From 2023 to 2024: a growing academic civil war

2023 is nearly done, for which many people are no doubt thankful. In several blog posts I’d like to look back at the year before it’s over to identify some trends which look likely to shape 2024.

Today’s topic is what I’ve been quietly calling an academic civil war.   Political struggles within higher education loomed large and are likely to persist in 2024.  Academia is also an object for external political struggle.

DALL·E 2023-12-27 21.50.28 - A futuristic vision of the year 2024, with a bustling cityscape and advanced technology like flying cars and holographic displays. The architecture is

(By this term I mean to shock, appropriately, because we’ve seen some damage to academia over the past year, and we’d be wise to anticipate more in the next.  I also intend the term to indicate complex, messy conflict playing out differently across the sector and beyond.  Is the term too violent for the reality it seeks to describe?  Oh, I certainly hope so. As someone who’s actually spent time in a real civil war (Bosnia and Croatia, 1995) I don’t want to overstate the term’s meaning here, although we’ve already suffered some violent deaths in political clashes (for example).  But perhaps things will worsen. See below.)

To recap from 2023: struggles have occurred across numerous colleges and universities over diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Off-campus, state and federal officials have played major roles in this fights, notably in legislative actions.   Donors have also played a role.  Some DEI advocates see themselves as doing badly overdue antiracist work, while their opponents view their actions as stopping a pernicious ideology.

Related struggles took place over gender identity, similarly involving multiple actors within and adjacent to campuses. Academic reactions to the Israel-Gaza war constitute another example of this trend, at times to a higher intensity.  The states which restricted abortion access following the Dobbs decision have seen some degree of protest on their campuses, along with some number of students withdrawing their interest and faculty and staff leaving.

Free speech and academic freedom (which are not identical) became leading sites of contestation, as we say.  Debates over the two concepts’ meaning and applications raged across and beyond academia, ranging from detailed discussions of legal and policy language to clumsy virtue signaling and media posturing. We held several Future Trends Forum sessions on the topic this year with a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter and the authors of PEN America’s guide to academic freedom, plus two events late in 2022, one with a FIRE researcher and the other with professors Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth.

Interesting to me is how rarely climate change played such a role in campus politics, at least in the United States.

These struggles took place against a social background of declining faith in higher education. We’ve seen that measured by a series of 2023 polls, such as from Gallup or like this Wall Street Journal one:

Political partisanship has played a role here, with Republicans especially likely to hold negative views of higher education.  We saw many incidents of GOP politicians from Trump on down hitting colleges and universities for the usual reasons: teaching outrageous ideologies, tenuring outrageous radicals, wasting money, suborning national security, etc.

Looking for 2024, it seems to me that all of these developments and attitudes will still be in play, at least for the next few months.  The Gaza war is still raging, as of this writing.  Trans people are not going away, nor are their opponents.  The desire to do DEI work on campuses, and its opposite, appear to be firmly in place in academic institutions and general politics.

I am concerned that we may see the intensity of such struggles escalate. The 2024 state and national elections are already revving up, since America made the idiotic decision to have presidential campaigns last two or more years. Given how leading Republicans have been acting towards academics, we should expect the rhetoric of criticizing colleges and universities to heat up.  Given how elected officials have sought to pass, or succeeded in implementing, laws about antiracism, Israel, gender identity, academic freedom, curricular content, and more over the past year, it seems likely we’ll see more of those interventions aired or successfully passed into law and policy.

Will things get worse?  Blog readers know I have been forecasting the possibility of American political violence for some time (for example).  Others have as well – coming up this spring is a movie about a titular civil war.

We have largely avoided such chaos so far, but the conditions for at least low-level violence remain: huge numbers of weapons held by citizens, some very angry activists, a significant number of people open to violence.  A bitter election season holds out many opportunities for armed conflict.  Hyperconnected devices make it easy to spread documentation (true or faked) and commentary on outrages.  Political polarization looks to be entrenched and intense.

Could political violence hit our campuses?  It’s not hard to imagine.  Historically, the 1960s saw plenty of cases, from riots to bombings.  In the present day students, faculty, and staff can access weapons, depending on their situation.  Those academics are also plugged into digital networks, which can bring non-academic incidents to campus life through personalized media.

I’m speaking in a kind of binary, violence/no-violence, but that’s only the start.  Should America or its campuses cross that divide into wounding and killing, a cycle of more of the same can begin.  Those who feel linked to the injured may seek revenge. People not physically connected to where an act occurred may feel moved to descend there to play a role.   Modern Ireland and Italy experienced examples of such chronic cycles, and the United States may not prove immune.

