Subnational Authoritarianism and the Campaign to Control Higher Education

Understanding state-level attacks on colleges and universities.
By Jennifer Ruth

What contemporary politician “singled out higher education” by “mandating new curricula, barring the discussion of certain controversial topics in the classroom, and installing political allies as university leaders”? Xi Jinping, president of the People’s Republic of China, is the leader Karin Fischer had in mind in her February 21, 2023, Chronicle of Higher Education article, though perhaps Florida governor Ron DeSantis or another US right-wing culture warrior came to your mind. The similarities between the governance of the Chinese Communist Party, an authoritarian regime, and that in several states with Republican-dominated legislatures should give us pause. Indeed, campaigns to delegitimize universities as trusted sources of information are commonplace in other authoritarian countries as well. In his 2022 book Campus Misinformation, Bradford Vivian notes the resemblance between US culture wars targeting higher education and “anti-university campaigns in Russia, Hungary, Poland, and Brazil.” Promoting misleading claims about what happens on campuses and caricaturing programs and bodies of work that do not enforce the patriarchal and racial logics favored by “strong man” leaders, authoritarians regularly discredit higher education by engendering public contempt for it. But if we’re searching for family resemblances to current efforts to suppress civil liberties, we need only look to our own past in the United States.

Political scientists Edward L. Gibson and Robert Mickey point to the period after Reconstruction in the southern states as a model comparative case of what is sometimes termed subnational authoritarianism. A “situation of regime juxtaposition, in which a large and unambiguously authoritarian assemblage of state governments coexisted with a national democratic government, lasted for the better part of a century,” Gibson writes in Boundary Control: Subnational Authoritarianism in Federal Democracies. Southern Democrats actively sought out—and invented—legal means through which to reassert traditional patterns of dominance and restore white supremacy in the region. “Between 1890 and 1908,” Gibson observes, “most southern states held constitutional conventions that did away with the Reconstruction era constitutions and enshrined the legal bases for hegemonic party rule.” These means constituted what he calls an “institutional revolution,” one demonstrating “a very high level of intraregional coordination between state power holders.”

Today, in the throes of a new “American whitelash,” to borrow a term coined by journalist Wesley Lowery, right-wing politicians are fighting to turn the clock back by again elevating states’ rights in order to deny select groups of citizens their civil liberties. Faced with the evolving demographics of the United States and what once seemed like a steady expansion of federally mandated rights, dominant elements of the Republican Party seek to retain, or regain, power by insisting on jingoistic versions of patriotism, simplistic narratives of national history, and rigid boundaries for gender and sexual identity. A high degree of intraregional coordination characterizes the movement, as lawmakers in different states learn from one another and draw from the same set of right-wing think tanks and policy foundations to build near-identical platforms. Florida’s Ron DeSantis, with conservative activist and Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo whispering in his ear, stands at the forefront. As Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn wrote in Inside Higher Ed earlier this year, “DeSantis’s ‘reform’ of public higher education is providing a blueprint that fellow partisans are eagerly emulating elsewhere. What is happening in Florida, therefore, is what is also occurring in Texas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Idaho, North Dakota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Kansas, and other red states. The countermajoritarian agenda of the radical right is to fashion an autocratic regime that will secure its ongoing dominance when conventional democratic mechanisms, especially elections, no longer guarantee that end.” Overreaching politicians attempt to shape their states’ colleges and universities in their own image by manipulating funding; expanding legislative oversight; banning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices; eliminating or weakening tenure; imposing educational gag orders; making targeted political appointments; and attacking accreditation agencies. Taken together, the tactics in the right-wing campaign to control higher education usher in a new era of subnational authoritarianism.

Evolution of a Campaign

While state legislatures traditionally enjoy a modicum of power over their public institutions of higher education, the aggressive and direct interference typifying Republican-dominated legislatures today is unprecedented. Such interference destroys the integrity of these institutions by subjugating them to patently partisan agendas. Though a general timeline for the conservative campaign to reshape higher education in this country might start in any number of places—the 1951 publication of William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom”; the launch of the conservative long game with the 1971 Lewis Powell memorandum, which laid out a blueprint for corporate control of the American political system; the 1990s culture wars over tenured radicals and political correctness; Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s 2015 moves to erode tenure—for the purposes of this narrower analysis of state-level legislative campaigns, we can begin with President Donald Trump’s September 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotypes. That executive order was itself part of a larger backlash against the racial reckoning prompted by George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. The order was immediately rescinded by President Joe Biden once he took office, but it reappeared at the state level as Republican legislators proposed a staggering number of bills over the following months and years. This rapid spread from state to state repeats a pattern familiar from the period between Reconstruction and Brown v. Board of Education, whereby states responded to national developments by leveraging mechanisms made possible by the federated structure of the American system to undermine civil liberties within their borders.

