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Inside the Right-Wing Network Trying to Dismantle Higher Education

A new paper lays out the coalition of far right billionaires and think tanks behind the national assault on education.

Christopher Rufo, a right wing activist and New College of Florida trustee, walks through protestors on his way out of a bill signing event featuring Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who signed three education bills on the campus of New College of Florida in Sarasota, Florida, on Monday, May 15, 2023.

A recent white paper by Isaac Kamola, director of the Center for the Defense of Academic Freedom, details the ongoing culture-war backlash against higher education in America, largely in response to the grassroots activism of Black Lives Matter in 2020 and increasing LGBTQ+ visibility. More than 150 bills seeking to undermine academic freedom and intervene in university governance were introduced in state legislatures across the country during 2021-2023. While these bills are typically interpreted as an “organic” consequence of increasing polarization among Americans, the current wave of legislation targeting higher education is a coordinated effort between wealthy elites, a network of right-wing and libertarian think tanks, and Republican politicians at the state level.

The paper published by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) identifies 11 right-wing and libertarian think tanks responsible for manufacturing the cultural backlash against both K–12 and higher education. A steady stream of papers, op-eds, talking points, public events, and media appearances emanating from these groups have conveyed a false impression of intellectual legitimacy behind their arguments, which conservatives have leveraged for political capital. As a result, the inflammatory narrative that all college and university faculty are “liberal,” biased, “woke,” socialist or Marxist, and hostile to free speech and conservative values has taken hold in the mainstream.

Unsurprisingly, the think tanks behind these attacks are prominent, influential, and well-connected operatives in the right-wing ecosphere. Seven of the 11 are members of the State Policy Network (SPN), a web of 167 far-right nonprofit organizations in 48 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom. SPN members play an integral role in ensuring the passage of legislation in state houses by providing academic legitimacy when called on to testify at hearings, producing “studies” or model legislation, and attracting media attention.

In addition, eight of the 11 highlighted think tanks sit on the advisory board of Project 2025, a series of policy proposals from The Heritage Foundation outlining the sweeping authoritarian and Christian nationalist reforms conservatives expect to see if Trump is reelected this year. While proposals promising to severely curtail reproductive rights and environmental protections have received the majority of public scrutiny, the 900+-page document also outlines a plan to radically alter how America’s educational system is funded and administered. Proposals include dramatically cutting federal funding for education, “rejecting gender ideology and critical race theory,” weakening accreditation standards, ending student loan forgiveness, strictly focusing higher education on job training and economic growth, and expanding “parental rights” and school choice, among other reform measures.

AAUP also identifies the top 25 donors to the 11 think tanks and SPN between 2020 and 2022, which include prominent right-wing 501(c)(3) nonprofits like the Roe Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, Leonard Leo’s 85 Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, Stand Together Fellowships (formerly the Charles Koch Institute), the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, the Bradley Impact Fund, and the John William Pope Foundation.

However, a majority of funding for SPN and the think tanks comes from donor-advised funds, which means that the origin of the funds — the actual donor — is completely obscured. DonorsTrust, the preferred donor-advised funding conduit of right-wing billionaire families, is by far the biggest donor. Between 2020 and 2022, it contributed more than $37 million to 10 of the 11 think tanks and SPN. Other donor-advised funds in the top 25 list include the Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund, the National Christian Charitable Foundation, the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, the New Venture Fund, the Servant Foundation, and the Morgan Stanley Global Impact Funding Trust.

Genesis of the Legislative Backlash

The catalyst for the backlash against educational institutions and the accompanying wave of legislation can be traced back to an executive order signed by former President Trump in September 2020 as well as to the right-wing operative who set it into motion. Executive Order 13950 made it illegal for federal agencies to incorporate “divisive concepts,” “race or sex stereotyping,” and “race or sex scapegoating” into their training protocols. Notably, Trump issued the executive order three weeks after right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at multiple conservative think tanks, appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to disparage the concept of critical race theory (CRT) and call for an executive order banning professors from teaching it. The day after that appearance, Trump called Rufo to discuss the specifics of the executive order.

Though less well-known to the mainstream at the time, Rufo was already a relatively established figure on the Right who has held (or currently holds) positions at the Claremont Institute, Heritage, the Pacific Research Institute, The Federalist Society, and the Manhattan Institute. A recent investigation by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and Important Context revealed the handful of right-wing billionaires and major foundations funding these think tanks. Rufo’s existing ties to both these groups and the donors behind them presaged the key players at the center of the full-fledged assault on higher education.

