Congress targets unrepresentative sliver of higher ed

June 10, 2024
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Following an explosive hearing in December about campus antisemitism, House Republicans have been ramping up their investigations of America’s colleges and universities. But more than six months later, the Congressional scrutiny has been concentrated on a small number of institutions that don’t represent the thousands of colleges and universities in the United States and only enroll a fraction of the country’s 24 million postsecondary students.

House Republicans are pledging to stamp out antisemitism on U.S. campuses, a problem they say is ubiquitous and emblematic of other deep problems within higher education. Antisemitism “is a moral rot that has taken root across American higher education institutions,” said Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, in late April. “It is time to restore law and order, academic integrity and moral decency to America’s higher education institutions.”

To do so, they’ve opened investigations into 10 universities and called two others to provide interviews. The House Education and Workforce Committee also held a series of highly publicized hearings focused on the issue that meant bad press, presidential resignations and administrative headaches for those institutions, most of them private and elite.

But the intense critical attention on a select group of institutions has wider implications for the thousands of other colleges and universities in the U.S.—most of which don’t resemble the ones under fire. As lawmakers seek to use a handful of institutions to make broad arguments about the state of American colleges and universities, critics say they’re promoting a warped view of higher education with their actions and their rhetoric.

Colleges Targeted By Congress

  • Barnard College
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Harvard University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Northwestern University
  • Rutgers University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Yale University

“For years, universities have stoked the flames of an ideology which goes by many names—anti-racism, anti-colonialism, critical race theory, DEI, intersectionality, the list goes on,” Representative Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the House education committee, declared at a December hearing on campus antisemitism. “This value system taught in universities is absolutely foreign to 99 percent of Americans.”

Slightly more than 1.1 percent of undergraduates in the 2021–22 academic year attended the 10 institutions under House investigation plus Yale University and the University of Michigan, which have been called to provide transcribed interviews about antisemitism but are not yet officially under investigation. Those 12 institutions account for 2.6 percent of all the federal financial aid awarded to students in the 2022–23 academic year. Two-thirds of the colleges on House Republicans’ list are private institutions, compared to fewer than a third of institutions over all. All are four-year institutions, too, which only make up 45 percent of higher ed. Five of the 12 are from the Ivy League, and nearly all are prominent research universities.

“They are not reflective of higher education as a whole,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “Ninety of the 4,000 colleges and universities have had these protests on their campuses, and yet they’re presented as the norm and as what’s happening on college and university campuses. But I know from my visits to campuses over the past few months, attending commencement ceremonies, celebrations, going to classes, that this is not the focus of most students.”

This is not a new phenomenon in higher education. For years, decades even, what happens at Harvard and a few other elite universities has dominated media coverage and driven national conversations about big issues like the cost and affordability of a college education, race-based admissions policies and campus culture. And all the while, the non-Harvards of the world have been fighting back on that narrative to differentiate themselves.

What’s changed now? Higher education has become far more politically charged, and Republicans eager to win back control of Congress and the White House in November clearly see bashing colleges—particularly wealthy, elite institutions—as one way to do that. The wave of nationwide protests in the last two months has given those politicians more fodder for exposing the general “rot” they see in higher education.

The escalating attacks come at a time when Americans are increasingly skeptical and distrustful of higher education. A Gallup poll from last summer found that only 36 percent of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education—a historic low. More recently, polling from the center-left think tank Third Way found that while 80 percent of respondents believed that higher education has value, only 56 percent had a favorable view of the system as a whole. At the same time, fewer students are opting to go to college, fueling concerns about a wave of college closures.

Pasquerella said presenting a select handful of universities as the norm lends itself to the narrative that conservative groups want to present. “But it’s a false narrative that needs to be redressed,” she said. “They’re seeing this opportunity to pile onto existing public concerns grounded in economic uncertainty.”

Pasquerella worries that the conservative narrative could drive away those who are already the most skeptical of higher education, who tend to be low-income Americans.

“It helps push people over the edge in ways that discourage them from pursuing higher education at a time when it’s more important than ever that people have those skills that allow them not only to be adaptable and flexible in the general market, but also to speak across differences at a time when our democracy is under threat,” Pasquerella said.

‘Bang for Your Buck’

It’s indisputable that Jewish students—as well as Muslim and Arab students—have reported more harassment and discrimination at universities nationwide since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened more than 100 investigations into alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on shared ancestry, which encompasses both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The OCR investigations capture a wider—but still unrepresentative—swath of higher education than the Congressional probes. Sixty-one colleges and universities are being investigated, some of them facing more than one inquiry, but they include only one for-profit institution and one community college.

Collectively, those 61 institutions enrolled 5.4 percent of all undergraduates in the 2021–22 academic year. The OCR’s investigations largely begin with complaints alleging violations of federal law, so representing higher ed isn’t the agency’s aim. And its investigations play out far differently than those by the Congress—quietly conducted without comment from the department until there’s a public resolution.