Let me emphasize the complexity of the problem.  All too often I see politicians, journalists, and – worse – academics pick one elite campus to stand for all of higher ed. They focus on a few people from that campus as voices for the whole.  Yet America has roughly 4,000 academic institutions. They take all kinds of shapes and forms, from community colleges to research universities, small liberal arts colleges to vast state schools and mostly online enterprises, for-profit, non-profit, and public. These campuses exist across the vast geographical range of the United States and enjoy some degree of autonomy from each other and governments. What inflames one may leave another cold, in other words.

Meanwhile, recall the different populations involved.  When I say “academic” I have a broad sense of the word. For me academics include faculty, students, and staff.  Each has very different places within the academic, with varying responsibilities, rights, powers, expectations. And there are wild differences within each.  Faculty, for example, include adjuncts and full professors holding endowed chairs.  Staff range from system chancellors to custodians.

Some hold different part time positions within academia, like board members, whose roles can be decisive or quiescent, as we have seen in many stories this year. And that’s just within the academy proper.  Other populations are what I call “academically adjacent,” people who work and think with and about academy, albeit in other social milieux. Think of state officials, who sometimes pay attention to higher ed, or those working within businesses providing campuses with goods and services, from scholarly publishing to food preparation.   Then there are donors, who can try to leverage their gifts to change academic structures and behavior.

Beyond them are employers. Businesses, nonprofits, and governments hire college graduates and they certainly have views about job applicants.  This year we’ve seen some law and investment firms threaten not to hire graduates from certain schools

My point is: that’s a huge amount of people plugged into academia in many different ways. The politics of 2023 activated various students, donors, presidents, legislators, professors, etc., each acting from their position within the academic world.  Hence the diversity of forms activism has taken, from demonstrations and petitions to laws, syllabi, and the naming of buildings.  Looking to a potentially even more fraught 2024, we should expect a similar range of actions across these multiple social configurations.  Some may take the form of violence.

We may also see the creation or reformation of institutions along partisan lines.  We’ve seen signs of this in 2023, with Florida’s governor remaking one small college along conservative lines, while other campuses celebrate their deeply progressive identity. There’s a long American tradition of energetic people setting up new colleges and universities to express their religious and political beliefs.  Perhaps the University of Austin is just the first of a series to come.

Such creation and reformation might more easily take place online, given that primarily online institutions not only lack pesky physical plants but also – usually – contain mostly adjunct faculty. Imagine a pro-Palestinian, pro-trans, pro-DEI progressive counter to Liberty University.

How far might such new academic projects go?  Would professional organizations schisms over members’ political stances? Would an accreditation agency take an openly political stance, validating or punishing campuses for their stances on numerous issues?  Imagine a group giving its imprimatur to a college or university for supporting (some certain values of) human rights.

Let me turn back to the 2024 elections (are you sick of them already?) to draw some of these threads together. The 2020 election saw then-president Trump and his allies openly trying to break the electoral system, from threatening state officials to sending “alternative” electors to staging the Capitol riot. It’s possible 2024 might not see anything so dramatic. For example, perhaps Trump’s star will flare out through prison, illness, or death. If not…

We might see something like a strategy of tension aimed at election mechanisms and staff across the country, especially in battleground states.  Legal challenges to Trump could lead to protests and clashes with opponents, which the Republicans could turn to their own account, dunning progressives as hooligans, portraying themselves as the party of law and order.  Counterprotests might not manage to maintain the discipline of nonviolence.  Moreover, if Trump sees himself falling behind in polls, would he consider dangerous stunts to boost his fortunes and secure the presidency?

There are other possibilities for the election, of course, and some turn to civil unrest. Imagine if president Biden is incapacitated or dies, leading vice president Harris to run for the presidency. How might that stoke activity among the white supremacist and sexist right?  Would the Democratic party united behind Harris?  Other factors could lead to a contested convention, which could turn ugly.

Technology may play various roles.  The combination of mobile devices and social media mean that stories and documents of all kinds are created and shared extremely quickly, as we’ve learned. AI may give disinformation and misinformation a big boost. We may also see political argument take place on gaming platforms to a higher degree; I’m thinking of the hybrid games/virtual worlds, like Minecraft and Roblox, as well as the use of game engines to produce visual content.  And if Apple’s April launch of VisualPro gives mixed reality a shot in the arm, we may anticipate political content appeared in mixed, augmented, and virtual realities.

