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United States: Liberal domination under fire

Politicians’ claims that universities around the world (India included) are systematically prejudiced against researchers and students with conservative views raise the prospect that universities could become key battlegrounds in a new age of “culture wars”.

President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, lit a fire under the long-standing debate over supposed liberal bias in academia in a speech delivered to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland in late February. After asking how many in the audience at the biggest conservative conference in the US were college students, she said: “The fight against the education establishment extends to you, too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights (including free speech) of people with whom you disagree.”

In the Netherlands, parties of the Right recently passed a motion in Parliament that “asks the government to request advice and consideration from the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences” about “whether self-censorship and limitation of diversity of perspectives” is rife in the country’s universities and research institutes. Pieter Duisenberg, the member of the House of Representatives for the centre-right VVD who proposed the motion, told Times Higher Education that he put forward the plan after being approached by conservative academics who felt discriminated against in being denied senior posts and in research funding. The American-born politician also cited the Heterodox Academy, a group of US professors that warns of “loss of viewpoint diversity” and advocates “a more intellectually diverse” academy.

While the Dutch Parliament motion shows debates about claims of liberal bias in universities is spreading beyond the US, in America these debates are reaching a new intensity under Trump’s presidency. Before DeVos’ intervention, the president had already issued a Twitter threat to strip the University of California, Berkeley of federal funding over its perceived failure to safeguard the free speech of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos when it cancelled his speech on safety grounds following violent protests. Meanwhile, a Republican state senator in Iowa, Mark Chelgren, recently filed a bill that aims to force the state’s public universities to take into account the registered political party affiliations of prospective professors when hiring, to ensure a “partisan balance”.

A. Lee Fritschler, one of the authors of the 2008 book Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, says: “I think the rhetoric is going to increase in this country about universities being… centres of opposition.” 

Andrew Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars and professor of history at Illinois State University, suggests that “culture wars about the universities will be intense during the Trump years”. “I think the Trump administration, following the trajectory of the GOP (Republican Party), is likely to be the most anti-intellectual since perhaps the 1920s,” he says. “So the debate will be about whether society should subsidise humanities learning.”

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