Column: Red-state efforts to dumb down their universities will provoke a brain drain

Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker
Former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker thought that attacking tenure rights at his state university would win him the GOP presidential nomination. He was wrong, but the university is still struggling.
(Associated Press)

Back in 2015, Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker thought to burnish his culture warrior cred in advance of a bid for the presidency by taking arms against the University of Wisconsin.

Walker cut the state university’s budget. His handpicked board of regents gutted tenure protections for its faculty.

He and his legislative allies disdained the university’s traditional role of producing broad-based academic scholarship to deepen its students’ understanding of the world and talked instead as though the university were a glorified vocational or trade school — “connecting students and workers with the skills needed in today’s workforce,” as a university spokesperson put it at the time.


Faculty are terrified.

— Alfred Soto, Florida International University

Critics predicted that Walker’s policies would exacerbate a faculty flight caused by the university’s low pay compared with that of its peer state universities, while reducing its competitiveness for federal research grants.

That’s exactly what happened. UW administrators said their professors were being poached by academic institutions — not only Ivy League schools and elite public institutions, but universities that could never have hoped to attract Wisconsin faculty in the past.

Local newspapers and education journals published columns by UW teachers explaining regretfully why they were leaving the state. Retention bonuses paid to dissuade valued professors from moving soared into the millions.

The university slid down the rankings of recipients of federal research and development grants — from 10th among recipients of National Science Foundation grants in 2010, to 16th in 2021. The university’s overall research and development spending, the third-highest in the country in 2010, fell to eighth in 2021.


Walker’s presidential aspirations didn’t last long. He announced his candidacy for the GOP nomination in mid-July 2016 and was out of the race by the third week of September. He did leave a significant partisan legacy, however: His model for appealing to a rabid far-right electoral base by targeting higher education institutions and their faculty has been taken up by Republican politicians in Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. You can expect the movement to expand, spreading intellectual benightment across red-state America.

In its most common form, these attacks focus on efforts to foster diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. Banning “DEI” has become a rallying cry for the mob, augmenting attacks on the previous shibboleth of critical race theory (CRT).

In Florida, House Bill 999 would bar any program espousing “diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory.” Majors and minors involving “Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems,” are outlawed. (“Intersectionality” is the concept that race, class and gender are all interrelated in ways that can foster discrimination and social oppression.)

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Such strictures and others are invariably paired with the evisceration of tenure protection. The reason is obvious: Restrictions couldn’t be imposed on university faculty members unless the teachers feared for their livelihoods if they flouted the rules. Tenure is what protects teachers from punishment for resisting political interference, so it has to go.

The changes in tenure rules take many forms. Some allow for reviews of tenure grants after specified periods — five years, say, or even annually. Others take the decisions out of the hands of departments and turn them over to political appointees.

Alfred Soto of Florida International University observes in Humanizing the Vacuum, his indispensable blog about art and (mostly Florida) politics, that if House Bill 999 is enacted it will mean that “Ben Sasse, [the] University of Florida’s freshly appointed president, will suddenly become an expert in approving the hiring of molecular biology, journalism, and economics faculty.”


You remember Sasse, don’t you? He was the GOP senator from Nebraska who was appointed to his new post despite having few visible qualifications other than a Republican pedigree.

Tenure “reformers” typically describe their goals as depriving undeserving layabouts of an unwarranted privilege. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a driving force behind a bill that would permanently forbid public universities in the state to grant tenure to any new hires, explained after the Senate passed the tenure bill that “tenured university professors are the only people in our society that have the guarantee of a job.”

Patrick added that “it has become abundantly clear that some tenured faculty at Texas universities feel immune to oversight from the legislature and their respective board of regents. These professors claim ‘academic freedom’ and hide behind their tenure to continue blatantly advancing their agenda of societal division.”

Patrick, by the way, labeled the bill “bipartisan.” This was what Mark Twain would describe as a “stretcher”: The measure passed the Senate 17 to 11, with every Republican in favor and every Democrat but one voting against it. (The lone Democratic yea voter, César Blanco of El Paso, said he voted in favor because he believes tenure has perpetuated racist discrimination in faculty hiring.)

It’s fair to say that even in some blue states, public higher education is under pressure — mostly financial. In California, where the university’s independence from political influence is written into the state Constitution, lawmakers have systematically reduced its support from the state budget.

The slack has been taken up by higher tuition — never mind that UC was free to qualified applicants until after Ronald Reagan became governor in 1967.


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Adjusted for inflation, average tuition increased from 2008 to 2018 in every state system, by a nationwide average of 37%, according to the College Board. The increases ranged from about 107% in Louisiana to 5.2% in Ohio. At the University of California, tuition for in-state students increased by about 54% in that time span, and for out-of-state students by more than 58%.

Blue states, however, haven’t typically imposed ideological litmus tests on their faculty. They haven’t enlisted teachers or administrators in their inane movements to whitewash American history, say by mandating a view of America’s founding defined as “the creation of a new nation based on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence,” as Florida’s House Bill 999 would do.

They haven’t proposed banning “trainings, programs, or activities designed or implemented in reference to race, color, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” as a bill passed entirely along party lines in Texas would do.

What’s most insidious about these measures, whether enacted or proposed, is that they’re not designed to address real-world issues in anything resembling a constructive way. Diversity, equity and inclusion are legitimate concerns, but they aren’t addressed by pretending they don’t exist.

Instead, the goal is intimidation. Most of these laws are written so vaguely that college professors don’t know where the lines are. “Faculty are terrified,” Soto wrote in February, after SB 999 was introduced. Teachers and administrators are wary of speaking out, for fear they’ll be brought up on charges for crossing some invisible line.

Universities in these states are on the glide path to uselessness, especially since the assault on higher education is unfolding in the same states that are at war with women’s reproductive health and voting rights. Already we have seen faculty candidates, college-age students and medical professionals checking these states off their lists.


This trend is almost certain to get worse before it gets better as America devolves into two countries: one that nurtures brainpower, and one that watches proudly as it drains away.