Repubs are coming after higher education, including here in Kentucky Skip to content

Repubs are coming after higher education, including here in Kentucky

From tenure to diversity, Republicans are determined to reshape colleges and universities into mirrors of their right-wing world view.

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“Is it just me, or are Kentucky Republicans piling on higher education?” Kentucky Lantern Editor Jamie Lucke mused in Tuesday’s edition of the online newspaper. 

The veteran journalist meant House Bill 228, which would negate established tenure systems at public universities and community colleges. Tenure protects professors from arbitrary dismissal and safeguards academic freedom. 

Sponsored by Republican Rep. James Tipton (R-Taylorsville), the measure “would require the boards of Kentucky’s public universities and colleges to establish a process to review faculty’s ‘performance and productivity’ every four years,” Lucke explained. “Faculty who fell short could be removed ‘regardless of status.’ Tipton tells us the bill ‘has nothing to do with ending tenure’ and described it as a ‘post-tenure review bill.’”

Nothing to do with ending tenure? Not even when hogs fly or kids quit shooting hoops in Kentucky.

Anyway, the House Education Committee, which Tipton chairs, was expected to vote Tuesday on HB 228, but the panel only discussed the measure. Click here to read a story by McKenna Horsley, a Lantern's staff writer.

Count Katy Varner of Louisville, executive director of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, among HB 228 skeptics. The local represents faculty at the state’s public community colleges.

“Tipton states all teachers can be fired for lack of productivity,” said Varner, a retired Jefferson Community and Technical College professor and administrator. “As an old English teacher, I always emphasized the use of precise words. 

“What does productivity mean? It means if you do anything that your boss does not like, then you can be fired. It is a Trojan Horse word. This bill means to be mean. This is anti-tenure and anti-teacher.”

I’m with Varner. True confession time: she and I, fellow septuagenarians, are charter members of Local 1360.

HB 228 is part of a longstanding conservative campaign against tenure – which, according to tenure opponents, helps sustain a leftwing bias in higher education. (Tenure also protects rightwing professors.) 

Of late, conservative groups and allied Republican politicians have declared holy war on programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI for short. GOP lawmakers have introduced anti-DEI bills in the current General Assembly session: HB 9SB 6 and SB 93. (See another Horsley story in the Lantern.) 

In another Forward Kentucky story, Dr. Brian Clardy, a Murray State University history professor, called the anti-tenure and anti-DEI bills “a multi-pronged attack on diversity, on freedom of thought.” Clardy is a member of the United Campus Workers of Kentucky, the wall-to-wall “campus and public healthcare employees union for the Commonwealth of Kentucky representing faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate workers.”

He’s right. (I’m also an associate member of UCWK, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America.)

In touting HB 228, Tipton failed to mention that tenure doesn’t guarantee lifetime employment, or that teachers can be fired for cause. “This bill, if passed, would nullify protections offered by tenure, requiring that all faculty be evaluated based on arbitrary ‘performance and productivity’ requirements every four years, and granting power to the president of the university or college to fire any faculty member, regardless of status,” said a joint statement from UCWK President Dr. Jerry Nachtwey, an Eastern Kentucky University English professor, and Dr. Katie Kleinkopf, a religious studies professor at the University of Louisville and a former UCWK Secretary.

Tipton disingenuously protests that HB 228 “has nothing to do with ending tenure” and insists it is a “post-tenure review bill.” Disingenuous? You bet. But Tipton is consistent. For eons, conservatives like him have been deliberately mislabeling their mischief to mask its true nature.

Examples abound.

In the 1920s, big business and its anti-labor allies in politics, the press, and the pulpit named a well-financed drive to crush unions “the American Plan.” The idea was to convince the public that unions were — you guessed it — “un-American.”

After World War II, union-despising conservatives stepped up their attack on organized labor, which had benefited greatly under pro-union Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and pro-union New Deal Democratic-majority congresses. Republicans ballyhooed what they called state “right to work” laws. RTW was a deliberate deception to divide workers.  

In RTW states (including Kentucky), hourly workers at a union shop can enjoy union-won wages and benefits without joining the union or paying the union a service fee to represent them, thus encouraging workers not to sign up for the union.

Pro-RTW conservatives also tout “paycheck protection” laws, which prevent unions from collecting dues through payroll deductions. The name is another misnomer. Conservatives claim that such laws also “protect” workers from being forced to donate money to candidates they don’t support. But in a union, campaign contributions are, by law, voluntary, and come from funds that are separate from monies used to operate the union.

In the 1960s, conservative white supremacist Southern Democrats — largely the antecedents of Dixie’s nearly all-white GOP today — raised the old “states’ rights!” cry against federal legislation aimed at overturning the South’s racist Jim Crow laws. Before the Civil War, the white Southern powers-that-be yelped “states’ rights!” in defense of slavery.

Even today, Confederate apologists maintain that the Civil War was fought over “states rights,” when slavery was the root cause of America’s most lethal conflict. Nonetheless, they claim that the Confederate monuments and iconography represent “heritage, not hate.” The Southern Poverty Law Center says the “heritage, not hate” claim “ignores the near-universal heritage of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by the millions in the South. It trivializes their pain, their history, and their concerns about racism — whether it’s the racism of the past or that of today.”

At the same time, opponents of DEI — who include Confederate apologists — claim to be defenders of “free speech” on campuses. But a recent New York Times investigative story revealed that the nearly all-white crusade against DEI is largely fueled by bigotry, white resentment, and politics. 

“Thousands of documents obtained by The New York Times cast light on the playbook and the thinking underpinning one nexus of the anti-D.E.I. movement – the activists and intellectuals who helped shape Texas’ new [anti-DEI] law, along with measures in at least three other states,” recently wrote Nicholas  Confessore, the story’s author.

“The material, which includes casual correspondence with like-minded allies around the country, also reveals unvarnished views on race, sexuality, and gender roles. And despite the movement’s marked success in some Republican-dominated states, the documents chart the activists’ struggle to gain traction with broader swaths of voters and officials.”

For example, Confessore wrote that while DEI critics “publicly advocated more academic freedom, some of those involved privately expressed their hope of purging liberal ideas, professors, and programming wherever they could. They debated how carefully or quickly to reveal some of their true views — the belief that ‘a healthy society requires patriarchy,’ for example, and their broader opposition to anti-discrimination laws — in essays and articles written for public consumption.”

He added, “In candid private conversations, some [opponents of DEI] wrote favorably of laws criminalizing homosexuality, mocked the appearance of a female college student as overly masculine, and criticized Peter Thiel, the prominent gay conservative donor, over his sex life.”

According to Confessore, “In email exchanges with the [conservative anti-DEI] Claremont [Institute think tank] organizers, the writer Heather MacDonald derided working mothers who employed people from ‘the low IQ 3rd world’ to care for their children, and lamented that some Republicans still celebrated the idea of racially diverse political appointments.”

He continued, “Lagging achievement for African Americans and other racial minorities, some argued privately, should not be a matter of public concern. ‘My big worry in these things is that we do not make ‘the good of minorities’ the standard by which we judge public policy or the effects of public policy,’ wrote Scott Yenor, a conservative Idaho professor who would come to lead the anti-D.E.I. project for Claremont. “Whites will be overrepresented in some spheres. Blacks in others. Asians in others. We cannot see this as some moral failing on our part.”


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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY