Conservatives have turned against academic freedom again. Here’s why.

The right thinks campuses are hopeless and has resorted to repression as the answer

Op-Ed by John K. Wilson, originally published in the Washington Post

For the past two years, a wave of Republican legislation has sought to restrict the teaching of critical race theory. While K-12 schools receive much of the ire and repression from conservatives, PEN America reports that 39 percent of these “gag rule” bills introduced this year targeted higher education.

Ellen Schrecker, the leading historian of how the McCarthy era affected higher education, has called these bills “worse than McCarthyism” for their attempts to control college teaching. Although this legislation attacking colleges is unprecedented, the distrust on the right toward academic freedom — and universities — isn’t new.

For decades, conservatives charged that free speech on campus allowed leftist academics to run amok, preaching ideas antithetical to American values. Then, for a brief time beginning in the late 1980s, conservatives embraced free speech on campus as a way to ensure that right-of-center voices would be heard. Today, however, many on the right have begun to see universities as hopeless, and are resurrecting the older approach of limiting what they see as dangerous ideas on campuses.

William F. Buckley, perhaps the leading conservative intellectual of the last half of the 20th century, first made his mark by attacking academia in 1951’s “God and Man at Yale.” Buckley’s book appeared at the height of McCarthyism, and the subtitle told the story, complete with scare quotes: “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom.’ ” Buckley called for conservative trustees, donors and politicians to purge professors who doubted God or, worse, questioned capitalism.

The campus revolts of the 1960s resulted in more conservative suspicions about academic freedom, with Ronald Reagan running for governor of California in 1966 promising to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” and denouncing student invitations to have activist Stokely Carmichael and liberal Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) speak on campus. In a 1967 speech, Gov. Reagan denounced “so-called ‘free-speech advocates’ ” and the “activities of the Vietnam Day Committee,” bemoaning how “all this has been allowed to go on in the name of academic freedom.”

And these ideas and suspicions didn’t disappear with the end of the tumultuous 1960s on campuses. As late as 1985, the right-wing group Accuracy in Academia asked students to “monitor” and report on their biased professors. Even within the academy conservatives raised alarm bells about too much campus free speech. In 1987, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) formed to represent conservative faculty in America. Its first chairman, Herbert London, warned, “Academic freedom has become a refuge for radicals.”

But even as London was issuing this warning, the rhetoric of the right was beginning to change as terms like “speech codes” and “political correctness” entered the public discourse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Free speech” on campus became the watchword for conservatives fighting what they saw as leftist repression. Books in the 1990s such as Dinesh D’Souza’s “Illiberal Education,” Roger Kimball’s “Tenured Radicals” and Charles Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate’s “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses” all charged that universities suppressed conservative speech, helping to establish campus free speech as a prime concern of the right.

Plenty of leftists on campus were being censored from the right, even though their stories got far less media coverage. But by the 1990s, the majority of conservative commentators were criticizing campuses for censorship rather than calling for it themselves.

Perhaps the best example of the conservative reversal in the 1990s and 2000s came from the NAS — which became a champion of free speech. In 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the organization issued a strong statement arguing that “the intellectual freedoms fundamental to the academic enterprise must be safeguarded with particular vigilance in periods of stress” while critiquing liberals whom the NAS accused of failing to protect campus free speech over the previous decade: “Where, one wonders, have the newfound defenders of academic freedom been all this time?”

Yet, over the ensuing two decades, conservatives again began to sour on free speech on campus. They perceived liberal and leftist academics as corrupt influences and began to embrace the repressive solutions that their predecessors had demanded in the 1950s and 1960s.

Again, the NAS embodied the shift. In a Sept. 6 post titled “Defund Gender Studies,” the group’s director of research, David Randall, announced a radical change in the NAS position on academic freedom. The NAS would no longer oppose “legislatures’ attempts to defund gender studies, and similar pseudo-disciplines.” The group had no illusions about legislative intrusion into the academy. It admitted that such moves might be inappropriate or even illegal, and “would set a dangerous precedent.” But such action was necessary, “to address the corruption of the university and the peril to the republic.” Because “universities already embrace unprecedented intolerance and export it wholesale to the world,” it justified state legislatures defunding any campus department that seeks “policy change.”

Older conservatives within academia have also lost hope after a lifetime bemoaning how colleges are getting worse. John M. Ellis, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, recounted 50 years of frustration in his 2020 book, “The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done.” Ellis declared that “campuses are now miserable caricatures of what they once were” and called for repression as the answer. He demanded “the removal of radical activists who politicize classrooms” and urged state legislatures to “investigate and then cancel funding for departments that are found to be hopelessly corrupted.”

According to Ellis, “when colleges and universities have so willfully ignored the purposes for which their independence was granted, and have corrupted themselves beyond their ability to self-repair, only outside intervention can restore them to the purpose for which they were created.” This message, that colleges are evil beyond self-repair, inspires conservatives to advocate taking them over or burning them down entirely.

A new generation of conservatives goes even further, seeing colleges as an enemy to be fought against rather than an institution needing change. They see academic freedom as a useless hindrance. Charlie Kirk, the 28-year-old founder of Turning Point USA, the fastest growing organization of campus chapters in America, argued in “The College Scam,” that conservatives should abandon and defund higher education entirely. Turning Point USA has even created a “Professor Watchlist” of radical leftists that it calls for purging from academia.

These conservative critiques expose how, in 2022, neither side in the campus speech wars wants to protect the other’s ideas. Even so, as they engage in this spiraling battle, the structure of higher education has changed radically in the past few decades. A campus culture once dominated by tenured professors has been replaced by hordes of vulnerable adjunct instructors, and vast armies of administrators (often with no education about or attachment to academic freedom) increasingly control campuses with the goal of squelching controversy. The left and the right both regard a principled devotion to academic freedom protecting all views as a dangerous conceit when faced with vile enemies, and these administrators agree with both sides seeking to eliminate offensive speech. Although campuses continue to pay lip service to academic freedom, it is increasingly a concept with more enemies than devout defenders.

As conservatives return to the rhetoric of their repressive roots denouncing academic freedom, the big question may be whether they will even face opposition.

John K. Wilson was a 2019-20 fellow at University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, and is a contributing author at He is the author of nine books, including the forthcoming work, The Attack on Academia.

This essay is the fifth in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context for controversies surrounding free expression in education today.