nationalism throughout the world — e.g., Turkey, Brazil, etc.?

We see what I call the right-wing neo-nationalists’ playbook for subduing universities, which are largely seen as real or potential hubs of sedition and adversaries.

In Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Hong Kong and elsewhere, neo-nationalist leaders have pursued ways to alter the governance of universities with the objective of directly or indirectly choosing rectors or presidents and other key academic administrators to influence or control faculty hiring and advancement, punish dissent — sometimes with jail or permanently losing one’s job — and impose travel restrictions, and to more overtly deny funding for research in areas such as climate change or gender studies — [subjects] thought counter to conservative values. 

This is usually accompanied by increased control and ownership of the judiciary, as well as the media, laws that hinder free elections and expand the ability of neo-national governments to issue lucrative contracts to supporters in the private sector. [You see] limits on internet access to weave state-controlled narratives, and increasingly the use of surveillance technologies — including an invasive social credit score in China to gauge conformity and now something similar is emerging in Russia’s major city centers.

Subduing universities are one part of the formula for right-wing leaders to solidify their power, fearful of their possible power to encourage sedition.

Is there an obvious example of how the pandemic was leveraged by neo-nationalist movements or leaders to seize influence in higher education? 

Many illiberal democracies and autocratic governments have used the pandemic to help solidify power and further regulate or crush descent. China, for example, leveraged the pandemic to crush descent in Hong Kong, bolstered by the National Security Law. Effective July 1, 2020, the new law passed by Beijing’s government prohibited “secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces,” in Hong Kong and beyond. Xi’s government then established a new security office in Hong Kong with its own law enforcement personnel. This office can extradite those who violate the new law for trial on the mainland. 

As a result of this law, plus a mainland China-induced reorganization of the management of universities, the future of academic and personal freedom in Hong Kong and the vitality of its universities are very much in doubt. 

With political norms continuing to shift in America, what can universities do to maintain integrity and intellectual independence, and ultimately benefit people, not the nation-state? 

There is much discussion on how universities can promote democracy, a more equitable society and restore credibility among some portions of the American populace in science, in higher education and more generally in public institutions. I note in the book when universities can be leaders and when they’re followers. To a large degree, this is determined by the larger political milieu that determines the autonomy and place of universities in society. In more liberal nation-states, universities have more room to influence society and public opinion.

The usual formula argued by an increasing number of studies and books is for greater interaction between universities and the society they serve — like expanded public-service efforts, ensuring free speech for all political opinions (if constructive), greater equity in educational attainment and better communication on scientific advancements. But my view is that these are rather marginal. 

The bigger picture is having political leaders that value science, that recognize the importance of higher education for socio-economic mobility and economic development, and that helps the U.S. interact and integrate with the larger world.