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Conservatives have long been at war with colleges

A brief history of the right’s long-running battle against higher education.

DeSantis laughs and applauds as Rufo speaks at a lectern reading “Florida: The Education State.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis listens to activist and New College of Florida trustee Christopher Rufo before signing three education bills on the school’s campus in Sarasota, Florida, on May 15, 2023.
Photo by Thomas Simonetti for the Washington Post via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

In the wake of the resignations of two university presidents; campaigns against diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; and a Supreme Court ruling ending affirmative action, conservatives are vowing that their crusade against higher education is far from over.

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who played a role in smearing critical race theory and in pushing out Harvard President Claudine Gay last month, told students at the University of Colorado Boulder recently that America must “lay siege to the institutions” to root out radical liberal policies that were established in the 1960s — an idea he’s been repeating for years. According to Rufo, those policies include diversity and inclusion initiatives that are bringing America down today.

At a time when colleges and universities are facing criticism from all sides over rising tuition costs and resulting student debt, decreasing enrollment, and admissions challenges, conservatives want to spearhead the changes that lie ahead for the institutions. But the desire of Rufo and others to remake higher education in their conservative vision isn’t new.

According to historian Lauren Lassabe Shepherd, who is the author of Resistance from the Right: Conservatives and the Campus Wars in Modern America and casts a sometimes critical eye on the conservative assault on higher education, the playbook has existed for decades.

Lassabe Shepherd and I discussed the parallels between the current moment and the early 20th century, when conservatives first grew suspicious of colleges and universities. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fabiola Cineas

What’s one word you would use to describe conservatives’ relationship with higher education today?

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd

Antagonistic.

There’s a culture war being fought right now by people like Chris Rufo and, in the K–12 sphere, Moms for Liberty. These people aren’t shy, and they’re not discreet. They’re writing op-eds and saying exactly what their plans are.

But they’re not trying to dismantle public higher education brick by brick, as some commentators have suggested. They want to keep these institutions, but they want them to look like Hillsdale [a small conservative Christian college in Michigan]. They want to do what they’re doing at the New College of Florida. I think they do like these institutions — they just don’t like that they don’t control them.

Fabiola Cineas

What do you make of polling from Pew that shows that Republicans have lost confidence in higher education in a matter of a few years? Why do you think the shift toward believing that colleges have a harmful effect on the nation has been that quick in recent times?

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd

I think there was a big shift after 2016, when [political] strategists looked at election data and realized Trump didn’t do so well with college-educated people. So now strategists have framed this as “College-educated people are the problem.” They’re saying, “We need to make higher education a bogeyman, attack it and reform it into what we want it to look like.”

Fabiola Cineas

Let’s take a step back and talk about how we got here. Historically, what’s been the function of colleges and universities? Was there a version of these elite institutions that conservatives aligned with?

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd

The Ivies, our very first institutions, like Harvard — which is 150 years older than we are as a nation — were set up privately with charters. The idea was to train white men, usually second, third, fourth sons, and sometimes first sons, for the ministry, sometimes for medicine, sometimes for law, and also for public service.

In addition to educating them, there was also a social component. It was about getting elite young men together through social clubs, like supper clubs, dining clubs, and secret societies, many of which are still around today.

Getting a degree wasn’t always the outcome. This was mostly for men from wealthy upper-class families, but you would occasionally have someone who came from a farming family. Christianity was also a really strong component. What we think of as the modern model of colleges didn’t emerge until after the Civil War. Before then, college was really like private high school.

Fabiola Cineas

So what would you say is the first major moment when conservatives begin to question the aims of colleges and universities?

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd

In the 1950s, William F. Buckley Jr., who is widely regarded as the father of the modern conservative movement, pens his first book, God and Man at Yale. The whole premise of the book is that America’s elite institutions have lost their way, deviated from Christianity, and are teaching young men to be more liberal, open-minded, worldly, and more socialist. This is where we see the beginning of a concerted movement of the right being a little bit suspicious about the curriculum in higher ed. They began wondering, “What are they teaching these kids?”

What happened in the decades before built up to this. During the Red Scare, there were suspicions about Jewish professors being communist or anti-American. There was also the effort to create Bob Jones College, a college for Christian men where the Bible is the curriculum. This was similar to today’s plan to make colleges look like Hillsdale. That means a biblical curriculum, but what they also want is “Western tradition.” They want students studying old classics written by and for white men.

Fabiola Cineas

What role did outside organizations play in fighting to uphold conservative ideals in higher education?

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd

Around the time of the Great Depression, they created parallel academic programs to promote conservative ideas. Those institutions still exist now. The big one today is ISI, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Its whole purpose as a nonprofit is to identify conservative students and provide stipends or fellowships for their credentials so that they can become faculty themselves.

Fabiola Cineas

You’ve also talked about the late 1960s as being a time when conservatives organized for their causes. When I think about that time, I think about liberal student movements that protested the Vietnam War or advocated for ethnic studies. So what were conservative students doing, and how does it inform what conservatives want to do with higher education today?

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd

Conservative students were part of groups like the Young Republican National Federation and the College Republicans National Committee. They were the pro-war voice on campus, and they framed themselves as being anti-communist. There was also Young Americans for Freedom, still around today as Young America’s Foundation.

Those students in the ’60s, like Newt Gingrich and Bill Barr, that was their entry into politics. That’s where they cut their political teeth and learned how to organize and fundraise and set up counterdemonstrations. They had a hand up in the sense that there was lots of mentorship — a very welcoming and deep-pocketed set of advisers who helped them on their political journey.

Karl Rove is a really good example because he didn’t finish his degree at the University of Utah. He dropped out in that period and moved to Washington, DC, and immediately became a lobbyist working for the national College Republicans. That kind of activism and membership were career funnels. What the uniting factor is between them is they all don’t like the left. And when they say they don’t like the left, they’re actually just talking about liberals.

Fabiola Cineas

So did conservatives basically build on this activism inside and outside of higher ed institutions? I’m specifically thinking about the rise of affirmative action, too.

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd

So, in that sense, the right’s worst fears came true. The campuses did diversify — very, very slowly, but they did.

And even still, campuses broadly — when we’re talking about the sum total of American higher education, the average college student goes to a large state public or community college. And they’re probably not even a traditional 18- to 21-year-old student, either. Harvard, MIT, Penn, and others have consumed the news. But those institutions are absolutely not representative of what the landscape of colleges and universities is in the country.

Going forward, the conversation about conservatives and higher education has always been there, though it didn’t always make headlines. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, in his 1971 Powell Memorandum, laid out this plan for fixing America’s institutions. He basically said, “We need to tear them apart brick by brick, and we do that through defunding and then placing our people in positions of power.” The Powell Memo is a document that definitely lays this plan all out, but the sentiment was certainly there before.

Fabiola Cineas

Coming back to today, is the conservative fight to claim colleges and universities mostly happening at Harvard and Penn, as so much of the mainstream media would have us believe?

Lauren Lassabe Shepherd

Harvard is an easy target for headlines, but when it comes to practical application, like where the right can really have impact, it’s the large state public universities that are most at risk. Those institutions that don’t make headlines and can slowly be changed behind the scenes, and it’s almost like no one notices. In red states, legislators have direct control over public education budgets. This is why New College in Florida was so easy to tear apart.

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