A Counter-Revolution in Higher-Ed

On stopping the woke juggernaut

For six decades running, progressive professors have enjoyed both academic freedom and freedom of speech generally on America’s college campuses. That state of affairs seems secure for the foreseeable future. The instruments of enforcement that see to it are wielded by Democratic office holders, leftist and largely permanent federal and state bureaucracies, and even accrediting agencies established to “serve” Christian institutions of higher learning.

The message from the Department of Education to accrediting agencies and through them to the trustees and administrators of the nation’s colleges and universities is this—use the words we put in your mouth, and all shall be well. Those words may include social justice, implicit bias, underrepresented and underserved populations, systemic racism, whiteness, and others. At the moment, the Holy Trinity of compulsory woke confession is known to all —“We believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Like the Oceanic Newspeak of Orwell’s 1984, the semantic range of those words proves remarkably elastic—they can mean whatever Big Brother wants them to mean at any given time. They can mean the opposite of what they seem to signify. Therein lies the trouble and the threat.

The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) recently directed all member institutions to produce, as their happy duty, their own puff piece on the first person of that Holy Trinity, “Diversity.” That directive surprised few employees of our nation’s colleges and universities—least of all the shrinking and embattled contingent of self-identified conservative professors who earn their livings in higher education.

McCarthyism Old and New

The last time professors on the left found themselves under hostile scrutiny occurred more than 60 years ago and even then, liberals dominated American higher education. In a 1950 speech in Wheeling West Virginia, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) launched his campaign to root communists out of American institutions, including colleges and universities. That campaign came to something of a screeching halt after March 9, 1954 when CBS’s Edward R. Murrow devoted an episode of his documentary series See It Now to a scathing examination of McCarthy’s efforts. Murrow declared, “we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.” Three months later, before a Senate committee hearing and to a live national television audience, legal counsel for the US Army Joseph Nye Welch pronounced for posterity the epitaph upon McCarthy’s short-lived popularity: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”1

McCarthy was a blip on the radar in the advance of left-wing ideology in American higher education. Hospitality to diverse viewpoints on campus post-McCarthy began rapidly to disappear. A rooting out among faculty occurred not, in fact, of communists, but of conservatives. By 1969, as published in political scientists Everett Ladd and Seymour Martin’s seminal book The Divided Academy, 46% of professors described themselves as liberal, 27% as moderate, and 28% as conservative. A follow-up study of 1995 commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation and directed by Ladd and Martin reported 57% of the professors surveyed identified as liberals, 20% as moderates, and 24% as conservatives. By 2006, only 6% of faculty had the courage to self-identify as conservative. That study has progressives outnumbering conservatives 12 to 1.

Senator McCarthy’s four-year campaign never came close to interrupting the steady expansion of progressive control over higher education. Today, with college education accepted as a rite of passage for all of America’s youth, institutions of higher learning function as thought shapers for America’s future as never before. A culture war may run hotter or colder in the nation at large, but no such war obtains where America’s high school graduates go to prepare for adulthood, if it ever really did. There conservatives do not fight; they keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and try to survive.

When Totalitarians Win—Self-Censors Are Born

Both conservatives and liberals learn quickly who keeps the totalitarian rules of the college game. The minuscule cadre of conservative faculty learns to self-censor rather than jeopardize their hiring, pay-raises, promotion, and, if offered, tenure. Conservative students hide their views from professors and from fellow students. Campus culture even squelches questioning by liberal and moderate students who had hoped at college to encounter and wrestle with the strongest possible advocates of views across the spectrum from left to right.

The Buckley Program at Yale surveyed a national sample of 800 undergraduates and  found that more “than half (54%) reported they ‘often’ felt intimidated by their peers on campus.” 62% of self-identified conservative students “often” felt silenced.

The Knight Foundation’s 2019 survey of over 4,400 undergraduates found that 68% felt silenced because “their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive.” One free speech survey of almost 20,000 college students confirmed that self-censorship is the norm on campus: “Six out of ten college students say they have kept quiet due to fear of how others would respond.”

