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Column: The duality of politics in higher education


UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz looks away from protesters after the Wednesday, June 30, 2021, Board of Trustees meeting during which the Board voted to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The link between politics and higher education is hard to ignore. Campus life — in and outside of the classroom — is shrouded with rigorous debate over ongoing social and political issues and how these issues touch the lives of students.

By its very nature, academia goes hand in hand with politics. Students are trained in critical thinking and analysis and practice approaching complex topics with nuance and a widened perspective. We are bred to engage in a political world.

But student involvement in politics does not always mirror that of their universities, creating a stark duality of political ideologies in higher education: overwhelmingly progressive student bodies and the conservative, elite institutions they belong to.

At their core, colleges and universities were built into — and intended to perpetuate — systems of oppression. History shows us that higher education was created to serve and insulate white and wealthy men from the rest of society. Many academics point to Harvard University as an example, whose first graduating class consisted of nine white, Christian men, ranked by their familial status in society rather than their academic performance.

For Harvard and the universities that followed, access to these institutions was severely and intentionally limited. In "Reflections on Elite Education: In a just world, would the college I teach at exist?" Swarthmore College professor Jonny Thakkar paints a similar picture of elitism at both Swarthmore and Oxford. Thakkar recognizes that the goal of higher education is serving a privileged elite class of students, and that faculty have no choice but to remain complicit as institutional inequities unravel.

“You either play the hand you’re dealt or you quit. If you do stay, then you have to acknowledge that the sociological function of elite colleges in nonideal America will always be to produce an unfairly privileged elite,” he wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

However, discussions about politics on college campuses today typically exist in the form of complaints about liberalism among students. In the podcast "You’re Wrong About," authors Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall debunk the idea of “political correctness” as it arose on elite college campuses.

They use the term “moral panic” to describe worries about students and professors being the subjects of liberal or Marxist indoctrination in the 1980s. By describing these worries as a moral panic, Hobbes and Marshall point out that there is no longstanding, sustained evidence of higher education being “too liberal” — only anecdotal evidence that has consumed America’s image of college campuses as more radical than reality would suggest.

Concerns over liberalism among students eventually evolved into concerns over higher education being overcome by far-left ideologies — although we know this to be far from the truth.

Using elite, private colleges and universities as examples, however, ignores the similar role that public universities play in upholding these same systems of classism, sexism and racism — and UNC perfectly embodies the duality between conservative roots and progressive students and faculty.

As the nation’s first public university, UNC opened its doors to exclusively white men. It was not until 1897 — over 100 years after the University’s founding — that the first woman (it might go without saying, a white woman) was admitted to UNC for postgraduate studies.

The University did not begin to desegregate until 1951, when a court ruled that UNC School of Law could not exclude Black students. This ruling rippled into the College of Arts and Sciences by the middle of the decade.

For decades later, de facto segregation kept Black students living predominately on South Campus and white students on North Campus. Today, the predominately white and conservative Board of Trustees and Board of Governors have been to blame for national controversies, such as the handling of a Confederate monument on campus and the initial failure to offer tenure to the talented and awarded Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

Coupled with a long history of discrimination and exclusion that can be traced back to the University’s founding, UNC’s roots mirror those of its private and elite counterparts.

Despite this, students have given new meaning to these institutions over time. Young people come to Chapel Hill to be exposed to new ideas, become politically aware and form salient opinions for perhaps the first time in their lives. As a result, campus life has become a beacon for left-wing political activism, including student organizations to promote prison abolition, racial equity and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. 

Thus, the dichotomy is born. Students are advancing progressive ideas in a vacuum of conservatism and within the limits of archaic institutions.

Beyond the historical ways that conservatism seeps into higher education, politics has other ways of impacting the University and its students. You might recall former UNC-System President Tom Ross, who was forced to resign in 2015. The Board of Governors — which oversees all UNC-System schools — is selected by the N.C. General Assembly. 

The NCGA became majority Republican in 2010, and as these Republicans were sworn in the next year, they inevitably impacted the political landscape of the UNC System. Tom Ross, who became president as a Democrat in 2011, was asked to resign in 2015. It did not take long for accusations to emerge about his resignation — many believe it was a symptom of his political affiliation on an overwhelmingly conservative Board.

“It’s clear that the System leadership has taken a hard right turn in recent years and now envisions a purpose for the university that is very different from the majority of professors and students,” Rob Schofield, director of N.C. Policy Watch, said.

Ross’ resignation is merely one more symptom of politics and higher education being inherently and intentionally linked — and the NCGA's appointment of the BOG is just one political tool to ensure this link remains intact.

“So long as politicians are involved in selecting the BOG members (and I don’t see how to change that), politics will invariably be a significant factor in the oversight of UNC,” Schofield said. 

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“What’s changed in recent years isn’t that politicians have become involved, it’s that the politicians in power have embraced an aggressive, hard-right ideology that rejects many basic assumptions that had been a part of broader societal consensus.”

The influence of right-wing ideas in higher education has not gone unnoticed. At UNC and across the country — whether private or public, small or large — students protest against the very institutions that they attend. Young people rally for progressive ideas and are constantly seeking ways to uproot the conservative foundations on which many American universities stand. But to do so means to be aware of the history of higher education in the U.S.

“To think about what an institution should be for, we have to ask how it would best fit in the wider whole of which it is a part,” Thakkar said.

This means that we — as students and as advocates — cannot ignore the systemic factors working against us when we attempt to bring sweeping changes to our universities. We cannot forget that higher education was designed to serve and create a privileged group of Americans.

We can no longer accept symbolic awards from University leaders as progress; instead, our actions should thoughtfully attempt to dismantle the elitism that makes up the business of higher education.

Uprooting inequities in over 200 years of academia is too tall of a task for any one student body on any one campus, and it means also uprooting the white supremacy and patriarchal systems that have grown alongside it.

No matter how students approach this daunting challenge, our efforts continue to give new meaning to archaic and inequitable campuses. These progressive voices are the first step to redefining the relationship between students and our institutions.


Caitlyn Yaede

Caitlyn Yaede is the 2023-24 print managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel and oversees weekly print production. She previously served as the DTH's opinion editor and summer editor. Caitlyn is a public policy master's student at UNC.