The right's war on higher ed won't stop with Claudine Gay
It was never about plagiarism.
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On Tuesday, Harvard President Claudine Gay, the first Black person to lead the school, stepped down after a concerted effort by right-wing culture warriors to force her out. Ostensibly, Gay resigned over allegations she had plagiarized works from other scholars, including those in her dissertation. In reality, she’s the latest casualty of the long-running conservative war on higher education.
Gay’s resignation comes less than a month after Liz Magill was forced out as head of the University of Pennsylvania. Magill, Gay, and MIT President Sally Kornbluth testified at a congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses in early December, and each of them gave answers that conservatives claimed were inadequate or antisemitic.
Magill’s ouster led Rep. Elise Stefanik to tweet, “One down. Two to go.” Stefanik is pretending she’s coming from a space of support for the Jewish community, but that pretense is absurd in the face of her past support for the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. The Great Replacement is a white supremacist worldview based on the idea that Democrats, in concert with — or perhaps manipulated by — Jewish people, are working to replace white Americans with non-white immigrants. Stefanik is also a MAGA devotee who somehow has never had any trouble with Trump’s overt antisemitism.
After Magill resigned, the right pivoted to going after Gay. Gay’s apparent failure to mollify congressional hardliners like Stefanik didn’t induce Harvard to fire her, so the right found another approach: alleging that Gay was a serial plagiarist. What was really at play, however, was that moneyed Harvard donors like conservative hedge fund billionaire and Kyle Rittenhouse superfan Bill Ackman believed Gay was an unqualified affirmative action pick and wanted her gone.
Enter, yet again, Christopher Rufo, who called Gay a “serial plagiarist, middling scholar, and DEI totem” and whipped conservatives into a frenzy, demanding her ouster.
Rufo leads the culture war
These days, Rufo is likely the most visible conservative attacking higher education, having joined forces with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to overtake and undermine that state’s previously well-regarded public university system. However, Rufo is less a strategist and more a high-profile clown, the court jester who claims he has a master’s from Harvard when he actually went to Harvard Extension School and spends his days taunting people on X. For someone ostensibly concerned about classical rigor and excellence in higher education, Rufo’s near-total lack of background in higher education is galling. But Rufo isn’t interested in academics. He’s interested in being a conservative provocateur and owning the libs.
In this way, Rufo functions much as Donald Trump does — someone who is happy to clearly explain the havoc they want to wreak while more “respectable” conservatives work behind the scenes to enact hard-right policies. In 2021, Rufo bragged on social media about successfully driving up negative perceptions of critical race theory as a catch-all term for things right-wingers don’t like. After Gay was forced out, Rufo gleefully posted that Gay had been SCAPLED.
Yes, Rufo managed to misspell his dogwhistle.
Alone, Rufo would likely make little progress precisely because he’s so over-the-top that, much like Trump circa 2015, people wouldn’t take him as a serious threat. But behind Rufo are serious people with serious money and serious goals. Politicians in red states have spent years trying to eliminate tenure and regulate what can be taught. They’re currently succeeding at stripping diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) funding and jobs at state colleges and universities.
The conservative Heritage Foundation, where Rufo used to be a fellow, wants to “dismantle” accreditation of higher education institutions so that “innovative start-ups” could “harness the potential of new learning modes.” That might initially sound like harmless corporate-speak word salad, but we’ve already seen what happens in higher education when there is no oversight or accreditation.
Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, another “education reformer” with no background in education, undid President Obama’s gainful employment rule. That rule required certain career training programs, often for-profit ones, to show that people who graduated from the program could obtain meaningful employment that would allow them to pay back federal loans. Those schools would have been required to post debt-to-earnings ratios, so prospective students could more fairly assess whether taking out loans to attend the school would lead to success in obtaining a job in the field. The DOE could revoke federal funding if schools failed to meet certain debt-to-earnings metrics.