Trump’s executive order targeted diversity trainings and introduced the notion of “divisive concepts,” which would become a staple of many of the state bills (see, for example, David Barber’s discussion of legislation in Tennessee elsewhere in this issue). The executive order opens with an extraordinary act of gaslighting by anchoring its “purpose” in the “heroic Americans” who, “from the battlefield of Gettysburg to the bus boycott in Montgomery and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches,” “risked their lives to ensure that their children would grow up in a Nation living out its creed, expressed in the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Despite its ham-handedness, this move to reframe a national reckoning with historical and systemic racism by labeling it divisive and anti-American has succeeded to a shocking degree, as rhetoric championing colorblindness and painting antiracism as the new racism has created an environment in which state legislators and attorneys general invoke the Declaration of Independence and the Fourteenth Amendment to dismantle long-standing as well as recent initiatives to rectify centuries of oppression and injustice.

Between January 2021 and June 2023, the Trump executive order metastasized into at least ninety-nine bills proposed by right-wing politicians in thirty-three states, finding great success in states with Republican-dominated legislatures. According to PEN America, twenty-two bills restricting the autonomy of higher education were introduced, and thirteen such provisions became law or policy in nine states. “While many of these bills were clearly inspired by the Trump executive order, together this raft of bills attempts to impose a far more sweeping and society-wide change,” the authors of Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn, and Teach, an important early report from PEN America, wrote. “Specifically,” they observed, “while the Trump EO primarily applied to government trainers and contractors as well as military personnel, the great majority of the state-level bills would extend these prohibitions to all state schools and/or colleges and universities.” The joint American Federation of Teachers (AFT)–AAUP report The Right-Wing Attacks on Higher Education: An Analysis of the State Legislative Landscape identifies four categories of bills: those limiting teaching about race, gender, and sexual orientation (so-called divisive-concepts bills); those requiring intellectual and viewpoint diversity statements and surveys; those cutting funding for or outlawing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts; and those ending faculty tenure. Some bills reach beyond the academic functions of a university to dictate rules pertaining to athletics, seeking to police trans students by enforcing rigid notions of gender and sexual identity.

Early bills often sought to prohibit curricula grounded in critical race theory or the New York Times’s 1619 Project, arguing that they were divisive or made some (presumably white) students uncomfortable, but by 2022 the bills extended to other topics, particularly those relating to LGBTQ issues. They also increased in number. According to a 2022 PEN America report, “In the month of January alone, 18 different educational gag order bills were filed in Missouri, 8 in Indiana, and 6 in Arizona (including 1 amendment to the state constitution). By the time most legislative sessions wound down in June, virtually every state where Republicans controlled at least one legislative chamber had considered an educational gag order that year. The only exceptions were Arkansas, which had already passed a gag order the previous year, and states whose legislatures do not meet in 2022.” The numbers above include attacks on K–12 education, but the PEN authors note that 2022 witnessed a growing number of bills targeting higher education: “Of the 137 educational gag order bills introduced, 39 percent have targeted colleges and universities, compared to 30 percent of those filed in 2021. Of the bills that have become law in 2022, 57 percent targeted higher education, compared with just 25 percent of the new laws last year. There has also been a significant increase in the number of bills designed to regulate non-public educational institutions, including private universities.” Bills promoting “curriculum transparency,” making it easier to assert bureaucratic state-level control through defunding, and ones including reporting mechanisms to expand surveillance of faculty members also increased in 2022 and in 2023. As of July 14, 2023, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s DEI legislation tracker listed forty-four bills in twenty-two states, of which twenty-nine failed or were tabled and seven passed into law.

The State of State Legislation

In an update on 2023 legislative sessions published in February, PEN America reported that “lawmakers have continued to introduce ‘anti-CRT’ and ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills with regularity [and] they have outdone one another in a race to the bottom, finding new, more extreme, and more conspiratorial ways to impose censorious government dictates on teaching and learning.” In the race to the bottom, Florida and Texas stand out. Florida’s Senate Bill 266 is shocking in its approach and scope. It prohibits the use of any state or federal funding to promote, support, or maintain any programs or activities relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It also prohibits spending on anything that could be perceived as political or social activism. It requires review of general education courses to ensure compliance—reviews that could lead to “the realignment, removal, or addition” of courses. It gives boards of trustees and the governor more power in hiring and in terminations of appointments and erodes tenure protections. The companion bill to SB 266, House Bill 999, was even more extreme, turning “Florida’s colleges and universities into an arm of the DeSantis political operation,” as AAUP president Irene Mulvey, AFT president Randi Weingarten, and National Coalition against Censorship executive director Chris Finan said in a joint statement released on February 27, 2023.

