Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered few details of her views on higher education during her confirmation hearings.
But on Thursday, in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, she sharply criticized faculty members and accused them trying to indoctrinate students. She devoted only a paragraph to higher education in a relatively short speech, but she captured lots of attention. Here’s what she said, after asking how many in the audience were college students:
“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. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”
DeVos opened her speech by saying that she wasn’t worried about what “the mainstream media has called me lately.”
Past education secretaries have offered plenty of criticism of higher education. Both Margaret Spellings (under a Republican administration) and Arne Duncan (under a Democratic administration) have raised questions about college costs, accountability and measures of student learning. But secretaries after William J. Bennett (in President Reagan’s second term) have not generally been culture warriors.
The CPAC crowd loved the speech and cheered DeVos on.
The American Council on Education declined to comment. As did the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that has criticized many colleges as not being sufficiently committed to free speech.
Via email, Michael B. Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that has argued for a traditional and more rigorous college curriculum, expressed sympathy for some of what DeVos discussed. “Our colleges must do a better job preparing graduates for citizenship in a free society, which relies on robust debate, not safe spaces,” he said. “For too long, higher education has allowed these principles to erode. It’s a real problem when multiple cases of the ‘heckler’s veto’ go unpunished; when a significant percentage of students believe it acceptable to bar journalists from a public assembly if they believe they will not write favorably about their message, freedom of the press is under assault; and it simply does not bode well for a free society when – as a Gallup poll shows – a significant percentage of students favor restrictions on political views that others might find offensive.”
Many faculty advocates were critical. On social media, many expressed surprise that DeVos singled out adjuncts, who have relatively little power or job security and many of whom say that as a result they avoid politics or anything that might offend some students. Others noted that while there have been many studies showing that faculty members — especially in residential, traditional colleges — lean left, there isn’t evidence beyond occasional anecdotes of indoctrination of the sort DeVos described.
Neil Gross, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at Colby College and author of a new book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (Harvard University Press). said via email of the DeVos speech: “In one way, these lines are standard conservative fare, red meat for the CPAC crowd. But coming from an administration that’s said little else about higher ed, it’s worrisome. It suggests they see colleges and universities, and the faculty, as the political enemy — and not much more.”
Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said via email: “The role of faculty members is to teach students how to think, not what to think. That the secretary of education would apply such a gross generalization to all faculty members ‘from adjuncts to deans’ tells me she could benefit from visiting college classrooms to see how higher education really works.”
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, who has attracted attention for her willingness to criticize what she sees as falsehoods coming out of the Trump administration, said via email that the speech was “a terrible start” for DeVos as education secretary.
McGuire elaborated: “Shame on the secretary of education for making such an anti-intellectual, anti-academic speech! Has she visited any colleges recently and listened to any of the robust discussions in and out of class, seen the demonstrations and disruptions that are often part of campus life, read the papers and theses that challenge all forms of conventional wisdom, listened to the students at spoken word nights and public forums of all kinds? Does she think that students don’t have their own well-stated opinions on political issues? She speaks of college students as if they are children — does she know that nearly half of college students are adults, that 25 percent or more are parents, that millions are working professionals while earning degrees?”
Added McGuire: “My students at Trinity are certainly not silent nor some kind of vacuous victims — they are constantly speaking out and seeking the best possible opportunities to learn. Does she understand why students go to college — to learn, to learn how to be persuasive, to soak up the knowledge that faculty can impart, to learn how to think logically — yes, sometimes faculty DO tell students ‘what to do’ (here’s how to conduct the experiment), ‘what to say’ (here’s a suggestion for how to make a more persuasive argument) and ‘what to think’ (let’s examine that concept more critically…) For goodness sakes, she seems to be in favor of IGNORANCE rather than education. But her insinuation that faculty indoctrinate passive, flaccid students is just another ‘alternative fact’ for the alternative reality of the new administration.”