Mike Johnson’s Visit to Columbia Ups the Ante in the Right-Wing Attack on Universities

Posted in: Politics

Speaker Mike Johnson’s visit to Columbia University on Wednesday was a transparent, but nonetheless deeply disturbing, political gesture. It marks a serious escalation in the post-October 7, right-wing attack on universities.

Johnson, who is third in line to the presidency, put aside the serious, constitutional responsibilities of his office to score points with MAGA critics who were upset with him for allowing a vote on aid to Ukraine. Johnson tried to out-DeSantis even Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in attacking and interfering in higher education.

In the last several months, the right-wing attack on universities has made gains by carefully picking its targets, namely schools whose brand signals elitism and privilege. Instead of acting separately and defensively, universities need to band together to push back in defense of their independence from outside political interference.

Johnson’s visit to Columbia came in the wake of a hearing last week in which its president, Minouche Shafik, testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. She tried, to “answer for the rampant antisemitism engulfing their campuses and threatening their Jewish students.”

Shafik’s performance has been roundly panned by people who were troubled by her willingness to violate long-standing norms of university governance, including talking about personnel matters that are generally kept confidential. As Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler noted, “She seemed determined not to repeat the performance of the then-presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, who, testifying before the same committee in December, resolutely avowed their schools’ commitment to free expression.”

“At last week’s hearing,” Butler says, “Shafik’s opening statement proclaimed Columbia’s commitment to ‘supporting rigorous academic exploration and freedom,’ but her answers to committee members revealed those words to be lip service.”

Despite Shafik’s efforts to please her House interrogators by naming names and by showing her toughness, neither they nor Johnson were satisfied.

In fact, during his visit to Columbia, Johnson called on Shafik to resign. “We just can’t allow this kind of hatred and antisemitism to flourish on our campuses,” Johnson said. “It must be stopped in its tracks. Those who are perpetrating this violence should be arrested. I am here today joining my colleagues, and calling on President Shafik to resign if she cannot immediately bring order to this chaos.”

And barely concealing his political motives, he said he would call President Joe Biden and demand he take action. CNN quoted Johnson as saying, “My intention is to call President Biden after we leave here and share with him what we have seen with our own two eyes and demand that he take action. There is executive authority that would be appropriate.”

As if baiting Biden, Johnson argued that “If this is not contained quickly, and if these threats and intimidation are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard. We have to bring order to these campuses.”

But as anyone who has studied what happens when the National Guard is brought in to quell student protests knows, order is not always restored. In fact, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer says, “The most likely outcome would be an escalation to serious violence.”

That, Serwer speculates, “might be the idea.”

Johnson’s dangerous stunt must be seen in the context of what a report in Time calls conservatives’ longstanding “complicated relationship with American higher education.” Conservatives, Time notes, once looked to universities to “reproduce the middle and upper echelons of Christian society in the United States—something classical liberals from Thomas Jefferson to today’s postliberal academics on the right … have historically appreciated and felt worth conserving.”

The tide turned decisively in the 1960s and 1970s when conservatives tried to make political hay out of student campus activism and the universities’ embrace of affirmative action. As Time notes, “Affirmative action programs were a key target from the beginning. The right mounted court challenges with mixed results for decades, until this June when the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority ruled in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard that affirmative action practices in college admissions violated the 14th Amendment.”

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who led the attack on Harvard’s former president Claudine Gay after her own disastrous congressional testimony, has called on his right-wing allies to “lay siege to the institutions” of higher education. Rufo wants them to use their power in Congress to root out the progressive commitments of America’s colleges and universities.

Rufo told The Guardian that his campaign against Gay was designed to “squeeze” her and Harvard by using a “three-pronged approach of ‘narrative, financial and political pressure.’”

As The Guardian explains, “Relying on allies within government was a key approach in Gay’s case … one that has also been used to further conservative agendas in the past … Rufo said he used … ‘political leverage.’”

Michael Ignatieff reminds us that attacks on universities have long played a prominent role in the playbooks of authoritarians around the world. He argues that people like Speaker Johnson and Rufo are taking their cues from Hungary’s Victor Orban.

Orban has attacked George Soros-funded Central European University, “decapitated Hungary’s preeminent scientific institution, the Academy of Science, stripping it of its independent research institutes. Then he forced the privatization of a large part of Hungary’s own university system.”

For right-wing populists, Ignatieff argues, “attacking colleges and universities…mobilizes the resentments of people who never went to a university and may dislike, often justly, the entitlement that a college degree can confer on its beneficiaries…. Similarly, for these angry voters, the downside of such an attack—weakening the scientific, technical, and cultural innovation that universities make possible—does not carry much weight.”

Ignatieff rightly calls attacks on universities of the kind that brought Johnson to Columbia “diversionary.”

If people like Johnson, Rufo, or Orban “were serious about addressing the resentments of an excluded voter base … [they] wouldn’t focus on universities at all. Instead … [they’d] take a hard look at the power of corporations, their tax rates and tax avoidance, and their offshoring of jobs, not to mention their overwhelming control of the digital public sphere….”

But, Ignatieff observes, “it’s so much easier to target universities and their supposedly cosseted liberal professors than to tackle the perquisites and power of the corporate-donor class that funds his campaigns.”

So MAGA Mike has had his moment, going to Columbia, and confronting his own bogeyman group of leftists. In so doing, he has weaponized antisemitism in the hope of mollifying his right-wing critics.

But he has done nothing to address that problem either at Columbia or elsewhere. As Serwer explains, conservatives like Johnson who are attacking universities “don’t want to solve any problems; they want to make them worse…. They don’t want order, or safety, or peace. They want carnage,” which they hope will further their political ends.

Universities need to be careful not to fall into the trap that the right wing is laying for them or to become complicit in what they are trying to do. They must act in concert to respond to attacks like Mike Johnson’s.

Now is the time for all those who value what higher education contributes to our society to rally to their defense.

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