Nassau Hall at Princeton University in New Jersey. (Photo: Tim Alex/Unsplash)

The Rise of the Right-Wing University

Despite its liberal reputation, academia is being flooded with right-wing money and ideologies.

The notion that American institutions of higher learning are pervasively left-wing and endeavor to instill liberalism or socialism in their students is a conventional wisdom that has gone virtually unexamined since the student movement in the 1960s.

"Anyone who has spent any time at a university understands that most institutions of higher education are functionally right wing--something that they are able to conceal, perhaps even sincerely, with a cloak of social liberalism."

There are now a number of nonce terms associated with the idea, such as "politically correct" or "woke," all the more notable because we never hear these phrases from the supposed practitioners of the alleged ideology behind them. They are almost exclusively used as terms of derision by the right, which suggests they might actually be products of the conservative media-entertainment complex's meme factory.

There is in fact an ideology behind most universities, but unnoticed because it suffuses so much of American life: the corporate model of creeping bureaucratization and a metastasizing and overpaid upper management. They follow a business model geared to generating costs that result in tuition rising faster than the cost of living, while what is supposed to be the core personnel--the instructors--are paid relatively paltry sums. Somehow no one finds it strange that the right mocks them as "elites," when the junior professorate subsists on service worker compensation.

An acquaintance who teaches at a public university wrote the following to me: "Anyone who has spent any time at a university understands that most institutions of higher education are functionally right wing--something that they are able to conceal, perhaps even sincerely, with a cloak of social liberalism. They will adopt the fashionable vernacular, and essentially say, 'We pay our part time faculty poverty wages and give no benefits, but we support BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Americans!'"

All of this goes unremarked because the right-wing narrative about colleges being Bolshevik brainwashing camps dominates the debate. But another irony is involved: there is probably no accredited university in the country, neither Berkeley nor Oberlin, that is as thoroughly left-wing, as driven to indoctrinate and physically control its student body, or as politically influential, as any number of conservative universities.

We can trace two sources for this phenomenon in its modern form, and both were reactions to the upheavals of the 1960s. One was a response to desegregation orders on publicly-supported educational institutions: the founding of private "Christian academies," mainly in the South, for the purpose of maintaining all-white student bodies. This was the explicit mission of Jerry Falwell, Sr., who founded Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University) in 1971. Its roots lay in his Liberty Christian Academy, formed in 1967 as a segregated private school. Bob Jones, Jr., founder of the eponymous university, argued that racial segregation was mandated by the Bible.

The other was more indirect. The infamous Powell Memo of 1971, written Lewis Powell, a tobacco lawyer who the following year became a Supreme Court justice, was arguably the blueprint for the radical Right's gradual takeover of American organizations. Powell attacked, among many other institutions, American universities and urged "constant surveillance" of textbook content, as well as a purge of suspected left-wingers at universities and elsewhere. He inspired several wealthy people to found or donate to conservative colleges or think tanks in order to create the conservative education-indoctrination complex we see today.

What you're also not likely to find is an accurate historical perspective on slavery, women's lack of legal rights, or working people's efforts to achieve collective bargaining while laboring in unsafe jobs for long hours.

What do these institutions teach? Whether the school is nominally unaffiliated with a particular religious denomination, like Hillsdale, or goes all-in on the Bible-thumping, like Pat Robertson's Regent University, the curriculum is much the same. There is heavy emphasis on what they call "the Western tradition," which means a cherry-picked selection of philosophies, movements, and cultural characteristics that present-day conservatives approve of. In practice it is heavy on tendentious argumentation that Christianity equals freedom, and notably light on Western progressive movements and the Enlightenment legacy.

What you're also not likely to find is an accurate historical perspective on slavery, women's lack of legal rights, or working people's efforts to achieve collective bargaining while laboring in unsafe jobs for long hours. As well, it is highly implausible that a graduate of these institutions will become a Nobel laureate in evolutionary biology, climate science, or geology, given that every development in these fields for the past 150 years is heretical to conservative dogma. (Bob Jones's biology faculty are all young-earth creationists).

