Republican governors are pushing several higher education reform efforts to counter culture wars on college campuses.
Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia have made education policy a staple of their governing platforms.
Higher education reform efforts include calls to defund diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, crack down on Critical Race Theory (CRT) mandated in classrooms, reverse the surge of gender ideology and walk back tenure — a controversial stance from professors on both sides of the political aisle.
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DeSantis made higher education reform a focal point of his 2023 legislative agenda, announcing on Jan. 31 that his proposed legislation would “bring more accountability to the higher education system” by prioritizing “education not indoctrination” and strengthening civics curriculum. His agenda includes a call to defund DEI initiatives and favor education “rooted in the values of liberty and western tradition,” tighten tenure policies by requiring post-tenure review at any time and pouring $15 million into New College of Florida — where he recently appointed six conservative board members who have already begun stripping the school of its DEI programs.
The administration also requested public colleges and universities submit reports detailing how much money was spent to fund DEI programs and the number of transgender patients treated at university-affiliated health centers.
Like DeSantis, Youngkin also appointed conservative trustees to several university boards including the Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia, according to Inside Higher Ed. He is also focused on protecting free speech on college campuses and keeping tuition rates low for students, Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s spokeswoman, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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“The governor called on all colleges and universities to adopt free speech measures and keep tuition flat for Virginia’s students; all Virginia colleges and universities have complied with his requests,” she said. “The governor has continually led on education and has developed an education roadmap by removing divisive concepts from our schools, restoring excellence in education, and fostering free speech and diversity of thought on our campuses.”
Jonathan Butcher, a Will Skillman fellow in education at the Heritage Foundation, told the DCNF that freezing tuition costs and making “more effective use of resources so that students are not having to pay sky-high tuition costs that increase every year” should be an important focus for state governors across the country.
Abbott’s Chief of Staff Gardner Pate sent a letter to Texas university leaders on Feb. 6 warning that using taxpayer money to support DEI programs is illegal and that they cannot require applicants to submit a statement detailing commitments to advancing DEI during the hiring or admission process.
Several university systems, including the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, and University of Houston, have since stopped mandating diversity statements to comply with the order.
“As Texans, we celebrate the diversity of our State and the presence of a workforce that represents our rich culture,” Pate wrote. “In recent years, however, the innocuous-sounding notion of [DEI] has been manipulated to push policies that expressly favor some demographic groups to the detriment of others.”
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Other Republican states have responded to the heightened attention being cast on the prevalence of DEI on campus. West Virginia and Utah filed bills that would ban using diversity statements as an application factor for university hiring while South Carolina and Oklahoma followed Florida’s lead in requesting the total amount dedicated to funding DEI programs.
“I think increasingly we see state lawmakers saying what we’ve known for some time, that the research on DEI offices … do not produce improved levels of tolerance,” Butcher said. “They don’t change behaviors of people who go through DEI training programs.”
The Abbott administration has also targeted tenure policies. Republican Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responded in February 2022 to a University of Texas at Austin Faculty Council vote supporting CRT by promising to eliminate tenure from all public universities, and reinforced this idea ahead of the 2023 legislative session by marking tenure elimination as a top priority.
“Tenured professors must not be able to hide behind the phrase ‘academic freedom,’ and then proceed to poison the minds of our next generation,” he said in 2022.
But while calls for tenure reform are popular among Republican lawmakers, professors previously warned the DCNF that restricting tenure could backfire for conservative faculty.
Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College and author of “The Conservative Case for Tenure,” told the DCNF that he may have been fired “a long time ago” if he did not have tenure protection and explained that tenured professors can still be fired if they aren’t adequately doing their job.
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Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Inside Higher Ed that 2024 candidates won’t focus on higher education issues such as student debt, but will gravitate toward the culture wars.
“That doesn’t sell, or it doesn’t sell to very many people,” he explained. “But you start talking about cultural issues—‘they’re destroying our culture, they don’t believe in God,’ blah, blah, blah—and pretty soon you’ve got a lot of people showing up at your rallies, screaming bloody murder.”
DeSantis and Abbott’s offices did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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