Apr 22, 2024 - Politics & Policy

DEI backlash pushes shell-shocked colleges to the right

Illustration of a fist pushing over the columns of a university building to the right

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big-name colleges are now cracking down more aggressively on pro-Palestinian protests, which they say are getting increasingly intense and disruptive.

Why it matters: Politicians exerting massive pressure on universities over protests, diversity efforts and curricula have started to push administrators to the right.

  • Congressional testimony by Columbia University's leadership and the school's subsequent aggressive posture toward student protesters this week spotlighted the increasing influence of conservatives on America's campuses.
  • It's a stark pivot from just a few years ago, when colleges bolstered their diversity, equity and inclusion programs and course offerings in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.

Driving the news: Republican representatives have led congressional inquiries into the state of antisemitism on elite college campuses.

Zoom in: Tensions at Columbia bubbled over last week after university president Minouche Shafik called in the NYPD to disband a pro-Palestinian encampment at the center of campus.

  • The University of Michigan said it would draft a new policy on punishable disruptive behavior following a pro-Palestinian protest at its convocation.
  • The University of Southern California canceled its valedictorian's commencement speech, citing safety concerns that the student called a "campaign of racist hatred."
  • Stanford University banned overnight camping in February to end an encampment populated by dueling pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli tents, citing student safety, extreme weather and rodents.

State of play: The move at Columbia "chills student expression, marks a significant departure from past practice and raises questions about the university's disparate treatment of students based on their views," ACLU of New York executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.

  • More than 100 students were arrested by officers in riot gear, but protesters continued the demonstration for a fifth consecutive day on Sunday.
  • The university's rules state that police should only be involved as a last resort, rendering it unclear why NYPD was called on "a protest that by all available accounts was peaceful," said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of Columbia's Knight First Amendment Institute, in a statement.

What we're watching: Higher education has also become part of state-level political agendas and the 2024 presidential election.

  • New College of Florida in Sarasota became DeSantis' experiment in turning a liberal arts institution to a conservative one, including the trustee appointment of Christopher Rufo, an activist who turned critical race theory into a conservative target.
  • Former President Trump last year pledged to "fire the radical left accreditors" and hire new ones to impose standards protecting free speech and removing DEI efforts, if elected president.

The big picture: A number of other moves in higher education are reversing decades-long policy fixtures and key 2020-era changes.

  • The Supreme Court ruled last year that colleges can't explicitly use affirmative action in admissions decisions.
  • The move was expected to decrease diversity in colleges and universities, funneling eventually into less diverse professional industries.
  • Elite universities have reinstated requirements for standardized testing. Schools originally said they hoped dropping the tests would improve equity.

Between the lines: Prospective college students say they care about state policies when they make school decisions.

  • Last year, a quarter of students said they'd shun a school in a state whose politics or policies they abhor — regardless of whether they're liberal, moderate or conservative, according to higher-ed consultancy Art & Science Group.
  • Reproductive health laws also influence student enrollment decisions, Gallup polling found this year.

Go deeper: Higher ed hires up on strategic communications support

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