Ellen Schrecker Commentary on “The 50-Year War on Higher Education” 

The 50-Year War on Higher Education

Dear Commons Community,

Ellen Schrecker, retired professor from Yeshiva university and author of The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s,  has a guest essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “The 50-Year War on Higher Education.”  Her message is that to understand today’s political battles in academia, you need to know how they began going back to the 1960s and 1970s. 

Here are two excerpts from her essay:

“We’re under siege in Florida,” said Paul Ortiz, president of the faculty union at the University of Florida. He was responding to the recent firing of the head of the university’s honors program for no apparent reason — unless, as some people speculated, he was fired for overseeing the construction of a new honors dorm that will have gender-neutral bathrooms.

The mysterious firing was only the latest in a series of attacks on higher education in the Sunshine State pushed by its ambitious governor, Ron DeSantis. Besides the highly touted “Don’t Say Gay” law, Florida’s educators must now navigate around measures that ban teaching critical race theory and other “divisive” concepts. They also face threats to eliminate tenure and allow students to film their classes so that they can report on their professors’ political biases.

While Florida is the epicenter of the current political assault on higher education, it is not alone. Over the past two years, legislators in dozens of states introduced nearly 200 measures aimed at limiting how students are taught about racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression in U.S. history. Although primarily directed at K-12 education, colleges are experiencing the chilling effects. McCarthyism persecuted individual professors because of their politics; today’s gag rules threaten to destroy what’s left of academic freedom in public higher education, which has already been weakened by years of economic austerity and political harassment.

To understand what’s happening, you need to see how the backlash against higher education began. You need to trace its roots in the 1960s, its evolution through the culture wars of the 1980s and ‘90s, and into the current populist fray. Then you need to do something about it. Professors, administrators, students, and concerned citizens can no longer stand on the sidelines, shaking our heads and deploring the potentially devastating consequences. The simple truth is this: For decades, outside forces have — both consciously and unintentionally — undermined the integrity and quality of public higher education in America. And time and time again, a divided academic community has failed to combat them effectively. We can and must do better. Seeds of resistance are sprouting. Together, we must nurture their growth. There is no time to lose…

… Higher education might have bounced back from its troubles once the economy did in the 1980s. But a powerful coterie of wealthy businessmen and free-market ideologues sought to delegitimize the university as part of a broader campaign to shrink the state.

That plan was laid out in a widely circulated memorandum, written by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the summer of 1971, that called on leading businessmen to reshape America’s political culture. Believing that radical students posed an existential threat to the free-enterprise system, Powell urged corporate officials to pay particular attention to higher education. To oust the left from the main institutions of American life, the business community would have to throw vast resources into taking over the media, the legal system, and, of course, the university.

By the time Powell produced his memo, the campaign he espoused was already underway. As works like Nancy MacLean’s 2017 exposé, Democracy in Chains, reveal, a handful of conservative foundations and wealthy individuals were constructing a network of activists and intellectuals to disseminate an anti-statist ideology, while delegitimizing the liberalism that had dominated U.S. political culture since the New Deal. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into think tanks and publications designed to supply policy makers and the media with expertise that had previously been supplied by mainstream academics.

The conservative foundations also created a shadow academy. They endowed professorships, supported free-market economics departments, and developed programs that pushed the virtues of free enterprise at dozens of universities. Brand-name colleges got their share, but so too did lower-tier regional institutions like Middle Tennessee State University and Virginia’s George Mason University. Funders sought out promising conservative students, subsidizing their publications and political organizations and sponsoring their future careers. By the 1980s, these efforts had created a chorus of seemingly respectable voices delivering a devastating critique of the traditional university.”

Schrecker is correct in her analysis.  Higher education is currently under siege from the right but the seeds started decades ago. In my opinion,  the Powell Memorandum was most instrumental in lying the groundwork for the “siege.”


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