In drafting HB 999, DeSantis and his advisers clearly drew inspiration from authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán, who has imposed the imprint of his right-wing government on the Hungarian university system. And, in turn, Republican politicians in Texas have drawn inspiration from DeSantis. This year, during Texas’s regular legislative session, which ended in May 2023, the legislature introduced a trifecta of bills (Senate Bills 16, 17, and 18, discussed in greater detail elsewhere in this issue by Karma R. Chávez) that “would have the direct effect of removing tenure protections from faculty, closing avenues of legitimate scholarly inquiry and debate that politicians wish closed, and ending efforts to pursue equity and diversity in institutions of higher education,” according to an AAUP-AFT legislative analysis. SB 16, prohibiting the “compelling” of belief, “is censorship masquerading as academic freedom,” Democratic state senator Sarah Eckhardt said, and will ensure that “our Texas institutions of higher education are nothing but echo chambers.” All three bills passed, though legislators modified SB 18 to weaken tenure rather than abolish it entirely.

In Texas, as in other states, educational gag orders and related legislation must be viewed against the backdrop of state politics more generally. Texas is neck-deep in culture wars. The state has seen some of the most contentious K–12 school board battles in the country. Activist parents who originally organized to oppose masks and vaccines, often with support from outside groups, are now banning books and forcing superintendents to resign. They strive to remake public schools in their own white, Christian image—or, as some speculate, to sabotage public education in order to shift funding to state vouchers for private schools. Higher education is both a direct target and a casualty of these culture wars that claim to champion “parental rights” while simultaneously criminalizing parents of trans children and depriving women of reproductive choices. Demographics are another variable. In Texas, white people are no longer the largest group in the state, as had been the case since 1850. Texas has had a long uphill battle to diversify its elite colleges and universities, and they remain predominantly white institutions. Nonetheless, SB 17, a bill banning diversity, equity, and inclusion offices, goes into effect in fall 2023, with Texas colleges and universities likely to lose millions of dollars in grant funding as a result.

The future introduction of state-level legislation interfering in the functions of the university seems inevitable. Tenure; curricula, especially as they relate to the study of race, gender, and sexuality; diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and faculty diversity statements used in hiring and review processes; the structures of authority over faculty appointments and dismissals; and policies related to gender and sexual identity—all remain targets in the ongoing right-wing campaign for control over higher education. “Zombie bills” that fail to pass but are revised and reintroduced in future sessions or inserted into other legislation are a perennial threat. Ohio’s Senate Bill 83, which sought to ban faculty strikes and mandatory DEI programs, failed, but as Ohio AAUP executive director Sara Kilpatrick writes in her dispatch for this issue, faculty in Ohio are prepared for its reintroduction in the fall. Republican-proposed bills that did not pass in blue states are ready to be reintroduced if elections change the balance of legislative power. For example, Oregon’s Senate Bill 741, on “syllabus transparency,” might require only a few changed seats to become viable, and it would likely be followed by legislation defunding curricula Republican legislators find objectionable.

Accreditation agencies, which some saw as a source of hope in the defense against these attacks, are themselves now targets of legislation and lawsuits. Writing in April 2023 about the role of accreditation agencies in checking overreaching partisan politicians, Lawrence Schall observed that “it may very well be the job of accreditors, as unpopular as it may be with some, to hold our institutions—and those who would choose to control what’s taught in them—to the long-standing principles that have served us all very well.” The next month, Trump boasted that he would “fire” accreditors. Also in May, Burgess Owens, a Republican state representative in Utah, introduced the Accreditation for College Excellence Act, designed to prevent accreditation agencies from including DEI criteria in their evaluations of colleges and universities. In June, anticipating the possibility that the federal government might seek to withdraw federal funding from Florida’s public universities if his racist and transphobic “reforms” passed into law, DeSantis sued the Biden administration over the role of accreditation agencies in enforcing standards, calling them “cartels.” “This lawsuit,” a statement released by DeSantis’s office declares, “seeks to strip private, unaccountable accreditors of their authority to stand in the way of Florida’s higher education reforms.”

Takeaways from the Legislative Attacks

It is important to underscore three points about the many bills introduced over the last three years.

