Nothing good: When politicians try to dictate to universities

Nothing good: When politicians try to dictate to universities
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The cancel culture debate is spreading from educational campuses to politics; it’s poisoning both.

The central issue is race. Republican politicians are opposing the teaching of “critical race theory,” which holds that racism is a systemic American condition. This political position is a rebranding of the old race card, which has worked well for right-wingers.

Actually, this race theory is taught chiefly in certain law schools, some universities, very few high schools. Yet nine state legislatures already have voted to ban it in public schools, and it's under consideration in well over a dozen more. A rural Wisconsin congressman is pushing legislation instructing Washington, D.C., schools how to teach about racism and sexism.

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To be sure, sometimes there has been an overreaction from the left. Some Ivy League professors I know, liberals, limit emails or twitter responses, fearing a backlash from the “woke police.” There have been moves to remove buildings named for American icons like Abraham Lincoln for being insufficiently opposed to slavery.

But the chief driver is the right, which sees a propitious opportunity to rally their base and create a wedge issue against Democrats. In Florida, the Republican legislature and governor are requiring public universities and colleges to survey the political beliefs of all students, professors and administrators. There is an implied threat that the outcome might affect funding.

Four of America's ten largest universities are in the state: The University of Central Florida, Florida International University, the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.

The most compelling narrative about the insidiousness of this issue was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education detailing the fierce fight between politicians and a university at a seemingly unlikely venue: Boise State.

A new university president, Marlene Tromp, arrived determined to create a more diverse and inclusive college. About 2 percent of the 22,000 students are Black. This set off the state’s Republicans who warned this would be “divisive and exclusionary,” antithetical to the “Idaho way.” There was a pandemic, yet they refused to meet with her if she wore a mask.

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At the same time, student activists were pushing her to move faster on social justice. It all exploded when activists began protesting the Big City Coffee shop on campus.

The shop had a “thin blue line” sign which activists took as a counter to Black Lives Matter. The owner explained that it was a tribute to her fiance who was shot five times and paralyzed by a fugitive. The protests continued, and the university summoned the owner to a meeting, seeking a solution. She reportedly insisted the college tamp down the student critics.

The university refused, and the coffee shop left campus.

The student body president, who’s Hispanic and sought a middle ground honoring the free speech rights of the shop owner and of the students, was denounced by student activists as a “white supremacist.” He was impeached.

This also further enraged the critics and a right-wing foundation — invariably one appears when race is the issue. They leveled bogus charges: that the university dropped an arrangement with the Boise police — actually it was renewed — and that the coffee shop was forced to close; it was not.

Surprisingly, the most vituperative legislative critic was an academic, Ron Nate, an economics professor at Brigham Young-Idaho. (Maybe not so surprisingly since he earlier participated in a mask burning protest.) Nate accused the university of becoming an “institute of higher indoctrination,” and repeated the false charges about the police department and the coffee shop.

President Tromp was trapped in the crossfire from both sides.

As the legislature was moving to punish the school, a Democratic member described the session:

“One of the Republican senators came into the room and he's just like, ‘We need to ban critical race theory.’ And the legislative drafter — nonpartisan staff — said, ‘Ok. If you want to ban critical race theory, you need to define it.’ And he says, ‘I don't know what the critical race theory is.’ And he was laughing at himself about it. That's a general sentiment among people who are legislating this, which is, ‘I don’t know, but someone told me this is real bad.’”

The legislature cut the University budget by $1.5 million in retribution for its social justice emphasis.

It turns out the same whether it’s in Boise or 2,400 miles east in Chapel Hill, N.C. The University of North Carolina suffered an enduring harm when distinguished journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who's Black, turned down a teaching post at her alma mater after politically-connected trustees dragged out a decision on her tenure. The trustees’ actions were “humiliating, inappropriate and unjust,” a large contingent of the UNC journalism department wrote. “It was racist.”

I empathize with her decision to instead take a position at historically Black Howard University. Still, I wish she had gone to Carolina after so many students, faculty and alumni stood up to the forces of darkness. This is what the bad guys sought.

But as long as politicians meddle and demagogue in internal educational affairs, everyone is a loser.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.