Even The Atlantic acknowledges the liberal hegemony over approved speech on American campuses. In a February, 2020 article “Evidence That Conservative Students Really Do Self-Censor: Is free speech imperiled on American college campuses?” Connor Friedersdorf concludes that:

  • While majorities favor more viewpoint diversity and free-speech norms, an intolerant faction of roughly a quarter of students believe it is okay to silence or suppress some widely held views that they deem wrong.
  • Students across political perspectives engage in classroom self-censorship.
  • Students harbor divisive stereotypes about classmates with different beliefs, and a substantial minority are not open to engaging socially with classmates who don’t share their views.
  • Disparaging comments about political conservatives are common.

One of the most interesting findings in terms of political bias emerged from a report of The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) comparing conservative student ratings of institutions with liberal student ratings. Even when conservatives rank a predominantly liberal institution highly in terms of being open to speech, they find themselves self-censoring. At the University of Chicago, ranked highly by both liberals (1st) and conservatives (3rd) as open to speech, 82% of conservatives still self-censor. One such conservative said “[I am] afraid to disagree with certain liberal talking points because even if I do not agree with the conservative side . . . I feel like I will be rejected for not being ‘woke’ enough.” Even 53% of moderates and 40% of liberals say they hold back their opinions on campus. Young Americans experience the least tolerance for diversity of viewpoint in the place that produces the loudest protestations of diversity—the colleges and universities they attend.

Those who believe DEI-enforced intolerance on campus reflects widely held societal views on social justice are mistaken. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) found that while college professors lurched left between 1989 and 2019, the nation as a whole did not. The progressive hegemon that prevails in universities reflects less the views of the nation it serves than the vision it means to cast for the nation.

Words Rendered to Christ or Caesar?

If that vision makes little room for conservatives to speak their minds, it affords conservative Christians even less. When word of the University of Colorado’s head football coach Deion Sanders’ praying drew complaints from The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Patrick O’Rourke (the free exercise clause of the first amendment notwithstanding) “provided guidance [to Sanders] on the non-discrimination policies . . . on the boundaries in which players and coaches may and may not engage in religious expression.” Gratified by U of C’s quick action, FFRF’s president commended the University of Colorado “[for] taking seriously its commitment to secularism and diversity.” 

Even when Christian colleges and universities try to build biblically faithful partnerships in non-accrediting collaboratives, it seems it’s just a matter of time before those efforts fall prey to predatory progressive forces. Launched in 1976, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), boasting 183 members, seeks “to advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth.” In 2015 the Southern Baptist affiliated Union University in Jackson, Tennessee withdrew from CCCU. In a statement, Union President Samuel Oliver said that two CCCU member institutions – Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University “abandoned fidelity to God’s Word when they endorsed same-sex marriage.” Seven years later the two same-sex affirming schools remain members in good standing and several objecting schools are poised to follow the path Union took. When CCCU President Shirley Hoogstra joined Drag Queens and other LBGTQ+ for the ceremonial signing of the Orwelianesquely named Respect For Marriage Act in December, the progressive takeover of CCCU appeared complete.

Though the CCCU does not offer accreditation, only institutions with accreditation recognized by the Department of Education (DOE) are eligible for membership. The same is true of the recently launched International Alliance for Christian Education (IACE) which seeks “to unify, synergize, and strengthen collective conviction around biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy, cultural witness, scholarship, professional excellence, and resourcing of Christian education at all levels.”

The appearance of the word “orthopraxy” seems particularly noteworthy. It signals recognition that orthodox confession of say the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, though essential to any unity that merits designation as “Christian,” has nevertheless proven insufficient to protect the Christian witness of institutions where winsomeness to blue communities or enforcers of wokeness intrude. Equally essential are ancient ethical norms clearly taught in Holy Scripture and recognized for twenty-centuries in the global church. Thus, “Cultural Witness,” one of IACE’s four value-commitments, requires member institutions to reflect “biblical orthodoxy and historic Christian teachings regarding cultural engagement and renewal of foundational social order, including human life, human sexuality, marriage, and family.”