First, they are often exceedingly vague and confusing, leading to arbitrary application and enforcement. Historically, vaguely written laws are the most effective at creating a chilling climate that leads to self-censorship. In the highly charged environment of the culture wars, educators are keenly aware of the legislation but don’t know when or how it might affect their jobs and job security. Administrators, subject to the same fears and confusion, are unable to provide guidance and likely to err on the side of encouraging self-censorship. “Much of the laws’ chilling effect has stemmed not from . . . instances of overt enforcement by state agencies,” states PEN America, “but from administrative censorship by school administrators trying to avoid falling prey to such enforcement.” Contingent faculty, being especially vulnerable to nonrenewal, must consider self-censoring to avoid inadvertently attracting negative attention. The predictable result is that most educators will avoid topics associated with the bills, eliminating foundational material from their course syllabi and warping the education they deliver, placing an honest history and exploration of the range of identities expressed by the nation’s citizenry out of students’ reach.

Second, because the banned topics concern race, national history, and LGBTQ communities, the bills disproportionately harm scholars of color and LGBTQ faculty members, who reasonably fear greater scrutiny in the enforcement of the legislation.

Third, the bills are overwhelmingly partisan. They have been introduced almost exclusively by Republicans and, when successful, passed into law without bipartisan support. The only exceptions are Arizona’s failed House Bill 2634 (a bill introduced by Democrats that sought to restrict school curricula, which PEN America called an “outlier”) and South Carolina’s House Bill 3779. This latter bill merits closer analysis for the way it illustrates the farcical lengths to which the culture wars have driven Americans. In January 2023, Republicans proposed House Bill 3728, the South Carolina Transparency and Integrity in Education Act, which contained provisions for the punishment of teachers found to have taught prohibited concepts such as that “an individual, by virtue of the race, sex, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin of the individual, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, contributive to any oppression or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.” In a statement opposing the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina said that similar laws in other states “led to the chilling of educator speech and misrepresentation of American history.” In response, Democratic state representative Jermaine Jackson introduced the facetious HB 3779, prohibiting history teachers from discussing “persons who owned slaves.” Speaking to a local news outlet, Jackson explained, “Many people find this topic uncomfortable and upsetting . . . [so] we should protect our children from being exposed to this evil by sweeping it under the rug and never addressing it.”

It is also important to observe that the shared features among these bills evince a high degree of national coordination made possible by conservative networks and dark-money funding. Language from Trump’s 2020 executive order, for example, is reproduced verbatim in the Center for Renewing America’s “Model School Board Language to Prohibit Critical Race Theory” and in Florida’s House Bill 7. Books such as Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, Isaac Kamola and Ralph Wilson’s Free Speech and Koch Money, and Amy Binder and Jeffrey Kidder’s The Channels of Student Activism expose the funding behind the think tanks, policy foundations, fellowships supporting individual academics, and infrastructure for student clubs and parent activists that have made the reactionary backlash so effective. What may have appeared to some observers to be a spontaneous “antiwoke” movement bubbling up from below has been, in large part, a well-orchestrated and well-financed operation. Or, as Isaac Kamola puts it in a chapter in the forthcoming book The Right to Learn from Beacon Press, “The result is an integrated network of seemingly discrete academics, think tanks, media outlets, and advocacy groups all positioned to advocate for the same issues, in unison, creating both an ‘echo chamber’ that demands action on a manufactured problem and the donor-preferred legislation to address that so-called crisis.” For example, consider the money invested in shaping popular opinion and American politics through the support of right-wing campus activism. In a review essay in the New Republic, Claire Potter notes that “the right’s investment in media is . . . a pipeline to the larger misinformation world that influences elections. Students who pay their dues on campus may find themselves siphoned upward into a media organization, and from there to political consulting, congressional staffing, and running Super PACs.”

Another critical observation is that these bills are fundamentally antidemocratic. I have used the term subnational authoritarianism to highlight the restrictions to civil liberties typical of authoritarian countries, but the term antidemocratic points us to other features of the right-wing culture wars. Figures like Ron DeSantis and Christopher Rufo claim that state legislators rather than unelected faculty members should determine curricula. If we set aside for a moment the obvious need for expertise and training to competently develop curricula, it quickly becomes apparent that the overwhelmingly partisan nature of these bills subordinates higher education to the agenda of one party, threatening the access of citizens to nonpartisan information. Academic freedom is often understood narrowly in terms of individual faculty rights, but the concept also speaks to the degree of institutional autonomy necessary for colleges and universities to act as trustworthy sources of independent knowledge. This knowledge, specific to colleges and universities, provides a society with what law professor Robert Post, in his 2012 book Democracy, Expertise, and Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State, calls “democratic competence.” When knowledge is controlled by one political regime with an eye to perpetuating its rule, academic freedom cannot exist. A different yet particularly pointed illustration of the antidemocratic nature of the Republican campaign is the attempt to make voting difficult for students in some states by restricting access to early voting on campuses.