All of these possibilities may intersect with academia. Imagine a donor threatening to withdraw a major gift if their university fails to denounce protestors on campus. A state government might decide to discipline its universities should it find links between some of their academics and political actions. A politician might decide to attack the richest institutions directly, as one commentator suggests, citing an interesting historical precedent. Conversely, politicians might work with donors to set up institutes within institutions, as we’ve seen with the University of Texas. Statements from academics will readily circulate, stirring up anger and support: a professor saying something objectionable to one population, a student government passing a resolution outraging another.

Faculty and administrators might urge accreditors to support peers at other institutions whom they view as threatened. Colleges might revisit speech codes in order to control what administrators and/or faculty deem to be harmful expressions in a flammable year.  Academic departments could scrutinize members’ statements for comments deemed contrary to their mission.  From off campus, how many individuals will seek to threaten or attack colleges which they see as bastions of Marxism, transgenderism, neoliberalism, globalism, capitalism, elitism, or just hatred?  Will “academics are the enemy of the people” become a phrase?

Thinking of other facets of the year 2023 in higher education, I wonder how academics will treat living in a contested state, like Pennsylvania or Georgia. Will some faculty and staff decide to leave?  Will incidents and chaos – again, circulating widely – depress job and student applications? More broadly, will students, faculty, and staff sort themselves politically by aiming their applications for red or blue colleges and universities?  If civil unrest breaks out, that seems likely to depress international enrollment.

At the same time American higher education has other ways to respond.  Certain disciplines will research the year’s events: political science, government, American studies, media studies, area studies, and so on. That research can appear in various forms: peer-reviewed scholarship, preprint articles, public scholarship.  Similarly, 2024 can provide fodder for teaching, either designed as such by faculty or supplied by students.  Faculty and administrators may respond programmatically, offering talks, convening discussions about the year’s events. Those interested in civil discourse may weigh in in many ways.

Let me close with one big caveat. It’s possible that American society will back away from chaos in the next year. I mentioned above one way it could happen, but there are others. GOP pressure on the election infrastructure might just fail, as it did in 2020. Republicans and Democrats alike could draw back from high octane rhetoric and politicking. The American public might tune out from the election to a higher degree than usual. A national threat or emergency might produce moments of unity.

I haven’t build these observations and extrapolations into a scenario, although perhaps I should.  Right now they are an inchoate set of ideas and questions.  What do you think?

(thanks to many people for conversations, including Dahn Shaulis, Mark DeFusco, Chris Rice)

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6 Responses to From 2023 to 2024: a growing academic civil war

  1. I’ve seen a number of people move from one state where the pressure was on never to teach anything “controversial” so that their ordinary syllabi was suddenly filled with verboten material, to another state where there were no such restrictions. From Louisiana to Maine. I’ve seen tenured denied or been told it was “revoked” (that cannot be) on the basis of a once admired and now vilified book

    I’m interested in your use of the word “pernicious” with “ideology.” This is a new quiet buzz word by ultra-conservatives who are unwilling to use the more ordinary MAGA vocabulary (“woke”) — as in pernicious news-stories, pernicious POVs. The use of the word intends to mean that it does not matter if the material is true, what matters is it “does harm” to public discourse, upsets it. We want only order and calm — which means we want the status quo or majority view to keep prevailing.

    So watch out for “pernicious” — it is doing a lot of work

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    As the US higher ed business becomes more divided (stratified), it will be interesting in which side folks take–from a class perspective. Neoliberal elites have a stranglehold, but that’s nothing new. Thorstein Veblen and Upton Sinclair wrote about it a century ago. And from the beginning, as Craig Steven Wilder has documented, the elitist US higher ed system was built on a foundation of land theft, genocide, and enslavement. In the 21st century, well-heeled neoliberal managers will continue trying to minimize the power of academic workers with anti-union efforts, outsourcing, and automation/AI, robotics. In some cases, workers will fight back–and be successful–but only in solidarity. In terms of resistance, what alliances are possible: adjuncts and staff, undergrad workers and grad students, student loan debtors and the educated underclass? At the same time, what is to happen outside the ivory tower in the war between neoliberals and Christian fundamentalists?—higher-education-inquirer

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Dahn, I’ve been surprised at how rarely people in and around academia think about it as a sector with massively uneven distribution of resources. Most instead think about their individual campus, or maybe its type (community colleges, liberal arts schools), or the local region. So I don’t anticipate much activism across higher ed.

      But within institutions, there might be the opportunity. As you say, a given college or university usually consists of massive inequality. It’s much harder to avoid.

  3. Pingback: From 2023 to 2024: academia and climate change – Bryan Alexander - DNS Africa Resource Center

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