Will such language sufficiently strengthen member institutions to secure the Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy of administrators and faculty? By themselves they will not. Where institutional trustees are committed to participation in the Federal Student Loan program or Pell Grants or any one of an array such of lucrative Federal subsidies, the Department of Education shall exercise, if it wishes, determinative influence over that institution right down to the words inserted into the mission statements, strategic initiatives, and the very mouths of its administrators, faculty, and student leaders. Dollar signs hover over, under, and around every political, cultural, social, and moral whim or conviction that passes through or lodges in the Department of Education, its sitting Secretary, and the sitting President to whom it answers.

Will IACE’s insistence on biblical orthopraxy be sufficient to counterbalance the ways in which accreditation itself will be used as a cudgel to force compliance among its member institutions? Where Federal subsidies provide an essential part of the balance sheet, read these words from the DOE and buckle-up: “The Department holds accrediting agencies accountable by ensuring that they enforce their accreditation standards effectively.”

You Cannot Serve God And Mammon

Currently, one gauge of such effective enforcement by the DOE is crystal clear. They expect to hear back from the institutions whose accreditation they recognize the Newspeak du jour delivered to them—diversity, equity, and inclusion. Those words did not emerge from the National Prayer Breakfast. They were cooked up in a critical theory concoction with help from Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, et. al. “Inclusion,” for example, means particularly that the “U.S. Department of Education Confirms Title IX Protects Students from Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” Compulsory DEI comes to campus with the full and enforceable backing of the Biden/Harris Ministry of Truth.

Like the Marxists of yesteryear and would-be totalitarians of all times, wise and loving parents know attempts to shape the character of their little ones must include the insertion of their words into those little mouths and the hearing of them spoken back. In my case the package of compelled speech included “I am sorry,” “Excuse me,” “Yes ma’am” “No ma’am,” “Yes sir,” and “No sir” and many others such as “Jesus is Lord” and “thou shalt not bear false witness.” Once upon a time in America, the prerogative to shape the character of the young was understood, by common consensus, to reside first, mostly, and uniquely with parents because there, in the traditional family as established by the creator, and there alone, “compelled speech” could prove to be the happy duty of love.

Conservatives often insist that politics is downstream from culture. And so it often is. But as Paul Moreno, Scott Yenor, and Mary Eberstadt have demonstrated, culture itself, especially its moral components, is also downstream from politics and law. Laws governing obscenity, marriage, sexual behavior, and the protection of children (or lack thereof) are cases in point. Law demonstrates its power to alter the moral sensibilities and norms of society with regularity—not least by shaping what Philip Reiff contends is the key to any culture, namely what if forbids, what it stigmatizes. Smoking by almost anyone, anywhere, anytime once flourished free from social stigma. The law changed that, reversed it, in fact. Sex outside of marriage, divorce, and out-of-wedlock birth, once evoked shame; and fear of such shame incentivized avoidance of sex outside of marriage, and commitment to one’s spouse till death did part them, especially among Christians. No-fault divorce, the pill, and legalized abortion on demand reduced former stigmas and gave rise to the stigmatization of those who try to retain them.

Institutions that submit to the social stigmatizations the FFRF seeks to enforce upon the University of Colorado will nurture a culture not Christian, nor in fact genuinely tolerant, but, as FFRF identified in its congratulations to U of C’s prompt “training” of Deion Sanders, secular; that is to say: de facto, mandated, public atheism. Say what you are told to say, not what you want to say. Don’t say Jesus is Lord or the Bible is God’s word, or homosexual behavior is an abomination before God. Instead say, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The institutions most free to say what they want without consideration for the agenda of the DOE are the handful of schools that take no government subsidies—Oklahoma Wesleyan, Hillsdale in Michigan, Ralston in Savannah, and a few others. But where does that leave the masses of students whose parents wish to shield their children, and in doing so, the nation itself, from the totalitarian designs of government Newspeak?

