To our detriment, US higher education has become a trench line in the ongoing culture war. Deep partisan divisions have opened up regarding public respect for higher education, as lawmakers have moved to impose political balance on university hiring and faculty have faced harassment over their scholarship.
But instead of neutralising the ideological bombs hurled its way, academia’s shortsightedness and cowardice have repeatedly seen them blow up in its face, in red and blue states alike.
Research that I undertook with a colleague, Andrew Pyle, and our student, Paul Gennett, showed that some institutions have leaned in to political controversy, often in ways that undercut their own stated values. And our recent analysis of administrative responses to Donald Trump’s 2017 “travel ban” executive order found strong relationships between universities’ stances and the political disposition of their state. Institutions in blue, Democratic states were more likely to feed the conservative narrative by engaging in political rhetoric and calling for the order to be revoked, while institutions in red, Republican states were more likely to remain apolitical.
But institutions in red states were also more likely to remain entirely silent, and less likely to offer meaningful support to vulnerable international students. This is a failure to fulfil their duty of care. Such a half-hearted response walked my own institution backwards into cultural conflict, and attracted the very attention of the conservative media that administrators were likely trying to avoid. Faculty members led a week-long hunger strike until a more robust response was offered – which was still apolitical but did offer more direct, active support for our international students.
If higher education is to close the partisan divide in its public perception, attempting to simply avoid political landmines is not enough. Controversy is inevitable and institutions must learn how to engage with it. Only through keeping the focus on core values will we avoid being something other than either partisan hacks or political punchbags. My university did not need to condemn Trump’s order, but it would have served the administration’s own purposes – and, more importantly, those of its students – had its response been consistent with its own stated values, which address the importance of fostering a climate conducive to learning.
You don’t need to look long or hard to find similar instances of red-state universities thrashing about in cultural controversy when a clear lifeline is readily at hand. In December, overtly racist words were painted on the Rock, a boulder at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville used by the campus community as a message board. The university received criticism for referring to the phrase as “free speech” and relying on the “volunteer community” to paint over it. Its own statement of values clearly articulates the importance of advancing diversity and inclusion.
In this age, coming out strongly against racism should be low-hanging moral fruit for any institution of higher education. It has been reported that Tennessee-Knoxville silently paints over criticism of its football team when it appears on the Rock. Even maintaining this level of consistency would have sidestepped needless controversy.
But it isn’t just red-state institutions that are prone to the inconsistent application of academic values. In the past year, the rate of student protesters shouting down campus speakers with whom they disagree has gone up. These incidents, which are typically directed at conservative speakers in blue states, are viewed by many as a challenge to free speech and academic freedom. Last April, Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, summarised what one would hope is a common value for higher education, stating that “liberal education is grounded in a commitment to intellectual diversity and protection against the suppression of unpopular viewpoints as a means of guarding against political indoctrination”. Nonetheless, many blue-state institutions have treated protesters as special cases, failing to punish them in line with campus policy for fear of the political implications.
Higher education is founded on values that are largely non-partisan. Foster a community of learning. Defend academic freedom. Promote tolerance. It is by remembering and upholding these universal academic values that we will survive the culture war.
Darren L. Linvill is an associate professor in the department of communication at Clemson University in South Carolina.