To say that the following academic year has been riveting for higher education is an understatement. When Presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard, Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology appeared before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in December 2023, they tried to go down the path of nuance and complexity, guided by legal counsel. The result was a public relations disaster, shortly after which both Gay and Magill resigned. It was widely agreed that the three institutions had suffered serious damage, but not as serious as that which Columbia and several other high-profile campuses have recently suffered.

In retrospect, the three presidents’ decisions to address genuinely complex issues in a complex and nuanced fashion - at the possible cost of their careers - looks admirable. In contrast, Minouche Shafik, the current president of Columbia University, has managed to place herself in the middle of a firing squad with heavy artillery coming from all directions. Students, faculty, donors, alumni, politicians at all levels, and others have viewed Shafik with a jaundiced, disappointed, and wary eye. Many people from across the religious and political spectrum were shocked that she capitulated to arbitrary premises and refused to support fundamental academic principles of sincere inquiry and freedom of expression.

Indeed, such a disregard of any semblance of academic integrity made her look like a rhetorical liberal of the most weak and cowardly kind. The sort of transactional kind who find it more politically advantageous to surrender to a cauldron of thugs as opposed to protecting the frequently uncomfortable, yet nonetheless, crucial principles of free and unrequited speech. Kabuki theater notwithstanding, it would have be surprising if such self-deprecating, week kneed antics had done anything to appease Elise Stefanik, Mike Johnson and the rest of the House Republicans, who had no genuine interest in being placated or presented with any degree of reasonable and rational dialogue.

Many people, including me, vehemently denounce anti-Semitism, one of the oldest and most vile, perverse hatreds in history. Any reasonable person should pause and reflect before concluding that a mostly political cohort of far right wing politicians that conducted the hearings was genuinely interested in protecting Jewish students’ well-being when two of its primary voices included Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, who has avidly touted White nationalist conspiracy theories, and Representative Rick Allen, a right-wing Republican congressman from Georgia, who routinely quoted Bible verses as a vehicle for dictating policy at a religiously diverse, pluralistic, secular university. Rather, the purpose of this supposed “genuine inquiry” was to attack higher education as bastions of critical thinking.

Mind you, these are the same individuals who went on the warpath to curtail holistic learning by disparaging and disrupting K-12 education across the country, prohibiting books by Black, LGBTQIA+, and Jewish authors, and pushing their sinister agenda by making debilitating and devastating incursions into public universities in more than a few states where it is no longer permissible to teach with intellectual truth and honesty about complex subjects such as slavery, race, and gender. However, in Florida you can make the case that “slavery was positive in that it provided ‘workers’ acquired skills that  benefited them during their lives.” It is important to note that workers receive compensation for their labor, whereas slaves did not. Now the House committee is attacking private universities as well.

The campaign against the independence of higher education has now found incendiary fuel from a new ally: a long-standing, well-organized movement of right-wing billionaires hell-bent on stifling, if not, outright eradicating non-White curricula and culture in art spaces, literary venues, public schools, and the larger society in general. For decades, this effort has relied on the false premise that any intense expression of a diverse, multi-religious, multicultural narrative is an attack on Judeo-Christian culture. Such a perverse notion is intellectually dishonest and absurd.

The truth is that conservatives have long used a racist playbook as a guide to political victory. Examples include the mid-1960s when the far right seized control of the Republican Party from the moderate Rockefeller wing; Richard Nixon’s infamous Southern strategy in 1968 and 1972; Ronald Reagan’s “big Black Bucks and welfare queens” trope that he invoked during his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964 for defending universal human rights; George H. W. Bush’s racist stereotyping of Willie Horton in 1988; and George W. Bush’s “protection from terrorism” and the Obama birther conspiracy theories in 2008.

We are now well into another crucial election year in an America that remains heavily politically polarized. The racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of White grievance that Donald Trump and his campaign intentionally and sinisterly agitated during his victory in 2016 and were narrowly defeated in 2020 have returned in 2024 with an additional list of fresh faces whose targets remain largely the same: women, non-Whites, immigrants, and those deemed “other.”

A university’s role is to teach students how to think critically and courageously. The college campus is the supposed citadel for the rational examination and exchange of ideas. This means that students might indeed feel unsettled when their world views differ from their peers’ or when what they discuss in class  -  or hear on campus  -  challenges their beliefs. This can be a positive thing. University education involves learning to engage in disagreement, even confrontation, and to contest ideas rather than seek to suppress them.

If we are being honest, the truth is that Elise Stefanik, Virginia Foxx, and their Republican colleagues have no real interest in solving campus problems. Their goal is to expose supposed liberal elites as dangerous, sinister, immoral, amoral, anti-American, and indicative of everything that is supposedly wrong with America. In contrast, they falsely promote themselves as heroic saviors capable of and determined to attack such sinister enemies into submission, if not outright silence. Such an effort cannot be allowed to succeed for the survival of higher education or our nation’s future.

BlackCommentator.com Guest

Commentator, Dr. Elwood Watson,

Historian, public speaker, and cultural

critic is a professor at East Tennessee

State University and author of the recent

book, Keepin' It Real: Essays on Race in

Contemporary America (University of

Chicago Press), which is available in

paperback and on Kindle via Amazon and

other major book retailers. Cotnact

Dr.Watson and BC.