For the past two years, a wave of Republican legislation has sought to restrict the teaching of critical race theory. While K-12 schools receive much of the ire and repression from conservatives, PEN America reports that 39 percent of these “gag rule” bills introduced this year targeted higher education.
Ellen Schrecker, the leading historian of how the McCarthy era affected higher education, has called these bills “worse than McCarthyism” for their attempts to control college teaching. Although this legislation attacking colleges is unprecedented, the distrust on the right toward academic freedom — and universities — isn’t new.
For decades, conservatives charged that free speech on campus allowed leftist academics to run amok, preaching ideas antithetical to American values. Then, for a brief time beginning in the late 1980s, conservatives embraced free speech on campus as a way to ensure that right-of-center voices would be heard. Today, however, many on the right have begun to see universities as hopeless, and are resurrecting the older approach of limiting what they see as dangerous ideas on campuses.
William F. Buckley, perhaps the leading conservative intellectual of the last half of the 20th century, first made his mark by attacking academia in 1951’s “God and Man at Yale.” Buckley’s book appeared at the height of McCarthyism, and the subtitle told the story, complete with scare quotes: “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom.’ ” Buckley called for conservative trustees, donors and politicians to purge professors who doubted God or, worse, questioned capitalism.
The campus revolts of the 1960s resulted in more conservative suspicions about academic freedom, with Ronald Reagan running for governor of California in 1966 promising to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” and denouncing student invitations to have activist Stokely Carmichael and liberal Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) speak on campus. In a 1967 speech, Gov. Reagan denounced “so-called ‘free-speech advocates’ ” and the “activities of the Vietnam Day Committee,” bemoaning how “all this has been allowed to go on in the name of academic freedom.”
And these ideas and suspicions didn’t disappear with the end of the tumultuous 1960s on campuses. As late as 1985, the right-wing group Accuracy in Academia asked students to “monitor” and report on their biased professors. Even within the academy conservatives raised alarm bells about too much campus free speech. In 1987, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) formed to represent conservative faculty in America. Its first chairman, Herbert London, warned, “Academic freedom has become a refuge for radicals.”