Manufacturing Backlash: Right-Wing Think Tanks and Legislative Attacks on Higher Education, 2021–2023

By Isaac Kamola

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Executive Summary

During the 2021, 2022, and 2023 state legislative sessions more than one hundred and fifty bills were introduced seeking to actively undermine academic freedom and university autonomy. This includes nearly one hundred academic gag orders affecting higher education, such as those restricting the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) and other so-called “divisive concepts.” These academic gag orders were shortly followed by efforts to undermine campus diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), bills weakening tenure and accreditation, and legislation mandating “viewpoint diversity” and academic programming, often in ways that circumvented faculty governance over the curriculum. This legislative onslaught has been understood as simply an effect of America’s highly polarized politics. However, as this white paper demonstrates, this legislation has been pushed by a network of right-wing and libertarian think tanks, working closely with Republican politicians, to manufacture a culture war backlash against educators and academic institutions.

This white paper explores eleven think tanks that have helped created a self-reinforcing echo chamber of reports, commentary, webinars, op-eds, and other content villainizing faculty and academic institutions. Many of these same organizations also develop model legislation and lobby in support of bills designed to address this manufactured “crisis.” For example, partisan political activist Christopher Rufo developed and deployed the strategy of weaponizing CRT from his positions within the Manhattan Institute and other affiliated think tanks. This politicized misrepresentation of scholarship became the justification for President Trump’s September 2020 executive order “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” later recycled as the divisive concepts model legislation introduced in state houses around the country.  By 2023, 100,000 college and university professors had been affected by these academic gag orders.

Chapter 1 provides a general overview of the well-funded and networked political infrastructure that launched the culture war backlash to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. It does so by examining two of President Trump’s executive orders: Executive Order 13958 (establishing the 1776 Commission) and Executive Order 13950 (banning federal trainings that engage in so-called “racial stereotyping”). These orders exemplify how as early as September 2020 a well-funded think tank infrastructure was already gearing up to criticize educators and academic institutions as part of a political response to the Black Lives Matter protests.

The second chapter examines eleven think tanks that have played a significant role fomenting this culture war against higher education. Many of these think tanks work closely with one another, often sharing personnel and board members, amplifying each other’s work, pushing similar messaging, and supporting shared political objectives. This level of coordination is unsurprising given that these think tanks also receive money from the same libertarian and conservative megadonors.

Chapter 3 examines the evolution of the first academic gag orders introduced in 2021. The first round of gag orders were highly heterogeneous and focused primarily on mandatory campus trainings. This changed, however, with the arrival of model legislation drawn from Executive Order 13950 and adapted by the Center for Renewing America and the Heritage Foundation. As academic gag orders became more prevalent, they increasingly targeted not only campus training but also classroom content as well.

Chapter 4 demonstrates that by 2023 this political infrastructure began moving beyond policing CRT and divisive concepts to increasingly focus on campus DEI initiatives. The think tank echo chamber emphasized campus DEI efforts and introduced a new round of model bills outlawing DEI training, the use of diversity statements in hiring and promotion, hiring policies aimed at increasing faculty diversity, and, in some cases, even cut funding to DEI offices and staff entirely. Many of the anti-DEI bills drew specifically upon statutory language enacted previously as academic gag orders.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine bills designed to weaken tenure and the accreditation process. Both tenure and accreditation serve as institutional protections against undue political influence in higher education. Several states which had been the most aggressive in waging a culture war against higher education, including Florida and Texas, attempted to weaken these protections. Taken together, these bills represent a concerted efforts to make public colleges and universities more susceptible to external political influence.

The final chapter examines bills that weaken academic governance in ways that make it possible for politicians and activist governing boards to shape the content of university classrooms. These bills include efforts to enforce viewpoint diversity, to create campus centers and programs outside of faculty oversight, and, in the case of Florida, to allow governing boards to unilaterally decide which classes can be counted towards core requirements. These bills represent efforts to remake universities themselves, with Republican politicians exerting greater control over the content taught on university campuses.

In summary, this white paper demonstrates that:

  • Since during the 2021, 2022, and 2023 legislative session there have been nearly 150 bills introduced in 35 states. Of these bills, 21 were signed into law.

  • Florida, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina have seen multiple bills signed into law. These laws reenforce each other in ways that subject academic freedom and institutional autonomy at public universities to particularly intense pressures.

  • This partisan strategy of targeting higher education was not arbitrary but developed within a well-funded network of highly partisan think tanks.

  • Since 2020 this network of right-wing and libertarian think tanks began churning out a narrative that higher education is pressuring students to embrace “woke ideology” and that universities are beholden to CRT and DEI, a narrative that is generally hostile to viewpoint diversity. This think tank echo chamber ignores the actual scholarship about race, gender, American history, and Western civilization and instead recycles a deeply caricatured vision of what takes place on campus and in the classroom.

  • This manufactured culture war narrative and the legislation it inspires has had a chilling effect on faculty.

  • This chilling effect is intensified by increasingly aggressive efforts to weaken tenure and accreditation, two institutions historically designed to protect academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

  • This legislative attack also empowers governing boards and state politicians to create programs and centers teaching preferred conservative content.