Op-Ed: Texas GOP’s Assault On Higher Education Is Straight Out Of The Authoritarian Playbook

by | Apr 18, 2023 | Education, Opinion

The Texas GOP have set their targets for this legislative session and directly in their crosshairs is the education system in the state.  Most prominent is the voucher proposal, recently passed by the Senate, and pushed by Governor Abbott which would provide public money for private school tuition. This is on top of the multiple attacks on K-12 LGBTQ students that the GOP in the legislature have undertaken. While these attacks on K-12 public education are serious and need attention from those who support public education in the state, K-12 education is not the only education system under attack from the Texas GOP.  Public higher education in Texas is also under assault. 

Three bills in particular, if they become law, would dramatically alter how public higher education in Texas works. SB 16 states that faculty members at public institutions of higher education in the state “may not compel or attempt to compel a student enrolled at the institution to adopt a belief that any race, sex, or ethnicity or social, political, or religious belief is inherently superior to any other race, sex, ethnicity, or belief” and if are found to do so they can be fired. The use of “compelling” in this legislation is exasperatingly vague and is simply meant to intimidate faculty away from teaching any content related to inequities in this country based on race or ethnicity.

SB 17 would ban the use of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs and practices in higher education institutions and would levy fines against institutions that had any such programs. This bill would create a chilling effect institution wide on any program with a hint of DEI training or content.

Finally, SB 18 would eliminate the possibility of tenure for any new faculty hired after September 1, 2023 (those with tenure prior to that date would keep it as long as they are continuously employed by their institution). Tenure is an essential practice to maintain academic freedom for faculty and, despite misinformation by Republicans, does not mean faculty cannot be fired or do not undergo performance reviews.

Taken together these three bills represent an attempt by the Texas GOP to discipline faculty and staff at universities they perceive as hostile to their reactionary agenda. These policies appear to take precedence for the Texas GOP, even as it undercuts some of their other stated goals such as boosting the standing of Texas research universities in the national rankings 

As any observer of education policy, or just American politics in general, knows that these attacks on higher education in Texas are not without precedent. Across the country, the GOP is engaged in a series of similar attacks on higher education, and none more so than in Florida.  Governor Ron DeSantis has undertaken a full throated attack on education in the state both at the K-12 level and at the Colleges and Universities in the state. Most shocking is Governor DeSantis’s takeover of the New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college in Sarasota. 

While it is obviously the case that the leadership of the Texas GOP, such as Governor Abbott, are trying to keep pace with the unprecedented policies of Ron DeSantis, they are also drawing support, consciously or not, from a longstanding authoritarian playbook. Attacks on higher education are a standard practice for authoritarians around the world and all one needs to do is look to Victor Orban in Hungary to see how it’s done. The GOP has held up Victor Orban as a model for his attacks on higher education and it’s no surprise because they are borrowing exactly from his playbook. 

In 2017, Victor Orban forced the Central European University, one of the best universities in all of Europe, to move from Budapest to Vienna because they would not acquiesce to his commands. Following that he greatly increased his ideological control over the rest of the Universities in Hungary by banning programs such as gender studies and staffing the universities with his cronies. 

This is the model DeSantis and Abbott look to when they try to eliminate any thought or dissent coming from institutions of higher education than do not align with their extremist politics. This should be of great concern for the people of Texas and around the country because since Orban’s ascension in Hungary that countries level of academic freedom has greatly diminished along with its overall level of democracy

College professors in Texas and around the country have no interest in indoctrination and suppression of legitimate debate. What they want is to teach their students and pursue their research free from the political agendas of ideologues and bullies. The faculty, staff, and especially the students, of Texas Universities deserve nothing less.     

Daniel Braaten is an Associate Professor of Political Science at a public university in Texas. 

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