The Battle for Utah’s Universities Has Begun

Published February 27, 2024

National Review

Last Wednesday, a committee of the Utah state senate voted down a bill, S.B. 226, that would have restored classic liberal education — including the history of Western civilization, the great books of Western philosophy and literature, traditional American history, civics, and literature, the great economic thinkers, masterpieces of Western art, as well as an introduction to non-Western cultures — to a place of centrality at the University of Utah.

All students would have taken such courses in common, faculty members committed to traditional general education would have been hired to teach them, and some currently fashionable programs and departments would have been shut down to balance the books. Inspired by the model General Education Act, Utah Senate Bill 226 is a truly transformative measure. And although it failed in last week’s committee vote, there is every reason to believe that we are at the beginning, not the end, of the battle over this ambitious proposal — both in Utah and nationally.

Unsurprisingly, S.B. 226 drew intense opposition from the powers that be within Utah’s higher-education sector. (Here’s a link to the hearing. See minute 26 through 1 hour 13 minutes.) The president of the University of Utah testified against the bill, as did Utah’s commissioner of higher education, who reported that Utah’s Board of Higher Education unanimously opposes the bill. In contrast, a number of public groups, like Utah’s Eagle Forum, testified in favor of the bill. Although a solid wall of university opposition has slowed the progress of the bill, the battle is far from over.

All the Republicans who voted against the bill made a point of saying that they’d be pleased to consider changing their votes next session, after the sponsor has had time to consult further with the university and the Higher Education Commission. That might sound like an excuse, but in this case promises of a second look ought to be taken seriously.

Utah’s main state legislative session is extraordinarily short — only six weeks — and S.B. 226 wasn’t introduced until the end of the current session. It is by no means unusual for ambitious and controversial bills to be held up in one session, only to pass the following year. This just happened, for example, with a sweeping ban on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) in higher education approved by the legislature in the first 10 days of this year’s session.

The idea of a DEI ban was first raised in last year’s session by Senator John Johnson — also the sponsor of S.B. 226. Although Johnson withdrew his 2023 DEI bill in the face of various questions and concerns, an ambitious DEI ban sailed through the legislature just a year later. Internal consultations, as well as external events — like October 7 and the Claudine Gay scandal — combined to favor the bill. The same thing could happen to S.B. 226, but only if the people of Utah push back against what is certain to be continued opposition from the university.

S.B. 226 sponsor Johnson is willing and eager to push for the bill next session. When I asked him for his assessment of the hearing and his future plans, this is what he told me: “It took four or five decades for forces hostile to the great tradition of Western education to effect their takeover of the university curriculum, so undoing their conquest is not a matter of one bill or one session. In my view, this was the opener, a start on retaking our universities. I hope other legislatures will join us as we move forward.” On prospects for passing the bill next year, Johnson said, “My colleagues were supportive and encouraging, even as the bill stalled this session. That’s not unusual, nor does it dim our enthusiasm for the task at hand. It took time to get here. It will take time and a great deal of work to turn it around.” As a parting shot, Johnson added, “It will be easier if university leaders realize that it is not so much an attack as it is a rescue mission.”

Obviously, Senator Johnson is cut out to be a leader of the movement to retake our universities. His words are an invitation to the citizens of Utah to take control of the public-university system that is supposed to serve their interests and reflect their values. Johnson’s words should also serve as an inspiration to other states. I do think we’ll see more states jump into this battle.

As a co-author of model legislation that helped to inspire S.B. 226, I testified at the hearing on the bill. My testimony focused on the legislature’s legitimate authority to make the kind of changes mandated by Johnson’s bill (an argument I laid out here). Interestingly, almost no one at the hearing took issue with the right of the legislature to establish a new general-education curriculum, or to make the other changes authorized by S.B. 226.

Instead, most of the openly expressed objections to the bill involved bureaucratic and practical obstacles. It was claimed that the new graduation requirements would add an additional semester to a given student’s studies. But this assumes that current requirements will remain in place instead of being pared back and replaced by the new mandates. It was also claimed that students would have a hard time transferring from, say, a community college that offered no traditional Western Civilization course. But community colleges invariably develop courses to facilitate such transfers, and transfer students can easily be grandfathered in till then. It was also claimed that STEM students, who generally face more specialized major requirements than humanities students, would have delayed graduations. But S.B. 226 reduces non-science requirements for STEM majors, a point ignored by critics.

These sorts of objections were in the nature of excuses. The real problem is that many current faculty members don’t approve of classic general education. They also worry that their programs might be among the ones discontinued to pay for the faculty hired to teach the new curriculum. Opposition from the university community is thus unlikely to fade, no matter how many consultations are held or how many procedural tweaks are made to facilitate the transition to the new requirements.

In truth, the fate of S.B. 226 will hinge on the willingness of the people of Utah the step in and make known their desire for what Senator Johnson calls a “back to the future” approach to higher education — a restoration of free thought, citizenship education, and a thorough grounding in the great debates of the Western tradition as the basis for a genuinely liberal education. The battle over Utah’s universities isn’t over. It has only just begun.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates 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 has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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