Last week the University of Oklahoma’s disregard for students’ free speech rights was displayed yet again. A disquieting recording, publicized by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, shows faculty presenters at a recent pedagogy workshop encouraging participants to “call out” students who use “problematic language” or reference “white supremacist ideas or sources” in their speech or writing. The “Anti-Racist Rhetoric and Pedagogies” workshop was one of several offered to first-year English composition instructors, who must attend one workshop each semester.

One presenter can be heard saying, “One of the fears is that we’re going to get in trouble for this, right? Like we can’t tell students that they can’t say something in class. But we can. And let me tell you how.” Another says, “I, in this case, usually look for my students who might be, like, entertaining the idea of listening to a problematic argument. Then I say, ‘we don’t have to listen to that.’” 

This marks the second time in just a few months that OU has been exposed by FIRE, a nonpartisan group that defends student and faculty rights at American universities. The first instance involved mandatory diversity training for all paid employees, including graduate students and student-employees, that forced participants to regurgitate university-approved responses to viewpoint-based questions. 

At one point, participants were shown a hypothetical of a colleague saying, “I’m so tired of all this transgender stuff,” and asked how they would react. One option read, “I agree. Political correctness can be so tiring.” But participants who chose this were considered wrong, and were prevented from finishing the training until they chose the ‘correct’ answer. 

I won’t bother arguing that violating free speech is immoral. Arguments proceed from shared premises, but unfortunately, the moral common ground shared by classical liberals on the center-left and -right and the illiberal ideology overtaking our state’s universities is increasingly blurry. 

But presuming even those behind the growing illiberality understand self-interest, I ask them a sincere question: How long until public funding for higher education becomes a partisan issue? 

It seems plausible to me that if academic ideologues continue forsaking their traditional commitment to liberal education – teaching students to think for themselves, not to conform to higher authorities – then bipartisan support for their public funds will begin to erode – and that means less job security for those doing the forsaking. 

A recent Gallup poll found that 67% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters report having “some or very little” confidence in higher education. You might expect Republicans are anxious about the student debt crisis, but actually, the data clearly show their main concern is political bias. The top two reasons Republicans cited to explain their low confidence were “too political/too liberal” (32%) and “not allowing students to think for themselves” (21%). 

Even for the minority of Republicans with “a lot of confidence” in higher education, the top reasons for their confidence included things like “personal experience” (32%) and “higher ed is essential to the country” (16%). In contrast, a mere two percent were confident in higher education’s ability to “train students to think for themselves,” and only five percent were confident it “teaches an open mind.” And even for Democrats with “a lot of confidence,” their least cited reason was “train students to think for themselves” (5%), and their third-least cited reason was “teaches an open mind” (7%). In an analysis of these results, the poll’s authors ask, “To what degree will diminished confidence in higher education among Republicans lead to decreased public support and funding for colleges and universities?” 

Murmurs within conservative leadership about defunding higher education are growing louder. The Trump tax overhaul of 2017 levied the first-ever tax on university endowments. Not long before his death in 2019, the imminent British conservative Roger Scruton recommended withdrawing public funds from humanities departments immediately. The May 6, 2021 episode of Victor Davis Hansen’s podcast is titled “What Killed Higher Ed?” 

In our own state, Governor Stitt recently signed legislation banning public universities from requiring any diversity training that involves racist or sexist bias or stereotyping. A co-sponsor of the legislation, David Bullard of Durant, stated that he sees higher education and K-12 trending away from high-quality education toward a “policy of indoctrination.” 

The extent to which political bias pervades college campuses is, of course, arguable. But no matter your political leanings, it would be unsurprising if there was a systemic problem, given a brief look at data on the political demographics of college faculty. A meta-analysis by two sociologists found that “the difference in political self-identity between professors and other Americans is over 1.5 times that between blacks and whites” and “over twice as great as that between the bottom and top deciles in constant household income.” It also found that of 126 occupations examined, “the professoriate is tied with the category ‘authors and journalists’ for the highest proportion of liberals,” and “for the period 2000–2008, it is the single most liberal occupation.” 

Whatever the underlying reason, our universities are political monoliths whose political demographics don’t reflect the wider population. Who could blame Oklahoma taxpayers if they started having second thoughts about subsidizing an institution that continues to not only fail at fostering unity and civil discussion, but to do so flamboyantly? 

Luke Tucker is an intern for the 1889 Institute and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. He can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.