DeVos also made it tougher for victims of predatory for-profit colleges to obtain federal loan forgiveness. For-profit schools hoover up money from students using federal funding, such as Pell Grants and the GI Bill, and then drive those students tens of thousands of dollars in debt when the grants don’t cover enough. Ultimately, only roughly 30 percent of students enrolled in for-profit four-year colleges finish their degrees within six years.
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For those folks who always want to argue that both sides are the same, it’s worth noting that President Biden reinstated the gainful employment rule and made it even more robust than the Obama-era version. Besides the requirement to meet debt-to-earnings metrics, the rule adds an earnings premium test. That test will measure whether the median earnings of graduates from the program or school are greater than someone with only a high school diploma. The administration has also wiped out student loan debt for tens of thousands of students who attended now-shuttered predatory for-profit schools like ITT Tech.
The mainstream media gets played
It’s worth remembering that right-wing “reform” isn’t limited to higher education. At the K-12 level, conservatives have succeeded in shifting millions away from public education and toward vouchers for charter schools, homeschooling, and religious schools.
Last year, Oklahoma approved the country’s first religious charter school, to be run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa. Unlike existing voucher schemes whereby the government gives money to parents to give to non-public schools, this school would be fully funded by tax dollars going directly to the Catholic Church, which would provide explicitly religious instruction.
This is a clear-cut violation of the separation of church and state, and it should be a slam dunk to block this school from opening. However, in the past several years, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that states have to give tax-credit scholarships to religious schools if they are also available for sectarian private schools, fund religious education at private religious schools when there is no public school in town, and let school personnel pray in public, including leading students in prayer. There’s no reason to think the religious conservatives who dominate the Court won’t come up with a reason that giving tax money directly to churches is not only fine but necessary.
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This war will always be an asymmetric one. There’s no corresponding centrist or leftist goal of obliterating conservative institutions, despite the fact conservatives are utterly convinced their lives and values are always under attack. No group of liberals has banded together to try to force out presidents at schools like Liberty University or Hillsdale College. No left-wing educators are demanding those schools hire them and allow them to teach whatever they wish.
The right wouldn’t be nearly as successful at this without hefty assistance from a mainstream media all too willing to launder their bad-faith claims. As Georgetown political science professor Don Moynihan noted, the New York Times ran 13 stories about Gay in 10 days. CNN ran an overwrought headline complaining that Gay’s initial corrections to her publications did not address “her clearest instances of plagiarism” before mentioning that all the new allegations came from the hyper-conservative Free Beacon. In this way they played directly into the hands of Rufo, who publicly announced his intention to “smuggle” the Gay plagiarism story “into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her.”
Now, Rufo, Ackman, and friends are utterly emboldened and are turning their attention to MIT’s Sally Kornbluth. Upon learning of the news of Gay’s resignation, Ackman posted, “Et tu [you too] Sally?” while Stefanik gloated, “TWO DOWN.” Presumably, the outrage machine will pivot back to allegations of antisemitism rather than attacking Kornbluth, who is white, as a diversity hire. That might be a bit of a harder sell in this instance, as Kornbluth is Jewish.
However, right-wingers neither need nor value consistency. Accusing them of hypocrisy or calling them out for their opportunistic behavior does nothing because they simply don’t care. Rufo will gleefully explain to anyone who will listen that he latched on to attacking critical race theory because it is a “promising political weapon” rather than something borne out of deep conviction. And thanks to the credulity of the mainstream media, none of these people will ever suffer the slightest consequence for their inconsistencies.
The New York Times will continue to give Rufo guest opinion columns to complain about DEI. The Washington Post will continue to treat cynical attacks on female college presidents as a both-sides free speech debate. CNN’s Jake Tapper will continue to frame Gay’s alleged plagiarism as a real issue rather than a trumped-up way to force her out. Until the media is prepared to push back against these bad-faith actors, naming and shaming and explaining their actions rather than regurgitating articles from the Free Beacon or the Daily Caller, the right-wing war on higher education is going to continue to rack up wins.
That’s it for today
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