In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis and his allies in the Florida Legislature have launched a major effort to create a more conservative state higher education system. That effort will almost certainly evolve over time, but the basic elements are clear: a major reduction, perhaps a complete ban, on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts run by human resources and student affairs staff; creation of centers offering undergraduate education in the Western intellectual tradition, taught from a conservative perspective; elimination of funding for courses grounded in critical race theory and other racial justice approaches; the appointment of conservatives to campus leadership positions; and an effort to rebrand the state’s undergraduate New College as a conservative institution.
These efforts are inspired, in part, by hope of political gain. DeSantis, like California governor Ronald Reagan before him, believes that public frustration with the higher education system, voter opposition in Florida to many “antiracism” initiatives and the general distaste his conservative base feels for left-of-center academics make higher education the perfect wedge issue to help carry him to the White House. It is a mistake, however, to attribute DeSantis’s effort exclusively to a crass desire for political gain. I have worked in and around politics for more than 30 years, and I have found that in politics, most initiatives from both the left and the right are motivated not just by politics, but by a genuine concern over significant matters of public policy.
When conservatives look at our colleges and universities, what do they see? Faculty are overwhelmingly Democrats or left-leaning, by a ratio of nine to one. Subjects important to conservatives, like military history, are rarely a focus, while subjects grounded in feminist and antiracist perspectives are common. Conservative political thought is often taught as a straw man, not a valid alternative, to dominant liberal and radical perspectives. Staff are overwhelmingly left-leaning, often organized in unions that are overt allies of the Democratic Party, and pursue Title IX and DEI initiatives strongly favored by Democrats and vehemently opposed by Republicans. Given this assessment, it is hardly surprising to see a conservative state like Florida try to alter the trajectory of its universities.
So how should we think about the DeSantis effort? Is it a legitimate policy initiative grounded in clear voter preference, a valid exercise in our democratic system of government? Or an illicit assault on academic independence and intellectual freedom that must be opposed?
For me, the central fact about higher education is that it is not ethically neutral. Students of traditional college age, 18 to 25, are still developing cognitively, politically and ethically. For them, college is not just a process of learning job skills or imbibing information, but a highly impactful experience in human development. Colleges and universities transmit knowledge, yes, but they also inculcate values. Higher education, in short, is a foundational process of cultural initiation, value formation and character development: one that shapes a student’s long-term path as a human being.
The fact that education is an ethical process, not just an intellectual experience, is totally unproblematic in the private higher education sector. Every private institution is a unique ethical community, free, within very broad constitutional constraints, to develop and pass on its preferred values. Some colleges emphasize playing and watching sports, others the life of the mind. Some valorize business and commerce, others the arts and humanities. Some schools make religion a cornerstone of college; others more or less actively discourage it. Some choose to require a core curriculum, while others give students broad freedom of choice in coursework. All these choices have significant ethical and political ramifications, but that should not worry us. Brigham Young University is very different from Harvard, in ways that matter profoundly, but as long as our country possesses a broad array of different higher education options, and students and their parents are free to choose or not choose to join any particular ethical community, all is well.
This analysis is quite different when we come to public institutions. One of the fundamental tenets of a free society is that the government does not seek to indoctrinate its citizens or require them to think in any particular way. This is the central teaching of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943), where the court held, in the midst of the Second World War against Nazi Germany and fascist Japan, that students in public school cannot be forced to pledge allegiance to the American flag. In that case, Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” When the nation has deviated from this fundamental rule, it has come to regret it. Think, for example, of the plague of McCarthyism in the 1950s or the disastrous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
This basic tenet of our Constitution, one of the foundations of our system of free government, places public higher education in an incredibly difficult position. On the one hand, staff and faculty at colleges and universities must not tell students what to think or believe. On the other hand, crafting an ideologically neutral learning environment, ethically and politically, is impossible. All learning environments, no matter how constituted, have ethical and political ramifications. So how do we square this circle?
