Politicians’ claims that universities are systematically prejudiced against researchers and students with conservative views raise the prospect that Western institutions could become key battlegrounds in a new age of “culture wars”.
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s education secretary, lit a fire under the long-standing debate over supposed liberal bias last week in her speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. After asking how many in the audience at the biggest conservative conference in the US were college students, she said: “The fight against the education establishment extends to you, too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.
“They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights [including free speech] of people with whom you disagree.”
In the Netherlands, parties of the Right recently passed a motion in Parliament that “asks the government to request advice and consideration from the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences” about “whether self-censorship and limitation of diversity of perspectives” is rife in the country’s universities and research institutes.
Pieter Duisenberg, the member of the House of Representatives for the centre-right VVD who proposed the motion, told Times Higher Education that he put forward the plan after being approached by conservative academics who felt discriminated against in being denied senior posts and in research funding.
The American-born politician also cited the Heterodox Academy, a group of US professors that warns of “loss of viewpoint diversity” and advocates for “a more intellectually diverse” academy.
Mr Duisenberg added: “That combination of people approaching me plus the debate that is [happening] in other countries has led me to the question, ‘is this an issue in our academies, yes or no?’”
He continued: “What I’m not advocating is quotas on political views…What I’m advocating is freedom in the academy.”
The motion won backing not just from the VVD, but also from Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration PVV, the party that is leading in many polls ahead of the Netherlands’ 15 March general election and that is regarded by many as having pushed the VVD in a populist direction.
Jet Bussemaker, the education minister whose Labour Party opposed the motion, will decide whether the inquiry should be taken forward. Although she might reject it, Mr Duisenberg suggested that a new government could still take it forward post-election.
While the Dutch Parliament motion shows debates about claims of liberal bias in universities spreading beyond the US, in America those debates are reaching a new intensity under Mr Trump’s presidency.
Before Ms DeVos’ intervention, the president had already issued a Twitter threat to strip the University of California, Berkeley of federal funding over its perceived failure to safeguard the free speech of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos when it cancelled his speech on safety grounds following violent protests.
Meanwhile, a Republican state senator in Iowa, Mark Chelgren, recently filed a bill that aims to force the state’s public universities to take into account the registered political party affiliations of prospective professors when hiring, to ensure a “partisan balance”.
A. Lee Fritschler, one of the authors of the 2008 book Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, said: “I think the rhetoric is going to increase in this country about universities being…centres of opposition.”
Professor Fritschler, emeritus in George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and a former assistant secretary of education under Bill Clinton, said that while there was “almost unanimity” in science on evidence for climate change, “you have a president of the United States come along and say it’s all nonsense. We’ve never had that kind of confrontation in the past.”
The Closed Minds? survey found that while there was a clear liberal weighting to the politics of US academics, conservative professors do not, generally, believe they are discriminated against.
Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, authors of Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive Academy, surveyed conservative academics and found that while a third had concealed their politics before gaining tenure, this was a “temporary hardship” and they did not find universities “implacably hostile” to their ideas.
The authors have argued that “conservatives should deescalate their rhetorical war against the progressive university”, as such attacks are “discouraging young conservatives from becoming professors”.
Andrew Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars and professor of history at Illinois State University, suggested that “culture wars about the universities will be intense during the Trump years”.
“I think the Trump administration, following the trajectory of the GOP [Republican Party], is likely to be the most anti-intellectual since perhaps the 1920s,” he said. “So the debate will be about whether society should subsidise humanities learning.”
Professor Hartman said that while local control of education and the role of evangelical Christians were distinctive to US culture wars over universities, other Western nations could shadow some developments.
“If right-wing populist parties gain political power, and if universities remain committed to the values of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism, it seems only logical that culture wars will result,” he said.