A Coming War On Universities?

When Rick Santorum went after the University of California the other day, it might have seemed like a one-off, fact-free hors d'ouvre of resentment, the kind of criticism of elitist liberal professors that we've come to expect from conservative culture warriors like him. Sara Robinson, however, sees this as the first shot in a coming war on public universities, following up as it did on a report from the Hoover Institution about how the academy is dominated by liberals. And she may be right:

But the content of this Hoover report isn't as important as the fact of its provenance, its existence, and its publication on the pages of the WSJ. Right-wing crusades almost always start with think-tank reports; and are issuized on the pages of conservative magazines and newspapers. From there, the ideas are picked up and disseminated by Fox, politicians, conservative ministers, and right-wing bloggers. If all goes well, within weeks, legislators will be paying attention, and lobbyists will be presenting them with ready-written legislation to propose to deal with this manufactured "problem."

This is the path we're on now. Santorum was setting the stage. He warned us, very clearly: Following the War on Public Employees and the War on Women, this will be the summer of the War on Public Universities. Whether the proposals will be to revoke their charters, close campuses, or sell off their facilities to for-profit colleges, you can bet that ALEC already has the bills in the can, and will be introducing them in state legislatures presently.

This is something of an old story on the right; William F. Buckley's "God and Man At Yale" came out 60 years ago, and carnival barkers like David Horowitz have made careers out of shouting about radical professors poisoning our children's minds. But short of the radical steps Sara mentions, what kind of things can a motivated Republican legislature do? Well, they can cut funding here and there, but that mostly hurts the students. So my guess is they'll go after faculty salaries.

That's because the professors are the villains in the story they're going to tell. Remember Ward Churchill, the Colorado professor who wrote some stupid things right after September 11? It was almost like he was manufactured in the basement of Fox News to be the walking embodiment of every stereotype of the elitist academic conservatives hold, from his questionable scholarship to his equally questionable claims of Indian ancestry. Fox turned him into a national figure. Believe you me, if this effort goes forward, they'll find some other professors at public universities they can turn into the next Ward Churchill.

Professors are a fat target for the right, because unlike public employee unions, they don't have much ability to mobilize a counter-attack or coordinate whatever efforts they do take in their own defense. I doubt we'll see tens of thousands of tweed-jacketed protesters take over state capitols. On the other hand, an attack on public universities is also mostly symbolic, in contrast to the anti-union effort, which has a clear practical goal as well, that of defunding and defanging one of the Democratic party's pillars of support. You can mount a campaign against the tenured radicals, but there aren't many big victories you can score against them. Unless I'm just not thinking creatively enough. We'll see.

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