April 14, 2024

© Rebecca Blackwell/AP
New College of Florida students and supporters protest ahead of a college trustee meeting on Feb. 28 in Sarasota. Trustees voted to abolish a college office that handles diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Florida’s public universities, unlike most others, require an SAT or ACT score for freshman admission. Republicans in the Sunshine State are seeking to purge diversity and equity programs from those schools, weaken tenure protections for professors and limit the teaching of concepts such as “critical race theory” and “radical gender theory.”

By contrast, California’s public universities ignore the test scores and avow the importance of diversity. The Democratic-led state requires them to offer abortion medication through student health centers. Tenured faculty wield immense clout within the University of California. Gender studies is not under threat in the Golden State.

With their competing visions, the two megastates spotlight an emerging red-blue divide in higher education: The culture wars are breaking public universities into polarized camps. At stake is who goes to college, whether those students feel welcome on campus and who decides what gets taught there.

If, as a result, more prospective students gravitate to what they perceive to be politically like-minded colleges, analysts say that could produce a vicious cycle of division. “It will further advance the polarization,” said David Strauss, a higher education consultant in Baltimore. “That to me is a danger.”

The divide has deepened in recent years. Nearly all colleges shuttered their campuses in early 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But those in red states were generally faster to reopen dormitories and classrooms. Those in blue states were faster to mandate coronavirus vaccines for students and employees, and they stuck longer with mask requirements.

Many red states have imposed abortion limits or bans since the Supreme Court last year struck down the federal right to abortion. Those bans, in turn, can influence whether prospective students want to enroll at schools in those states. But California enacted a law in 2019 — the first of its kind nationally — that requires UC and California State University campuses to make abortion pills available through campus health centers. Massachusetts enacted a similar law last year. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has said she wants to take the same step.

Some college presidents have even taken stands on gun control or the rights of students who are undocumented immigrants.

College towns and campuses, which often lean to the left, are easily caricatured as out of touch or “elitist.” And as college-educated voters have fled the Republican Party in recent elections, conservatives have grown suspicious of student protests against right-leaning speakers and of education initiatives promoting racial or social justice. The backlash gained steam after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 brought demonstrators to the streets nationwide and elicited university pledges to fight racism.

Higher education officials often struggle to navigate these culture-war battles that can affect how much money they get from legislatures and how effectively they can recruit out-of-state students.

“Faculty and campus leaders are now expected to walk a very delicate tightrope,” said Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “That walk is becoming increasingly difficult and costly. If you go against the political wind, sometimes you can get undesired attention or even loss of funds.”

Merit and admissions

Around the country, most competitive colleges and universities have become “test-optional” at least temporarily in recent years — not requiring the SAT or ACT tests, but not ignoring any scores that applicants submit. The trend, accelerated by the pandemic, has cheered critics who say the tests favor wealthy students. They already have many advantages and can pay for courses to prepare.

But California’s public universities went a step further, going “test-free.” That means they no longer consider those scores at all for freshman admissions. A small but growing number of schools elsewhere, including Washington State and Northern Illinois universities, have followed suit.

Analysis of testing policies nationwide, from the tracking site FairTest, shows a clear red-blue divide between states and schools that mandate scores for admission and those that ignore them. Officials in red states often contend that test scores are an essential indicator of merit.

“It just seems like if you’re an engineer, you got to get the right answer,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said in a video roundtable on March 13. “So how is this helping us develop the type of people that we need in these key things if we’re moving away from a merit-based system?”

Kim Wilcox, chancellor of UC-Riverside and once a higher education leader in Kansas, was skeptical of the UC system’s decision in 2020 to move away from admission testing. “All these measures are biased,” he said, also citing grade-point averages. “Why would we throw out one biased measure and leave ourselves even fewer?”

But, Wilcox said, he has not detected major problems in the years since. “Life goes on. It’ll be fine.”

Academic freedom

For faculty, a paramount issue is academic freedom. Two traditions have long shielded professors from political interference in research and teaching. First is the tenure system. Typically, professors who earn tenure may be fired only for cause or in response to a financial crisis or other extraordinary circumstance. Second is a general institutional commitment to academic freedom. In theory, that shields the huge number of faculty members — from lecturers to professors — who work without tenure and with little or no job security.

Now the shields could be weakening in some Republican-led states.

In 2021, the University System of Georgia made it easier to fire tenured professors. This year, Texas lawmakers are considering a bill to eliminate tenure at public universities. A bill in Florida would give university trustees more power in hiring faculty and review of tenure status.