Given the scale of the problem, how did the House committees choose which colleges to investigate? The House education committee has said for months that it is selecting colleges where pro-Palestinian protests and antisemitic incidents have been especially rampant. They’ve also focused on colleges that have attracted the media spotlight since Oct. 7—most of which are in the Ivy League.

Asked whether she was concerned that the committee’s oversight is focused on a small group of institutions that don’t reflect higher ed, Foxx said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed on Friday that the committee is “investigating some of the worst offenders across the country.” She noted that they’ve included flagship state institutions as well as wealthy private universities.

“Antisemitism on college campuses is a national problem, and the Committee’s antisemitism investigation has pulled the curtain back for the American people to see,” Foxx said. “Holding these institutions accountable sets the standard. Institutions that allow antisemitism to proliferate on their campuses and demonstrate a failure of leadership in addressing antisemitism could find themselves subject to our investigation.”

Foxx also defended the investigations in a discussion last week hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “The American people are pouring billions of dollars a year into these institutions and yes we have a right to hold them accountable for how the money is being spent,” Foxx said.

Isaac Kamola, an associate professor of political science at Trinity College and director of the AAUP’s (American Association of University Professors) Center for the Defense of Academic Freedom, said that paying attention to a small group of institutions would be strange—if the politicians were truly seeking to conduct oversight over colleges, that is.

But if the investigations and the rhetoric are aimed at attacking and weakening higher education more broadly, he said, “it makes sense that these are the enemies that have been chosen to target.”

Nearly all of the colleges in the Congressional spotlight have name recognition and considerable cachet.

“Going after Trinity College or Bowling Green or [University of California] Merced is not going to have the same kind of resonance as going after Harvard or Columbia,” Kamola said. “It’s a very clear strategy of targeting those institutions where you are going to have the greatest amount of bang for your buck because, again, this is all theater. This is not an earnest inquiry. If you’re performing political theater, you want to be taking on those institutions where that show is going to be a big act.”

Kamola released a report at the end of May looking at the origins and impacts of recent legislative attacks on higher education, particularly at the state level. The report, called “Manufacturing Backlash: Right-Wing Think Tanks and Legislative Attacks on Higher Education,” detailed the efforts of a collection of conservative and libertarian think tanks “to manufacture a culture-war backlash against educators and academic institutions.” He sees the Congressional investigations as part of those efforts.

“It’s basically mass-produced this narrative that told a lot of people, you should be deeply skeptical of what’s taking place on college campuses,” he said. “That what’s going on is suspect. ‘It’s devious.’ ‘Professors are not to be trusted.’ ‘Students are just coddled snowflakes.’ That narrative has gone kind of largely unchecked for the last decade, and it’s just everywhere you go.”

Kamola acknowledged that there are “very, very real examples of antisemitism on campuses” that need to be addressed.

“But the idea that a whole college campus is antisemitic, or that everybody at a protest is antisemitic like that, you can only make those claims if you have this long, long narrative that says there’s something that’s deeply corrosive that’s going on on college campuses, that there’s something that you should be concerned about that’s going on on college campuses, and that was the narrative that was manufactured long before October,” he said.

Wider Risks

Although the politically motivated investigations are only targeting a small number of institutions, higher-education advocates say they should worry everyone. Congressional investigations and the broader attacks on higher education are a concern for all institutional leaders, Kamola said, noting that even a wealthy university such as Harvard, with its nearly $50 billion endowment, appears anxious about losing donors.

“If [Harvard officials] are worried about what their donors are saying and capitulating and tripping over themselves in order to capitulate to donors, then schools that are being run on shoestring budgets are going to be equally—if not more—so concerned,” he said.

James Murphy, director of career pathways and post-secondary policy at Education Reform Now, a nonpartisan think tank, said that the focus on wealthy institutions is lending itself to a distorted view of higher education, particularly when it comes to the cost of college, that can harm students who get the message that they shouldn’t go to college or can’t afford it.

“The reality is the vast majority of colleges are tuition-dependent institutions that live year to year and can be sunk by one or two bad years—which means maybe losing 20 students, 50 students can cause real damage to institutions,” he said.

Ultimately, Murphy said, the elite, wealthy colleges “need to become less important in all the ways.”

“Meaning they don’t get that much media attention,” he added. “They aren’t the only places that consulting firms and investment banks go to to interview.”

Changing the media and political narrative, of course, is easier to call for than to accomplish. To cut through the noise of the national conversation, Pasquerella said it’s more important than ever for colleges and universities to promote their own narratives, conveying how they bolster local communities and transform lives.

“For too long, we’ve relied on this ideal of the Ivory tower and the prestige of American higher education is often equated to institutions like Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton,” she said. “Yet, the real transformative power of higher education in America has always been at public institutions, at community colleges in particular, that have not only admitted but positioned students for success in work, citizenship and life. That’s the story that goes untold in this conflation of Harvard, Penn and MIT with all of American higher education.”



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