Finally, the carrots deserve mention along with the sticks. The defunding, prohibitions, and bans being used to bring colleges and universities to ideological heel have received much commentary, but we should not overlook the infusion of money to create conservative centers on campuses and to secure politically motivated appointments. “We have to get out of this idea that somehow a public university system is a totally independent entity that practices academic freedom,” Rufo said in “Laying Siege to the Institutions,” a talk he gave at Hillsdale College in 2022. Calling the idea of institutional autonomy from political interference “a total fraud,” Rufo adds, “we get in there, we defund things we don’t like, we fund things we like.” Funding “things we like” has meant millions of dollars in state budgets earmarked for centers for conservative thought, often presented as necessary to “restore” alleged traditional or civic values or “renew” America. According to reporting in the Texas Tribune, “[University of Texas at Austin president] Jay Hartzell and others at the university have been working in earnest with [Republican lieutenant governor Dan] Patrick, UT-Austin donors and UT System Board Chair Kevin Eltife, a former Republican state senator, to launch the Liberty Institute as a way to bring ‘intellectual diversity’ to campus.” The institute, given at least $6 million by the legislature in 2022–23, would be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.” In North Carolina, where the James G. Martin Center for American Renewal has provoked a great deal of controversy from faculty members who object to the lack of meaningful shared governance in its establishment and operations, $4 million was recently allocated, without faculty input, for a new School of Civic Life and Leadership at the University of North Carolina (see Jay M. Smith’s article elsewhere in this issue). “Fighting ‘cancel culture’ is expensive,” writes one reporter for Florida Politics in a story about the $10 million that the University of Florida’s Hamilton Center is scheduled to receive from the state. In a deeply reported piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Emma Pettit shows how the Hamilton Center was approved behind the backs of faculty. Also in Florida, $5 million has been allotted for an “Institute of Economic Freedom” at the Florida International University. And, of course, in the widely reported case of New College, an entire institution has been taken over, with a politically appointed board (which includes Rufo) firing the president and offering her replacement, a DeSantis ally and former GOP speaker, a salary 50 percent higher than his predecessor’s.

In just a few years, the right-wing campaign against the American system of higher education has been startlingly effective at gutting academic freedom and the faculty’s prerogative over curricula, dismantling campus efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, and investing in partisan initiatives peddling propagandistic versions of America. A variety of factors precipitated the campaign to demonize higher education—changing demographics perceived to be shrinking the Republican Party base; the #MeToo movement; societal support for the expression of a range of gender and sexual identities, especially for transgender persons—but the national reckoning with race seems to be its most immediate trigger. In 2023, asked to respond to “state after state cracking down on what we learn about American history,” Angela Davis argued, “What we are witnessing is an attempt to prevent the consolidation of the gains we have achieved over the last period. During the COVID pandemic, vast numbers of people became aware of the need to shift their understanding of racism from a context that emphasized individual agency, character flaws, character defects, to a structural understanding of racism. . . . Precisely because there is now a more collective consciousness of the ways in which racism is embedded in the structures and systems of the society, DeSantis and others are attempting to turn the clock back on that.”

In their attempts to retain or regain power, Republican-led legislatures are destroying the ability of faculty members to pursue their research wherever it leads them as well as their freedom to foster critical thinking in the classroom. “The crafting of subnational authoritarian regimes in the late-19th-century American South,” writes Gibson, “is a story of how authoritarian leaders in state after state responded to the massive challenges to their hegemony” as “successful experiments in one state were . . . quickly copied by other states, creating, in a remarkably short period of time, a common and impregnable institutional architecture that varied only in details.” The effect of this institutional architecture, as historians from W. E. B. Du Bois to Eric Foner have shown, was to kill Reconstruction. Using state levers to censor schools of thought that challenge reactionary notions of patriotism and of gender and sexual identity, post-Trump Republicans aim to prevent the materialization of what historian Peniel E. Joseph, in reference to the racial reckoning begun after George Floyd’s murder, has called America’s third Reconstruction.

Jennifer Ruth is a professor and associate dean at Portland State University. She is the coauthor, with Michael Bérubé, of It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom and coeditor, with Valerie C. Johnson and Ellen Schrecker, of the forthcoming The Right to Learn: Resisting the Right-Wing Attack on Academic Freedom.