In a free society, the only acceptable answer is to protect intellectual and ideological pluralism. Public colleges and universities must present students with a multiplicity of ways of thinking and being, and then leave students make their own choices from this spectrum, free and uncoerced. Any other answer conflicts with the basic teaching of Barnette: that government officials, high or petty, may not tell citizens what to think. This is not neutrality: pluralism is an ideology. But it is the only acceptable ideology in a society committed to freedom of thought and expression. Leadership, faculty and staff at public institutions—and the elected governors and legislators who fund and regulate these institutions—are not free to create communities expressing and inculcating their own ethical and political preferences, like people at private institutions. They are held to a different standard.
What are the implications of this analysis for DeSantis’s higher education policy initiatives? Does the governor’s effort respect pluralism and freedom of thought, or does it impermissibly constrain what students are taught to think and believe?
Some of the governor’s initiatives, I think, clearly fall afoul of Barnette’s requirement of free thought. Banning the teaching of critical race theory, for example, is clearly and definitively a prohibited effort to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” It is unconstitutional and undemocratic. College and university presidents and their faculty have an obligation that ensure that courses subject theories like CRT to criticism and debate, not present them as matters of faith, or, alternatively, to offer additional courses that conduct that essential critique. There may be an argument that in some institutions, this is not being done with sufficient integrity and rigor, and if so, that should be corrected. But an all-out ban on subject matter or a particular set of ideas in a public institution is antithetical to the American system of government.
The effort to rebrand New College as a conservative institution is equally problematic. Public institutions cannot enforce one ideological vision over another, a freedom only private institutions enjoy. If New College has strayed from this principle by failing to provide an intellectual diverse array of courses to its students, then that should be corrected. But turning a liberal college into a conservative one does not solve the problem: it just substitutes an impermissibly right-wing public college for the arguably impermissible left-wing one that exists now.
I am less concerned by the effort to establish centers for the teaching of the Western intellectual tradition at select institutions. As long as students are free to take or ignore these courses as they wish, then I see no real problem. I think it is hard, at this point in time, to deny that there is a liberal and progressive thrust to the teaching of the humanities and social sciences at many institutions. The creation of thoughtful alternatives—courses that present the Western intellectual tradition and subject that tradition to appropriate critique, taught by an intellectually diverse faculty—would be a useful addition at many institutions. If, however, these courses are only taught by conservatives, or veer into indoctrination, then they cross the line. Time will tell which course Florida decides to pursue.
But what about the stickiest issue, the effort to limit or ban diversity, equity and inclusion efforts led by university staff? There is no doubt that staff have to set and enforce standards for how students treat one another. Institutions have to be inclusive, to be open to all and to require students to show one another mutual respect. These efforts cannot, however, stray into dogmatic indoctrination, establishing mandatory ways of understanding complex questions of race, class and gender. The senior leadership of every institution has an obligation to ensure that they achieve this difficult balance. Staff may oversee student relations, to ensure mutual tolerance and respect. They can run programs to help traditionally underrepresented populations thrive in the university setting. They can discipline students who cause actual harm to others. But, as West Virginia v. Barnette teaches us, they cannot seek to impose their own views of social justice on to their charges. That may be appropriate in a private setting, but it is not in a public one. In my view, the extent to which this balance is achieved is a reasonable subject for legislative and regulatory oversight.
Some faculty and staff at public institutions may object that failure to require students to study particular perspectives on social justice or to adopt particular antiracist behaviors, beyond civility and tolerance, sets our nation backward and interferes with their sense of professional responsibility. I have immense respect for this position. I would simply say that in a democratic society in which government actors may not indoctrinate their citizens, such conduct is not permitted at public institutions. That is true not just for liberal or progressive perspectives, but conservative ones as well.
Public institutions differ profoundly from private ones. Private colleges and universities are free to adopt narrow ethical and intellectual standards. Public institutions, in contrast, must be pluralistic in design and in practice. Any governmental policies that ignore this fundamental requirement must be rejected.