Republicans say they want more ideological balance on faculties and less leftist indoctrination of students. “Tenured professors must not be able to hide behind the phrase ‘academic freedom’ and then proceed to poison the minds of our next generation,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said in 2022.

Florida is speeding ahead on this front. DeSantis overhauled the board of the small, public New College of Florida this year to “refocus” the school on what a spokesman for the governor called “academics and truth.” And a sweeping bill in the state House of Representatives would pave the way for public universities to drop programs “associated with Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality.”

The Florida provision echoes measures elsewhere in the past two years that have sought to regulate the teaching of race in all levels of public schools. This year, Texas Republicans are pushing a bill to ban critical race theory in higher education. Gender studies and intersectionality — a concept for analyzing overlapping forms of discrimination — also frequently draw attacks.

Many academics nationwide are outraged.

“Isn’t it amazing that gender studies is identified as such a threat?” said Sherene H. Razack, a professor who chairs the department of that name at UCLA. Typically, she said, about 200 UCLA undergraduates are majoring in gender studies in a given year, with thousands more taking classes in it.

Razack also specializes in critical race theory, a framework for analyzing systemic racism. Initially, she found the political attacks on her field amusing. Not anymore. “We seriously underestimated this,” Razack said. “It’s just astonishing. But wow, it works.”

At the University of Florida, a spokesman said that neither the university president, former senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), nor the chair of the department of gender, sexuality and women’s studies would be available for an interview. Federal data shows that the department’s students earned 29 bachelor’s and six master’s degrees in women’s studies in 2022.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Seeking to counter bigotry and inequality, many universities pledged to improve the climate for marginalized groups after the killing of Floyd. They launched initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion, known as DEI.

Liberals, in favor of the commitments, contend that racial privilege and biases must be thoroughly understood, acknowledged and addressed. Conservatives argue that colleges should be race-blind and that any other course is inherently discriminatory. DeSantis, for instance, called DEI a “scam” and suggested that universities too often stray from a “classical” curriculum.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking 28 anti-DEI bills in 17 states with Republican-controlled legislatures. An Arizona measure would prohibit public colleges from requiring employees to engage in DEI programs. Measures in Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and Florida would bar certain forms of DEI spending. Bills in various states would ban or limit the use of diversity statements in hiring or admissions. So far, none of the bills on the Chronicle’s list has been enacted.

Some states break from partisan patterns. In solidly red Utah, state Sen. John Johnson (R) withdrew his bill to block DEI funding in higher education after the University of Utah’s president, Taylor R. Randall, and others persuaded him to study the issue instead.

“There may be very good uses for a lot of these things,” Johnson said in a Feb. 27 legislative session, “and I think it’s way too harsh to just cut off those departments.”

Randall praised Utah lawmakers for their deliberate approach. “It’s a conservative state, but it’s not rash,” he said in a telephone interview. Before the bill was introduced, the university had launched a DEI drive, “One U Thriving.” Randall said universities must embrace many forms of diversity, including religious, socioeconomic and geographic. “As you broaden the definition beyond, say, race, you get huge wins,” he said.

The Utah example harks back to a long history of bipartisan support in state capitols for higher education. Christopher Loss, a Vanderbilt University historian, said colleges and universities typically seek to “tiptoe around political debates” because their constituency spans a broad spectrum of views. UC-Berkeley, the icon of liberal activism dating to the Vietnam War (in his 1966 campaign for California governor, Ronald Reagan promised to “clean up the mess at Berkeley”), is often an outlier.

“In higher ed,” Loss said, “schools definitely trend closer to the University of South Carolina than they do to Berkeley.”

But while UC remains an exemplar of what might be called the “blue” vision of higher education, California is hard to pigeonhole. In 1996, state voters banned affirmative action in public higher education. Several other states, including Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Washington, followed with similar prohibitions. California voters decisively rejected an effort to repeal the ban in 2020.

UC-Berkeley can’t use race in admissions. Is it a model for the country?

Campus culture wars are likely to flare anew this year when the Supreme Court decides whether to ban race-conscious admissions nationwide. The court’s conservative majority is widely expected to end affirmative action in admissions, a decision that could reshape the racial and ethnic mix of students at the most competitive schools and inject more volatility into the red-blue debate.

Nina Caputo, an associate professor of history at the University of Florida since 2003, said many faculty members are “thoroughly exhausted” by political clashes and legislative attacks on academic freedom. The debates are raising major questions, she said: “What is the university for? What does it do?”

© Ben Margot/AP
Police guard a building at UC-Berkeley where right-leaning commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak in February 2017.