Conservative lawmakers have accelerated efforts to try to rein in what they see as liberal indoctrination on college campuses with dozens of state bills igniting debates in recent months over academic priorities and how public universities should operate.
Their efforts – which have alarmed many academics – include limiting teaching about certain topics, mandating courses, ending faculty tenure, banning diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and fighting accreditors trying to limit political interference.
The most visible front in the partisan battle is in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and lawmakers have imposed multiple new mandates on higher education. Elsewhere, Texas lawmakers passed a bill this week banning DEI programs at public universities. In Ohio, a massive bill that would overhaul state higher education passed in the Senate. In some places, however, bills have died for lack of support or been revised after pushback from university leaders, faculty and others.
“Conservatives lost the universities in the late 1960s and, since then, have effectively written blank checks to left-wing activists who conquered the public universities. This year was the first time conservatives have fought back in a systematic way,” Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote in an email.
Rufo, who helped propel critical race theory into an incendiary national issue, helped write model legislation this winter to “abolish DEI bureaucracies” at public universities. At a Stanford event last month, Rufo – one of the trustees recently appointed by DeSantis to overhaul New College of Florida – said that reforming university administration and governance should be priorities.
Pressure from politically appointed members of governing boards has long been an issue for public universities in many states where boards, faculty and administrations have sparred over priorities. And debates over curriculum have occurred for generations.
But having state leaders working to fight national culture wars on campus and codify their vision for higher education into law has dismayed many academics.
“It’s a red-alert emergency” for anyone who cares about academic freedom, higher education and democracy, said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, which has been tracking more than 50 bills in 23 states. The commonality running through the bills, Mulvey said, is “an anti-intellectual attack, demonizing faculty, weaponizing public education.”
The state measures are changing the rules of how decisions about higher education are made, said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, moving it from an academic debate into the realm of politics.
“And once you make that shift,” he said, “… the a priori limitation set by a government on what’s taught, or how it’s taught, is censorship, pure and simple. There’s no room in American education for censorship from any political side.”
Proponents of the changes counter that they are working to protect freedom of speech and ensure there is true diversity of thought on campus – and have lost confidence that universities they see as ideologically monolithic will change unless forced.
Ohio Sen. Jerry C. Cirino (R) sponsored a 93-page measure targeting public higher education in his state, and the large number of university employees focused on DEI, after seeing surveys suggesting that students, particularly conservative ones, were censoring themselves on campuses.
“We cannot rely on the institutions to self-correct,” Cirino said. “They have had 50 years to do that. They haven’t shown us that they can do that. And so it’s time for the legislature to step in, and take our seat at the table.”
Conservative think tanks and advocacy groups such as the Manhattan and Goldwater institutes and the National Association of Scholars have played a role in some of the new legislative proposals.
Rufo described a “large and growing network of dissident academics who are working quietly with political leaders to enact reforms.” He held an event earlier this year in California focused on reforming state universities with a road map for political leaders.
At another event last month, Rufo argued micromanaging college classroom discussions was a losing fight for conservatives, and that tenure is not a problem – hiring is. He said universities should seek greater political or ideological balance in hiring. Faculty have no incentive to shut down academic departments, he said, even those that Rufo says are hubs of low-quality political activism.
American attitudes about the role colleges play in society has shifted in recent years, with a sharp partisan divide. Last November, a Pew Research Center survey found that 72 percent of Democrats polled said that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in this country, while only a third of Republicans did. Among conservative Republicans, 76 percent said that colleges affect the country negatively.
After the racial reckoning within higher education and beyond that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020, there was pushback: Some state legislators began to promote bills in 2021 restricting what could be taught in classrooms, an effort that spread to higher education in 2022. PEN America, a nonprofit group advocating for free expression, tracks what it calls “educational gag orders.” This year, it has also begun tracking efforts that strike directly at universities’ autonomy, said Jeremy C. Young, a program director at PEN America.
