Magazine President's Note

A Moment of Enormity

Authoritarianism, attacks on DEI, and the weaponization of antisemitism

By Lynn Pasquerella

Winter 2024

The assault on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in American higher education reached fever pitch in 2023. The year began with the Florida Department of Education’s attack on the teaching of an Advanced Placement course in African American studies for being a form of liberal indoctrination. In June, the US Supreme Court banned the use of race-based college admissions, a decision that came amid several states’ efforts to impose educational gag orders limiting speech around race, gender, and other “divisive concepts.” And on December 5, the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Pennsylvania testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to “answer to and atone for” antisemitism and hate on their campuses—something attributed to the institutions’ having “stoked the flames of an ideology” through an emphasis on “antiracism, anticolonialism, critical race theory, DEI, intersectionality.”

With the committee’s chairwoman, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, opening the hearing with an invective aimed not only at the leaders of the institutions represented but also at higher education as a whole, it was clear from the outset that the agenda on the Hill was less about redressing antisemitism on college campuses than about weaponizing it to dismantle DEI initiatives. Perpetuating a false narrative that higher education is in crisis due to liberal activist administrators and faculty, much of the questioning and commentary that unfolded reflected a parade of horribles. Throughout the day, hyperbolic language, appeals to emotion, and slippery slope arguments repeatedly positioned campus commitments to DEI as inevitably sliding into antisemitism rather than as a crucial means of countering it.

Ironically, just a few months earlier, this same committee released the report Freedom of Speech and Its Protection on College Campuses, stating that “the worst kept secret in American postsecondary education is the long-standing and pervasive degradation of First Amendment rights.” Decrying cancel culture and the chilling of speech they cited as pervasive on college campuses, the committee warned that this trend “threatens both our constitutionally guaranteed rights and the purpose of a college education.” Yet, these same individuals expressed outrage after Harvard President Claudine Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth, and University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth McGill appealed to First Amendment principles when pressed on whether certain offensive speech was permitted on their campuses, charging them with both antisemitism and moral cowardice.

The performative aspects of the hearing were captured in a cold-open Saturday Night Live skit in which the testimony of the college presidents was portrayed as so egregious that it made their most bellicose inquisitor, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, look good. In fact, Stefanik immediately claimed credit for the subsequent resignations of McGill and Gay, posting “TWO DOWN” followed by three red siren emojis on social media. “I will always deliver results,” she said in a statement, vowing on social media that “a reckoning is coming to higher education,” and, as she put it in her statement, that “this is just the beginning” of a congressional investigation “to expose the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions.”

Yet, Stefanik wasn’t the only one jockeying for credit after the hearings. Christopher Rufo, a close advisor to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, wrote “SCALPED” on social media when Gay was forced to step down. Rufo was one of two conservative activists who orchestrated the campaign against Gay, leveling charges of plagiarism against her at a time that he thought, he admitted, would do the most damage. He, too, promised to continue the attack on higher education. “Today, we celebrate victory,” he affirmed on social media. “Tomorrow, we get back to the fight. We must not stop until we have abolished DEI ideology from every institution in America.” Rufo concomitantly announced a “ ‘plagiarism hunting’ fund” designed to “expose the rot in the Ivy League and restore truth, rather than racialist ideology, as the highest principle in academic life.”

Foxx likewise assured constituents that her committee’s oversight of higher education would continue. “Postsecondary education is in a tailspin,” she maintained in a statement. “There has been hostile takeover of postsecondary education by political activists, woke faculty, and partisan administrators. College campuses are a breeding ground for illiberal thought.” The language she and her ideological colleagues have used is lifted from a playbook developed by two conservative think tanks—the Manhattan Institute, where Rufo is a senior fellow, and the Claremont Institute Center for the American Way of Life. The think tanks’ well-rehearsed game plan is designed to raze higher education through stigmatization, misinformation, and disinformation, and Foxx hopes to leverage this moment of distrust in the academy to seek reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. The HEA, which is slated for renewal every five years, has remained unauthorized since 2008. Yet, given her belief that “higher ed has never been held in such low esteem as it is now,” Foxx is optimistic that a comprehensive revision of the HEA, with greater calls for accountability and governmental oversight, can be accomplished.

She may be right. It is important to remember that when President Lyndon Johnson initially signed the act, he chose to do so at Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University), remarking that “here the seeds were planted from which grew my firm conviction that for the individual, education is the path to achievement and fulfillment; for the nation, it is a path to a society that is not only free but civilized; and for the world, it is the path to peace—for it is education that places reason over force.” Today, these democratic purposes of higher education are imperiled by reality-distorting propaganda, of which the hearings on the Hill were emblematic and which undermine reasoned deliberation.

As Yale philosopher Jason Stanley reminds readers in How Propaganda Works, such propaganda is, as a National essay on the book puts it, “no longer a function of crude totalitarianism, but of arguably more sophisticated democratic partisan politics.” According to Stanley, it follows familiar patterns of conjuring a “mythic past” that has allegedly been destroyed (in this case by the DEI bureaucracy); sowing division by turning groups against each other; and attacking the truth with lies and anti-intellectualism. Thus, while the proceedings of the Committee on Education and the Workforce may have been political theater, we need to take seriously the key elements in this drama—first and foremost the enormity of this moment and the gravity of the danger posed by authoritarian threats to higher education.

Illustration by Paul Spella


  • Lynn Pasquerella

    Lynn Pasquerella

    Lynn Pasquerella is the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.