Published August 23, 2022
The woke rebellion against America’s founding principles continues to advance on all fronts. Nowhere is this truer than at America’s universities, the source and stronghold of the cultural revolution. The pushback against the illiberalism of our universities — their betrayal of their own first principles — has so far been a paltry thing. Supposedly, this is because higher education is shielded by academic freedom in a way that K–12 education is not. But that is not the reason we have failed. The truth is, opponents of the woke revolution have barely begun to do what they can to restore liberal education to America’s academy.
The greatest abdication of all is our failure to reform universities by way of trustees (also called regents or governors). University boards of regents can do almost anything. Yet most often they do nothing but rubber-stamp the decisions of administrators. That has to change right now, and it needs to change first in Arizona.
Boards of regents at public universities are responsible to the people of their state. Regents are appointed by governors, and sometimes by legislatures, too. In a few states, regents are selected by popular vote. Yet almost never do we see the appointment of university trustees become an election issue. Well, trustee selection needs to be an election issue right now in Arizona. Here’s why.
Arizona’s public universities have turned themselves into leaders in the national movement to indoctrinate students in the tenets of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI). The showpiece of this campaign is Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) move to require four — count ’em, four — diversity courses for graduation, all of which must be grounded in “critical theory,” the neo-Marxist system that produced critical race theory, critical legal theory, and still more entries in the grand campaign to neo-Marxitize pretty much everything.
NAU brags that its “unprecedented” quadruple critical-theory requirement rockets it to “the forefront of higher education.” Without doubt, we should award NAU a trophy for ideological corruption. General education, which once prepared students for responsible citizenship while imparting knowledge preparatory to advanced learning in various disciplines, is being transmogrified by NAU into a mandatory regimen of political propaganda that calls for treating students differently based on race.
Yet that is only the most glaring offense. Lurking beneath this iceberg’s visible tip lie system-wide DEI initiatives at each of Arizona’s public universities: the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and Northern Arizona University. These university-wide “strategic plans,” adopted in the wake of the George Floyd protests and riots of 2020, aim to inject critical theory–based DEI into every nook and cranny of Arizona’s public universities. Beyond required courses, the plans promote DEI indoctrination via employee and faculty training, student orientation, and proposals to condition faculty advancement on subservience to DEI.
None of this is compatible with academic freedom. Universities do have scope to create programs of general education. Traditionally, such courses traced the development of liberty in the West, since that is the source of the intellectual freedoms on which all of liberal education rests. Along with this, universities once offered basic education in American history and civics as preparation for mature citizenship. Beyond Western Civ and American history and civics, graduation requirements imparted skills in writing, mathematics, and science, all of which supplied a rounded basic education, as well as preparation for advanced study in areas of a student’s choosing.
Requiring courses designed to inculcate a particular political perspective — much less a radical one at odds with America’s founding values and liberal education itself — would rightly have been condemned as a violation of institutional neutrality. That is, beyond affirming and protecting free inquiry and the values it rests on, universities traditionally avoided taking institution-level political stands. The closer a university comes to adopting a particular perspective as an official political line, the more it puts pressure on students and faculty to conform. That is why institutional neutrality has long been a pillar of academic freedom and campus free speech.
Universities also blatantly violate academic freedom when they condition faculty hiring and advancement on fealty to DEI. So-called diversity statements (itemizing past support for DEI and listing plans to boost it in the future) are updated versions of McCarthyite loyalty oaths. Yet the various post-Floyd strategic plans of Arizona’s public universities make it obvious that controlling faculty curricular and research decisions is not an unfortunate by-product but the core goal of these schemes.
In short, by systematically propagandizing for critical theory–based DEI, Arizona’s public universities betray the principles at the heart of classical liberal education. What’s more, in propagandizing for DEI, Arizona’s public universities trample on the values of Arizona’s citizens, who are not exactly acolytes of neo-Marxist critical theory.
So where are the regents in all this? They are mostly silent and useless, unfortunately — except when they’re actually rubber-stamping some administrative outrage. In October 2021, for example, the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) ratified NAU’s quadruple critical-theory requirement. That was an inexcusable disgrace. Shockingly (to the uninitiated), most of these regents were appointed by Republican governor Doug Ducey, an otherwise stalwart opponent of CRT himself. Yet sadly, rubber-stamping the latest leftist initiative is par for the course for Republican-appointed regents in every state. More on why in a moment. First, however, let’s give ABOR its due. They have not been entirely a bust.
In 2019, with an update in 2021, ABOR did something right. It created a general education requirement called “American Institutions.” American Institutions makes basic economics and basic U.S. history and civics into graduation requirements. ABOR even specified some excellent content for its American Institutions requirement, to help prevent it from being subverted by hostile administrators and faculty. Unfortunately, ABOR’s American history and civics requirements have nonetheless been subverted. Woke administrators are running circles around their supposed bosses, the regents, when it comes to the direction of Arizona’s universities.
In fact, the extraordinary proliferation of DEI initiatives at Arizona’s public universities is in part a strategy for overwhelming and neutralizing ABOR’s American Institutions gambit. And ABOR has largely enabled this defiance by simultaneously ignoring and approving it. (Yes, that can be done.) Why, it’s almost as if ABOR passed American Institutions in the first place only as an exercise in virtue-signaling, rather than a serious attempt to govern Arizona’s universities.
The fuller story of the way in which Arizona’s public universities have defied and defeated ABOR’s American Institutions requirement — while promoting DEI as their de facto official ideology instead — is told in a report by the National Association of Scholars, “Educating for Citizenship: Arizona Case Study,” by John D. Sailer. Sailer makes it clear that by a combination of direct defiance (e.g., simply ignoring the content of the American Institutions requirement), foot-dragging, and NAU’s tactic of overwhelming the civics requirement with four required critical-theory courses, Arizona’s public universities are making a mockery of both the spirit and the letter of the regents’ directives. NAU gave the game aways when it boasted that its quadruple critical-theory requirement put it “at the forefront of higher education.” These administrators consider their real bosses to be their DEI-loving peers at other universities, not the regents or the public that stands behind them.
Yet, as noted, the regents themselves have enabled — and even formally approved — this defiance. What’s more, Republican-appointed regents exhibit similar quiescence in state after state. There are several reasons for this.
Governors treat regent appointments as patronage, selecting major donors and supporters for the posts. Few of the regents have either knowledge of the workings of higher education or a commitment to shaking up a corrupt and biased system. On the contrary regents enjoy the prestige and perquisites of their position, which means maintaining a courteous relationship with the administrators who in practice run the show. Regents rarely have independent staff under their sole control, and to the extent that they receive training at all, they are taught to see themselves as protectors and defenders of the administrative powers that be. In short, regents lack the knowledge, inclination, and resources for a prolonged showdown with a university president and his staff. Yet that is what’s required to make a change. Meanwhile, the public pays little attention. No one holds the regents accountable for the direction and functioning of the university — although they are in fact responsible. And state governors don’t rock the boat. They’d rather keep their patronage plums and avoid culture-war controversies. Yes, the Republican Party’s establishment problem is real.
All this is why regents — who actually do have the power to transform our universities — consistently fail to do so. This is what has to change.
That change could begin right now. Arizona is in the middle of a gubernatorial election. In an ideal world, the Democratic and the Republican candidates would both speak out against the transformation of Arizona’s public universities into critical-theory indoctrination camps. Realistically, however, with the Democratic Party in thrall to the campus Left, that’s unlikely. In the absence of bipartisan agreement, Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake should make the appointment of university regents into an election issue. Here’s how to do it.
Lake should tear into NAU’s quadruple critical-theory graduation requirement, as well as the plans of all three public universities to impose DEI on students and faculty alike. Critics will wail that Lake is attacking “diversity,” a term with a positive ring to those who don’t realize that it’s now actually a code word for intellectual uniformity. Keep the focus on the extremism of critical theory. Emphasize that the goal is to keep the university as an institution from pressuring students or teachers into following a particular kind of politics via graduation requirements.