In the overtly religious institutions, the theology is ladled into the students as if they were so many Strasbourg geese. The history of religion is a legitimate academic subject if taught with historical rigor and accuracy; but theology is no more a genuine field of higher study than phrenology or alchemy. Maybe holy men need to be licensed, but it ought to confer no more academic prestige than a license to cut hair or give pedicures (admittedly, the latter two trades are vastly more practical).

Initially, these institutions were one element in the conservative movement's, and the Christian right's, efforts to line up votes in elections and lobby on policy. But it became clear during the presidency of George W. Bush that the colleges had another mission: inserting people into government positions. Karl Rove (nicknamed "Bush's brain") scoured the Office of Personnel Management's database of job applications for federal employment to seek graduates of evangelical schools for positions in the administration.

At the time, I was a national security policy staffer on the Hill. If you ever wondered how your tax money was squandered or stolen in the reconstruction effort in Iraq, this is what I discovered: the Coalition Provisional Authority (a sort of American viceroyalty in Baghdad) had its personnel vetted by the White House and right-wing Beltway outfits like the Heritage Foundation. People with any area expertise or language skill were excluded for political reasons (I was personally told this at the time by a very knowledgeable military analyst).

Instead, they chose personnel like these: in one case, a recent graduate of an evangelical college for home-schooled children was chosen to help manage Iraq $13 billion reconstruction budget, without even a background in accounting. In another, a 24-year old graduate with no knowledge of finance was sent to open Baghdad's stock market. We can also imagine with what sensitivity the products of Bible colleges handled cultural relations with the Muslim population.

These colleges have also begun implicitly endorsing political candidates. While politician frequently give speeches on mainstream campuses, these are typically events like graduations, where the speaker imparts such pedestrian wisdom to the audience as "your future lies before you." By contrast, Republican candidates often pump up their religious-right credentials by making explicitly partisan speeches at a venue like Liberty University, which demonstratively vets the candidate for political orthodoxy.

These institutions are now solidly embedded in the Republican political machine. The president of Hillsdale chaired Donald Trump's 1776 Commission, a panel of bogus experts tasked with rewriting American history into a cartoonish morality play. The college is also a driving force behind the decades-long effort of Christian fundamentalists to gut public education and replace it with privately-run schools feeding off the taxpayer.

That Hillsdale, like Jerry Falwell's Liberty, has had its share of salacious scandals involving its leaders over the years is only to be expected: these colleges wouldn't be practicing conservative philosophy if there wasn't a creepy weirdness behind the facade of self-righteousness.

The influence of the radical right is now seeping into publicly-funded universities. The Federalist Society, the shadowy cabal that vets federal court nominees of Republican presidents, vetted hiring and admissions to George Mason University's law school, which was not coincidentally named after Antonin Scalia. GMU has also been the recipient of donations from the Koch brothers and other right-wing funders.

For decades, law schools have been special targets of the right-wing influence machine, as Jane Mayer points out in her book Dark Money. She quotes the Powell memo's author, who said, ". . . the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic, and political change."

The student movements in the United States and Western Europe during the 1960s gave us a distorted picture of higher education as inherently progressive and a haven for free thought. But historically, this is not always true.

There is an assumption that the Italian fascist movement and the German Freikorps after World War I were made up exclusively of disgruntled war veterans unable to adjust to civilian life. But David Stevenson, the definitive historian of the period, points out that many recruits in both groups were university students. And in 1933, the majority of the professorate at German universities, then the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, went solidly in favor of the Nazis.

In 1967, the German socialist and student activist Rudi Dutschke coined the phrase "the long march through the institutions" in describing his and his fellow students' plans. But for the last five decades, that long march has been undertaken--and is now getting perilously close to completion--by the forces of the radical right.

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