The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The war on college continues to be prosecuted on multiple fronts

Students celebrate their graduation. (iStockphoto)

In The Ideas Industry, I argued that underlying shifts in American politics had made weakened the standing of universities in the public sphere. In particular, the erosion of trust in institutions and increase in political polarization were hitting the ivory tower hard:

The erosion of trust in heretofore respected institutions is a problem for the ivory tower. Academics attempting to weigh in on public affairs confront a delegitimizing assault on the academy — call it the “War on College.” As college tuition prices continue to outpace inflation and wage growth, economics writers have decried the explosion of student debt and declared the existence of a higher-ed “bubble.” An ever-more heterogeneous array of critics continues to pick at the myriad flaws of the academy. The war on college has been a staple of the political right for some time….
The leftward drift of the academy makes it easy for conservatives to ignore or deride the public interventions of academics.

I bring this up because yesterday the Pew Research Center released results from a June 2017 survey that demonstrate a widening partisan split in attitudes about universities:

While a majority of the public (55%) continues to say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days, Republicans express increasingly negative views.
A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.

As my Post colleague Philip Bump notes, this change in attitudes is relatively recent:

Over at the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead does not exactly cackle with glee at this news, but these paragraphs are drenched in schadenfreude:

The reason for the collapse is clear: Over the past few years, leftwing activism on college campuses has reached a level of intensity not seen since at least the “canon wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and possibly not since the countercultural movements of the 1960s. Meanwhile, campus PC blowups — over trigger warnings, safe spaces, sexual harassment, and offensive speakers — dovetailed with the 2016 presidential campaign, as Hillary Clinton touted “intersectionality” on her Twitter feed and Donald Trump reveled in raising a middle finger to the ever-proliferating codes of academic liberalism.
Conservative media has also played an important role. Privileged students ensconced in $60,000-per-year institutions shouting down speakers for incorrect opinions on gender pronouns makes the perfect foil for the new anti-PC right. So right-wing journalists have followed the excesses of the campus left closely, spreading news of the latest insanity far and wide, often with a touch of hyperbole thrown in.

What’s interesting is Mead’s warning at the end of his post:

Republicans control an overwhelming share of America’s statehouses, and so have unprecedented power to defund and restructure public higher education. And Congressional Republicans could restrict the flow of student loans that academia depends on or subject massive university endowments to ordinary tax rates (most are currently exempt). In other words, America’s higher education system, as currently structured, depends on consensus support from both parties. If universities continue to torch their reputation with the right, they may find that some of the privileges and resources and social prestige they have become accustomed to will go up in flames as well.

He may well be correct, particularly if the polling on this question continues to diverge. It is worth remembering, however, that Mead has also been asserting for close to a decade that online education was going to disrupt the traditional college paradigm. I do not believe that this has happened yet.

Even though this affects my day job, I cannot help but look at this as an interesting natural experiment of whether abstract disdain translates into shifts in individual decision-making. Bashing the academy is all fun and games right up until the moment that it affects one’s actual life. Universities do important local things like employ people and help graduates get better jobs. Much as senators are discovering that rhetorically bashing the Affordable Care Act and then actually removing it are two very different things, so it goes with decrying universities and then actually defunding them.

When conservatives stop sending their children to elite colleges and universities, then we’ll know that the war on college has been fought and the colleges lost. For now, stories like these are far more immediately threatening to the livelihood of higher education.

That said, Mead’s warning can be doubted but not dismissed. Even if universities are not facing an existential threat, the Pew data show that polarization has diminished the academy’s influence on public affairs. Republicans now have the simple, go-to move of discrediting an academic study that undercuts one of their policy positions by deriding the author as an out-of-touch lefty academic. To restore or impact, at a minimum, academics will need to learn how to talk, and listen, to conservatives.

That last sentence is sure to annoy many academics who are sick and tired of being told that they live in a bubble and need to reach out to individuals who have spent their professional life trying to tear down the ivory tower. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.