Remember, this is not about preventing individual professors from adopting a critical-theory perspective. Individual professors have the academic freedom to do so in courses that they alone design and control. Gubernatorial candidates need to acknowledge that academic freedom, or they will lose both the political and legal battles. This is about university-wide policies on graduation requirements, employee training, faculty advancement, and student orientation. The university should get DEI and critical theory out of those areas now. Far from violating academic freedom, that would protect it.
Lake has already signed the 1776 Action pledge to block CRT and action civics in K–12. She should extend that pledge strategy into higher education, keeping in mind that professors have academic freedom in a way that K–12 teachers do not. Here’s a pledge strategy that fits the bill.
First, promise to appoint only regents who have pledged to eliminate NAU’s quadruple critical-theory requirement, and to junk the DEI-based strategic plans of all three public universities.
Second, promise to appoint only regents who have pledged to affirm, expand, and carefully enforce the American Institutions requirement currently being ignored or undermined by all three public universities.
Third — and most important — promise to appoint only regents who have pledged to replace the current president of Northern Arizona University with a president committed to dismantling NAU’s DEI strategic plan, and to following the American Institutions requirement instead. That quadruple critical-theory requirement is beyond the pale. Heads must roll.
Fourth, promise to support a legislative ban on DEI-based political litmus tests — and any other sort of political litmus test — for students, employees, or faculty at educational institutions in Arizona. (Model legislation here; explanation here.)
Fifth, promise to implement the 2021 Arizona legislative ban on CRT-based concepts in state employee training (HB 2906) at institutions of higher education. (That ban should be understood to exclude the university classroom, which rightly enjoys academic freedom, and a proviso to that effect should be added if necessary.)
Sixth, promise to support passage of the campus intellectual-diversity bill that passed the Arizona House in 2020, just before the Arizona Senate was shut down by the Covid lockdowns. That bill promotes intellectual diversity in a way that does not interfere with academic freedom. It also provides a helpful reply to critics who will falsely claim that these pledges harm “diversity.”
Naysayers will argue that injecting the appointment of a university president into a political campaign is wrong. That is mistaken. Public university regents are selected through a political process because they are supposed to represent the underlying values of the state. The institution-level strategy of a university ought to reflect the values of the citizenry. Those values are properly battled out and decided in the course of elections.
Today, two great visions of the university are at war. One is grounded in the traditional conception of liberal education, where professors and students are free to speak their minds and take sides, or not, on the issues of the day, with the search for truth as their ultimate guide. In this view, the university, at the institutional level, backs off and gives its residents maximum room to make up their minds, as individuals, on where truth lies and on what political stand, if any, to take.
The most powerful counter-vision to this right now is that of critical theory and associated concepts such as CRT and DEI. In this view, liberal neutrality and freedom of speech are lies designed to camouflage the interests of dominant groups. The remedy, according to this view, is to reject neutrality, expose the oppressors’ ruses, and forthrightly stand with identity groups seen as oppressed.
These visions cannot be reconciled. The clash between them is at the heart of our riven polity. Which vision should govern our universities is rightly a matter for the public to decide. And the only way to do that is through the political process. The system is already set up to give the public a voice. The problem is that the people up to now have surrendered their control. For too long, we’ve granted a blinkered ideological minority a power over our public universities that is not rightly theirs.
Not only Republicans but independents and a great many Democrats stand with traditional liberal education. Once candidates put the issue before the public, their choice will be clear. Who knows how Arizona’s gubernatorial election will turn out? There are plenty of issues, and higher education may not be decisive in this case. Yet it could be decisive in Arizona this time, or in any given race in other states down the road. It’s time to put the public back in public higher education. And the time and place to begin is right now, in Arizona.
Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. On a wide range of issues, from K-12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).