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Political Interference and the Future of Higher Education

Public universities are under siege in too many places as elected officials move to install new leaders and limit what can be taught. Educational institutions should be safe for learning and as incubators for democracy.

Sonny Perdue and Donald Trump
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, at the White House with President Donald Trump in March 2019. In 2022, Perdue was appointed chancellor of the University System of Georgia, the sole finalist for the post despite having no experience in higher education administration. (Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Abaca Press/TNS)
It sends chills up my spine when I hear a politician crow something like “One down. Two to go.” Those were the words of Republican U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York after her public condemnations led to the forced resignation of University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill. That, along with the later resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay, came after they and another university president testified in December on antisemitism on college campuses before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. If a member of Congress can instigate the resignations of two Ivy League presidents, it presages a troubling future for higher education everywhere, including for public institutions.

I have always thought of education as an institution that should remain relatively free from partisan politics, and education in many places remains an incubator for democracy and a bastion of free speech, academic freedom and the marketplace of ideas. But in too many places higher education is under siege as elected officials attempt to control what subject matters can being taught, books can be read and resources can be applied to recruit minority students, professors and staff. Public officials must ensure that education everywhere remains safe for learning and sheltered from undue political influence by all political parties.

As a former Georgia college president, I know firsthand that it is difficult to govern within a complex educational institution when you are constantly encountering outside interference from elected officials who at the end of the day control your budget. I did not like it when I received a call from the lieutenant governor’s office informing me that he didn’t like one of my college’s apprenticeship programs. I once received a call from the university system’s chancellor asking why my college had hired the wife of a local attorney, after she had gone through the college’s normal screening process. Outside meddling didn’t stop there: I experienced persistent political interference, ranging from requests to hire ex-convicts to directives to hire high-level educational executives whom the chancellor for one reason or the other wanted out of the system office.

None of the things the politicians wanted me to do had anything to do with delivering quality education. But while we were sometimes asked to justify low-level hires that had gone through our college’s normal hiring and recruiting processes, chancellors over our higher education system were being appointed via political fiat, through a process that allowed top state officials to circumvent disclosing finalists by offering a position to a sole finalist, often a politically connected individual with little if any education experience.

Vetting candidates for chancellors and college presidents by search committees comprised of faculty, staff and students is almost a thing of the past. Defenders of the single-finalist process claim that it encourages incumbents from competitive colleges to apply without tipping off their institutions and jeopardizing their current positions. The obvious disadvantage of this system is that stakeholders don’t get to compare the strengths and weaknesses of a pool of finalists. It’s hardly surprising that some in the public and media are skeptical that some appointees selected from this type of process merit the positions they received.

We witnessed this in North Carolina in 2015 when the search-committee process was aborted to ensure the appointment of Margaret Spellings, who had served as U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, as president of the 16-campus University of North Carolina system. Protests ensued, faculty complained and students walked out from classes, claiming they had been ignored in the process.

Closer to home for me, faculty and students protested in 2022 when Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor and U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Donald Trump, was appointed as chancellor of the state university system. Beyond the irregularities in the search process — sole finalist and all — Perdue had no experience running a higher education college or system, and as governor from 2003 to 2011 had presided over austerity cuts that continued after he left that office:

Proposed Georgia Education Budget Cuts, 2003-2021

Georgia education funding chart
More recently, no public official has received more media attention and public reaction over higher education policies than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Branding himself as an “anti-woke” crusader, he has done many things that educators believe undermined their integrity and crossed the line between politics and education. He put into place a post-tenure review process for faculty, fought with the College Board after it revised the African American Studies advanced-placement curriculum, engineered a conservative takeover of a well-regarded state liberal arts college, and dismantled diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs throughout the state.

Working as I have recently to mentor deans, vice presidents and other education professionals who desire to become college presidents, I’ve witnessed firsthand the effects of what has been happening in Florida. One of the new laws aimed at getting rid of DEI programs required one of my mentees who worked in diversity to drop any mention of the subject in her title. Among other concerns, she wasn’t sure if she could still do outreach to minority students at historically Black colleges and universities and majority-minority high schools without running afoul of the law. More is at stake than the scoring of political points: Talented professionals like this dean are likely to leave Florida and find employment where the political interference in education is not as great.

I long for a return to the days when educational institutions were simply places for learning, where they were the social life of communities and an arena where our deepest assumptions get challenged. Education is largely responsible for who I am today, a self-actualized individual. By staying out of education, except for general oversight and annual budget approvals, public officials can contribute to building more self-actualized individuals who can make important contributions to our society.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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