With millions of dollars in financial backing, right-wing and libertarian think tanks mobilized around promoting a reactionary legislative response to the “liberal excesses” of higher education. The legislative backlash began with “academic gag orders,” or bills seeking to ban CRT and other so-called “divisive concepts.” The AAUP white paper found that all but 19 of the 99 academic gag orders introduced in state houses between 2021 and 2023 drew on language taken directly from EO 13950, or from two model bills: the “Model School Board Language to Prohibit Critical Race Theory” drafted by the Center for Renewing America (CRA) and Heritage’s “Protecting K–2 Students from Discrimination.” This includes Florida’s infamous “Stop WOKE Act” (HB 7), which was signed into law in April 2022 and includes the definition of “divisive concepts” outlined in the Trump executive order and the CRA model bill.

Despite enthusiastic support from Republican politicians for these academic gag orders, only 10 of the 99 initially introduced passed between 2021 and 2023. As a result, conservative activists refocused their efforts and shifted their framing. During the 2023 legislative session alone, anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) bills were introduced in various states 40 separate times, and all of them addressed a combination of the same four objectives: ending mandatory DEI training, preventing the use of diversity statements in job applications and promotion materials, prohibiting hiring practices designed to increase diversity, and/or ending state funding for DEI offices and personnel altogether.

One example is Texas SB 17, which made it illegal for colleges and universities to “establish or maintain a diversity, equity, and inclusion office” or to “hire or assign an employee of the institution or contract with a third party to perform the[se] duties,” among other measures. The bill drew from model legislation produced by the Manhattan Institute and co-written by Rufo, Ilya Shapiro of the Manhattan Institute, and Matt Berenberg of the Goldwater Institute. Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) Senior Fellow Sherry Sylvester, TPPF’s Richard Johnson, Heritage’s Adam Kissel, and prominent Black conservative academic and politician Ben Carson testified in favor of the bill before the state Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education. TPPF’s Daniel Bonevack and a University of Texas professor who regularly works with TPPF testified in support of the same bill before the House Committee on Higher Education. Despite more than 100 witnesses who testified against the bill in either the Senate or House committee hearings, the small number of think tank employees proved to be sufficiently persuasive that SB 17 passed along party lines.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other Republican politicians in the state proved to be just as receptive. There HB 931 redefined “loyalty tests” as including a commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” which effectively ended general consideration of diversity during the hiring process. Sections of the bill were taken directly from the model legislation known as “End Political Litmus Tests in Education Act,” which was co-written by Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, along with fellows from the Martin Center and the Goldwater Institute. In March 2023, a month after HB 931 was introduced in the state legislature, DeSantis held a roundtable discussion titled “Exposing the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Scam.” Speakers at the event included Rufo, Claremont’s Scott Yenor, and Carrie Scheffield from the Independent Women’s Forum.

Academic gag orders and anti-DEI bills have undoubtedly been the centerpieces of the Right’s manufactured backlash against higher education. However, other types of bills have also been promoted and introduced in state legislatures, including ones that weaken tenure and accreditation standards, and others that undermine existing academic governance. Between 2021 and 2023, bills attacking tenure for faculty were introduced 20 times in various state legislatures, with three of them passing. The original version of one of those bills, Texas SB 18, would have eradicated tenure for faculty members hired after September 1, 2023. Although this version didn’t pass, two of the three advocates to testify in favor of it were Thomas Lindsay of TPPF and Adam Kissel of Heritage.

The aforementioned Florida HB 931 includes provisions to institutionalize “intellectual diversity” by establishing an Office of Public Policy at each of Florida’s public colleges and universities, which undermines academic governance. This section comes directly from a model bill published by the National Association of Scholars and written by Kurtz. Similarly, Ohio’s SB 117 appropriated $24 million over two years to create “intellectual diversity” centers at the state’s public universities. Representatives from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the National Association of Scholars, Speech First, the Jack Miller Center, and Heritage all spoke in favor of the bill, which was ultimately passed during the 2023 legislative session.

“It is important to follow the money when examining the culture war attacks on higher education,” Kamola told CMD. “The goal of plutocrats and billionaires has been to paint all higher education as threatening to American values because the end goal is defunding all public goods. Attacking higher education not only scores short-term political points but also paves the road for delegitimizing all public institutions.”

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