The bills create a climate of fear because faculty and others get the message that legislators may step in and ban majors or shut down offices they don’t like, Young said. “You can’t really have an environment of intellectual freedom on a campus if there isn’t some level of insulation between the campus governance and legislative bodies, political bodies,” he said. Without that, he said, rules around tenure, hiring and firing, curriculum and instruction can be changed at any time by the legislature – including in a retaliatory way.
Legislators in 20 states introduced more than 30 bills targeting DEI programs, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking them.
Advocates for universities and faculty and for free speech have been testifying, protesting and working behind the scenes in many places to try to temper and amend the bills, or kill them outright.
Many of the bills faltered, such as an attempt to make it easier to fire tenured faculty members in North Dakota and an effort to give more control over public universities in Montana to legislators. Others barreled forward.
In Florida, DeSantis, who announced his bid for president last week, signed into law a measure barring public colleges from using state or federal money for DEI programs unless required by federal law. It forbids public colleges from teaching certain subjects in required courses, such as identity politics or theories that racism and other bigotry is systemic in the United States. The state university system’s board of governors will review courses and programs to ensure compliance.
In Ohio last month, students lined up at the Statehouse with tape over their mouths to oppose Cirino’s bill, and in one hearing, people testified against it for more than seven hours. The Ohio State University board of trustees opposed it with a lengthy statement (and some voluntary changes).
The bill is both sweeping and granular, strengthening the role of trustees, prohibiting mandatory DEI training (with exceptions including those required by federal law) and requiring public universities to demonstrate “intellectual diversity.” It would task the chancellor with creating a course, required for graduation, on American history including documents prescribed by the legislature. It would take away state higher education employees’ right to strike.
At a hearing on its companion house bill last month, critics said – among other concerns – that it was anti-union, would expose faculty to unfounded complaints and would escalate administrative costs.
“We have real problems in higher ed,” John T. McNay, professor of history with the University of Cincinnati at Blue Ash and an AAUP leader, said in a phone interview, including underfunding and grandiose construction projects, which legislators could address rather than micromanaging classrooms.
“What we’d like to do is to be able to help more people of color succeed in college,” he said of the DEI efforts. “… The Republicans seem to see this as threatening. I don’t get it.”
Ohio Rep. Josh Williams (R), who is co-sponsoring a House version, said the bill resonated with his experiences in law school, where professors talked about their political beliefs and students on the right often kept silent their opposing opinions.
Williams, who is Black, said he objects to mandatory DEI training and to litmus tests in hiring. He supports diversity and inclusion, and support for communities that have historically been oppressed, he said, but not quotas.
“We should be educating students and teaching them how to think,” he said, “instead of what to think.”
In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) had vowed to eliminate tenure, blaming faculty for advancing an agenda of “societal division.” The bill passed in the Senate, but the version going to the governor’s desk codified tenure into law. The Texas Conference of the AAUP expressed strong support for tenure’s importance to academic freedom, but noted concern about the “dangerously broad grounds for termination” and lack of due process provisions in the bill. Some critics also worried tenure could be changed by future lawmakers.
Meanwhile, the bill ending DEI offices, required training and statements – with some exceptions such as programs required by federal law – is headed to the governor’s desk.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brandon Creighton (R), said on social media it “will result in millions in savings for taxpayers and restore a culture of free inquiry, meritocracy, equal opportunity, genuine innovation within Texas higher education.”
In a statement as the session closed, Patrick praised what he called, “The largest pushback against woke policies in higher education in America.”
But others remain worried. Karma Chávez, a professor and chair of the Mexican American and Latina/o Studies Department at University of Texas at Austin, said she had already seen a sought-after faculty member choose a university elsewhere in large part because of what was happening in the legislature.
Meanwhile, Brianna McBride, 24, who just finished a master’s degree from UT-Austin, said as a Black first-generation student, DEI programs helped her immensely. She waited hours with a student group to testify against the Texas DEI bill and felt sorrow when it passed.
“We were fighting for our experience, fighting for our collective being,” she said, “what we believe in, and what we believe will be mechanisms for people to feel safe and thrive on college campuses.”
At the same time, she said, “Texas is diverse! Texas is diversity!
“It doesn’t end here.”