Effective defense of such parents and students proves rare indeed. Governor Kay Ivey announced that critical race theory is banned in the state of Alabama. But in fact, she sits on the board of the University of Alabama where Richard Delgado, a founder of critical race theory and author along with his wife, also a professor at UA, of the CRT primer Critical Race Theory: An Introduction is a tenured professor and thus on the payroll of Ivey’s constituents.

Replace Their Words With Yours

The exception is Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. For the last year his administration has fought to shut down critical theory, critical race theory and DEI indoctrination not only in K-12 education as have governors in Virginia and Alabama, but signed a bill to do the same in state funded colleges and universities as well. Under Donald Trump, Secretary of Education Besty DeVos found that left wing indoctrination was the norm in the DOE: “The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”

After a briefing on the penetration of critical race theory (CRT) at Princeton, Trump signed an executive order to launch an investigation of possible CRT-driven violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act at Princeton. Princeton’s President Eisgruber immediately pledged to cooperate fully. Within days of Governor DeSantis’s bill signing, 28 presidents of Florida colleges and universities released a statement welcoming the Governor’s agenda. What do the trustees and presidents of the nation’s federal- and state- funded colleges and universities really believe about the woke agenda pushed by the Democrat Party and a vast unelected bureaucracy? Who knows? But they respond quickly, clearly, and positively to the overtures of government officials and agencies that have their hands on the money faucets.

Conservatives have become the lepers, the Kulaks of higher education. Any agenda that means to improve education through diversity must work to increase the number of conservative voices on campus, period. Who can make that happen? Whoever has the power to punish schools that fail to do so. As long as Democrats or establishment Republicans retain that power, little will change. Only when trustees, university administrators, and politicians prepared to represent and fight for conservatives on the campuses of America will conservative parents and students access an education free from the totalitarian revolution marching through the nation’s institutions.

As both George Orwell and Hannah Arendt contend, where totalitarian forces succeed, they do so not so much with ideology, but with propaganda backed by government power and the power of the mob. Confronted by an agitated sitting President of  New College of Florida and a woke student mob, but backed by an array of armed police officers, newly DeSantis appointed conservative trustee Christopher Rufo just politely said no President Patricia Okker’s demand to cancel a trustee meeting due to “safety concerns.” Within hours the Rufo-led trustees fired Okker and cast a new vision for New College’s future without a DEI propaganda enforcement department in place.

DeSantis promises to abolish DEI departments in Florida’s public colleges and universities. Rufo proposes a three-pronged plan for conservatives to do the same across the country that entails narrative, policy, and action components. A key action is to replace the government’s Newspeak trinity of DEI with their own—EMCB (Equality, Merit, and Colorblindness). Every major mainstream media “news” outlet in the country has responded to DeSantis’ and Rufo’s actions and plans with panicked, false, freak-out coverage. That alone suggests that what is happening in Florida is likely good for America.

C.S. Lewis said “courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Rufo contends that effective resistance to the woke revolution requires conservative activism and courage. Conservatives tend to be congenitally averse to activism, and courage is the rarest of virtues. Will conservatives act with courage as DeSantis and Rufo have? The most telling sign of real change on campus will be the disappearance of woke propaganda and the presence of conservatives, Christian and otherwise, speaking freely their own words, not the words of others, and doing so without fear of reprisal.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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  1. Be that as it may, Stanton Evans’s meticulous examination of McCarthy in his 2007 book, Blacklisted By History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies demonstrates how enduringly successful propaganda can be. It is hard to fathom how anyone who loves America could absorb Evans’s research without admiration for McCarthy.
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Mark DeVine

Mark DeVine teaches historical theology and doctrine, as well as Teaching Elder of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Smoke Rise, Alabama. Dr. DeVine is the author of several books and writes at The Federalist, American Spectator, The Western Journal, Christ Over All, and American Thinker.