RALEIGH — Republicans and conservatives are growing more doubtful about the notion that higher education is a constructive social institution. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, 56 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45 percent in 2016. Only 19 percent of Democrats say the same.
To these increasingly skeptical right-of-center voters, university leaders and professors may be tempted to say, “Good riddance!” If Republicans are going to spurn universities, they might conclude, perhaps universities should spurn Republicans, who obviously have contempt for education, scholarship, and the life of the mind.
Of course, that’s not really the position of the higher education sector. It can’t be, not if it wants to survive and thrive. University leaders desperately want to protect their flow of cash and students. They know many donors, parents, politicians, and voters are Republicans and conservatives.
The nightmare scenario for university leaders is playing out right now in the Show Me State. In case you’re not familiar with the episode, back in 2015 there was a series of campus protests at the University of Missouri. When a student journalist attempted to cover one of them, an assistant professor at Mizzou, Melissa Click, demanded the journalist leave. “I need some muscle over here!” she famously shouted in an attempt to recruit other students to force the journalist away.
The resulting furor made national, even international news. Click was terminated. In alliance with prominent left-wing professors and associations, she (unsuccessfully) fought her dismissal, arguing in The Washington Post that while her lack of experience had produced a certain clumsiness, “I don’t want to live in a world where citizens are too afraid of public scorn to take a chance. Do you?”
Yes, actually. I want to live in a world where educators would be too afraid ever to consider threatening students with bodily harm. Call me a troglodyte if you must.
It turns out that lots of people in Missouri are similarly primitive. Horrified at what the episode said about the campus, and disgusted at the feckless leadership that let the protests escalate in the first place into active interference with the rights of other students and the normal operation of a school, parents and donors are voting with their feet. Mizzou’s freshman enrollment has dropped 35 percent. Hundreds of employees have lost their jobs.
For a group of people seemingly obsessed about categories and invidious stereotypes, far too many professors traffic in the worst kinds of stereotypes about their critics. There are many North Carolina Republicans and conservatives who possess and value college degrees, cherish higher learning, and have proudly acquired and applied graduate training to successful careers in business, law, medicine, science, and education. While there have recently been some shifts in partisan allegiances among voters with varying levels of education, the gaps aren’t wide. According to the 2016 exit polls, for example, half of North Carolina voters had college degrees. They split their votes for president between Hillary Clinton (49 percent) and Donald Trump (48 percent). Even 44 percent of North Carolinians with graduate degrees picked Trump.
Being Republican or conservative, in other words, does not inherently breed a lack of respect for higher education as an institution. So what does?
When parents, donors, and taxpayers see conservative speakers on campus shouted down or assaulted, they worry. When they see public universities used as platforms for progressive political activism rather than legitimate educational or research activities, they seethe. When they compare the rising cost of college degrees against the value, either in the job market or in the intrinsic worth of what their children have learned, they recoil. When they see professors deny the legitimate authority of Republican lawmakers and duly appointed boards to provide governance to state agencies, they fume.
The message many Republicans and conservatives perceive from higher education sounds something like this: “Give us your children. Give us your money. Then, shut up.”
The answer is no.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.