Higher ed is under attack, everywhere. We have grown to expect attacks on elite institutions, but now threats target regional and rural institutions, metastasizing. Conservatives are assaulting the very institutions that provide the surest access to higher education for their own constituents. A current case in point is what is happening at Northern Idaho College (NIC), a small, rural community college in Coeur D’Alene.
Early on a very cold Friday morning this past January, NIC Board Chair Todd Banducci sent five rapid-fire emails to the institution’s president, Nick MacLennan, giving the president “his marching orders.” Banducci was not happy. He demanded the president stifle student speech and change the college’s COVID-19 protocols. For good measure, he derided the president’s wife as a Hillary supporter. He directly threatened the president’s job.
Board chairs and presidents can often be at odds. But tension at NIC seems less about educational operations, outcomes, or fiscal responsibility. Instead, it seems to be pulling from the Trump political playbook. Schools like NIC that provide the bulk of the educational opportunities in this country get little attention and fewer resources. They train students for careers, focusing mainly on vocational outcomes, because jobs matter. In short, they are an unusual target for conservatives.
This dust-up in Idaho is significant because what’s happening there highlights what is happening everywhere. The cause seems to be the drastic shift in local politics, as The Chronicle of Higher Education put it: “In Kootenai County [the county that NIC serves], as in counties across America, disdain for colleges is thriving among people on the right and far right. For years, locals have made bogeymen out of the faculty, characterizing them as radicals with leftist agendas, committed to indoctrinating students.”
What we are seeing is much more than institutional distrust. As a recent letter writer to a Midwestern local newspaper said, “We have far too many progressive liberals in non-political positions of power [at universities] that affect our daily lives,” and that has to stop. Conservatives since the 1950s have seen elite colleges and universities as systems of indoctrination and ideology. In 1966, after all, Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California on a platform that centered on attacking the University of California at Berkeley as nothing more than a home for radicalisms.
Starting in the 1980s, there was a push for colleges to become more vocationally focused, i.e. less elitist, which turned fire on the liberal arts as useless. This sentiment is expressed in the 2005 Commission on the Future of Higher Education, better known as the Spellings Commission. Formed by President George W. Bush to investigate the state of higher education, its report stressed a needed shift toward job training and readiness. What makes the current attacks so shocking is the hostile gaze is now aimed at what was seen by an earlier generation of conservatives and neoliberals (Clinton, Obama, and Biden?) as the solution.
Critics have continued to attack ethnic and gender studies, as well as the arts and humanities. “If you want to take gender studies that's fine,” said North Carolina GOP Governor Pat McCrory in 2013, “go to a private school and take it... But I don't want to subsidize that...” They blame critical race theory for ruining America and teaching students to hate their country. Now, vocationally focused institutions are rolled up into the assault. In the era of “alternative facts,” the devaluing of education should worry everyone as the damage done to our institutions of science and learning is dangerous, as COVID-19 revealed.
Unfolding right before our eyes is the next phase of the systematic dismantling of higher education. Higher education isn’t perfect and everyone agrees it needs true change. It will no doubt try to respond to these new pressures, but all the paths seem blocked.
Maybe Joe Biden can try to restore confidence in higher education. His wife is, after all, a professor at a community college. He brought rollbacks of Trump/DeVos-era policies. Recently, we learned that the Biden administration plans to give the nation’s community colleges a huge shot in the arm (funding).
If he is successful, Biden seems poised to return to the past that sees higher education mainly as job training. And, while the infusions of money for these institutions is surely needed, it might come too late for schools like NIC, who are in a deathmatch for their lives. Higher education is hurting. Lost in the moment is the larger purpose of higher education, that universities can and should have twin goals: provide students with the skills and means for a good life and to be engaged in the world. One without the other is failure.
Demographics seem to be destiny. Much attention has been paid to national demographic trends. But, change is happening everywhere. In Idaho’s Kootenia county, BuzzFeed reported on the “thousands of ex–LAPD officers, doomsday preppers, ‘traditionalist’ Catholics, and far-right evangelicals who’ve flocked to the white, conservative utopia of North Idaho over the last 20 years, working to remake the Republican Party in their own image.” It appears they succeeded.
In 2020, more than half of state Idaho Republican senators wrote a letter to Boise State University President Marlene Tromp, who was only on the job a few days, attacking the university’s diversity efforts, stating that “this drive to create a diversified and inclusive culture becomes divisive and exclusionary because it separates and segregates students….” The Idaho legislature then slashed the higher education budget. “I think the problem is curriculum, and the bureaucracy that is moving that curriculum,” said GOP state representative Vito Barberi. “We’re talking about equity and inclusion instead of reading, writing, and arithmetic.” “Why is it that university towns, every time they’re polled, show a socialist bent?” He continues, “It has to come from those that are teaching the curriculum. So the whole bureaucracy itself in my mind has already turned left.”
Many conservatives see tenure as how the liberal establishment holds power. In Iowa, every year since 2017, the Republicans in the legislature have introduced bills to dissolve tenure in the state's public institutions. “I wonder if the assault on free speech by some university professors is not related to the belief that they’re Teflon-coated and indestructible,” said GOP Iowa Rep. Steve Holt, “therefore, maybe we need to look at getting rid of tenure...” There have been other states that have also moved in this direction, such as Wisconsin, Missouri, and Florida just to name just a few.
So it is through this larger framework that we need to see NIC’s issues. The Board Chair recently said he was battling the “NIC ‘deep state’” on an “almost daily basis.” Liberals, he continued, “are quite deeply entrenched” but “we are registering victories,” Referring to faculty and administrators as part of the deep state, viewing higher education as a liberal hoax. Sound familiar?
Seeing colleges and universities as factories for making Democrats and therefore enemies of the state results in the diminishment of the very institutions that can and should provide a pathway into the middle class and fulfillment of the American dream. It, therefore, seems counterintuitive that conservatives would attack the very institutions they should be holding most dear and defending.