PROF JENKINS: Campus 'authoritarianism' is a left-wing phenomenon

Leftists accuse us conservatives of the very thing they’re doing, then flip the script so they come across as the good guys, even though they’re the ones doing the bad things and we’re just trying to stop them.

Rob Jenkins is a Higher Education Fellow with Campus Reform and a tenured associate professor of English at Georgia State University - Perimeter College. In a career spanning more than three decades at five different institutions, he has served as a head men’s basketball coach, an athletic director, a department chair, and an academic dean, as well as a faculty member. Jenkins’ opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer.       

“Authoritarians Come for the Academy,” proclaimed a recent headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education (where, full disclosure, I was a regular contributor for many years).

I confess: For a moment I felt hopeful. Finally, I thought, higher ed’s premier publication is addressing the growing authoritarianism on America’s campuses.

I wondered what examples the author, Jennifer Ruth, might cite. Would she talk about the California Community College System forcing professors to talk about “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in their courses? Or Ohio State University requiring medical students to read “anti-racist” propaganda? 

How about the policing of language, a classic authoritarian tactic. Maybe she was going to write about professors being reprimanded for not using students’ “preferred pronouns.” Or the now-common lists of banned words on campuses—words like “mother,” “father,” and “biological.” Or the Long Island University students who were disciplined for saying men aren’t women. 

Or maybe she would decry the relentless persecution of conservative professors. Like my friend David Bray at Kennesaw State University, who was “investigated” by his administration for protected speech on social media. Or the law professor at Ohio Northern University who was suspended, apparently for the crime of not being sufficiently woke. 

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Alas, the essay mentioned none of the above, focusing instead on efforts in states like Florida and Texas to rein in such authoritarian excesses.

In other words, it’s a textbook example of left-wing projection and inversion: accuse us conservatives of the very thing they’re doing—in this case, behaving like pocket despots—then flip the script so they come across as the good guys, even though they’re the ones doing the bad things and we’re just trying to stop them. 

Ruth also, like many academics, conflates free speech with academic freedom. She opens with two examples, one involving the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, who apparently tried to get a professor fired for insulting him during a public lecture. The other references an op-ed by journalist Chris Rufo defending Governor Ron DeSantis’s efforts to counter leftist hegemony in Florida’s higher education system. 

These two situations are nothing alike. In the first instance, I agree with Ruth that the professor should not have been targeted. Like all of us, she has a First Amendment right to speak her mind whether any politician likes it or not. Patrick comes across as petty and boorish—the worst kind of politician (although, sadly, all too common). 

Did Patrick indulge his authoritarian impulse? Probably. But it has little to do with “the academy,” as such. The professor was speaking in public, not in a classroom setting. If she had been an invited speaker from a local corporation, and some politician had tried to get her fired for something she said, the issue would be the same. It’s about free speech.  

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Meanwhile, Rufo’s op-ed goes to the question of academic freedom, a professor’s “right” to teach without undue interference. Leftists love to remind us that free speech isn’t absolute. But academic freedom is even less so.

The American Association of University Professors, which codified the notion of academic freedom in American universities, defines it this way: “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

The central question is whether professors at public colleges and universities can just teach whatever they want, or whether the people’s elected representatives have a right to direct the curriculum, through their appointees, to prioritize material that reflects the values and advances the interests of the people who elected them. 

Rufo believes the latter, as do I. So, apparently, do a solid majority of taxpayers in Florida and other red states, which is why DeSantis won re-election in a landslide after making his “anti-woke” agenda abundantly clear.

If people don’t want their children being taught, falsely, that they’re all racists or sexists or victims, or that boys can become girls and vice-versa, they shouldn’t have to pay for it. And DeSantis, as the state’s duly elected chief executive, has every right—indeed, a duty—to put a stop to it. 

That’s not “authoritarianism.” It’s just good governance. 

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.