In 2012, former Senator Rick Santorum reacted to Obama’s supposed desire to have every American attend college with quick judgment: “What a snob.” Many in the news media regarded this comment as a self-inflicted and ultimately fatal blow to his doomed presidential campaign. But when he uttered those words on a stage in Michigan, Santorum — who has more degrees than Obama — was tapping into a powerful and popular American political theme. Make no mistake; he knew what he was doing.
As campaigns like Santorum’s demonstrate, white, conservative evangelicals are an influential group in the conservative political sphere. While other demographics certainly vote for social conservatives, Santorum relied heavily on a white, evangelical voter base in key states like Texas and Iowa during the 2012 primary elections. But Santorum’s comment is indicative of a disturbing political trend among this key constituency. The political benefits of shaming higher education indicate that the already strained relationship between religious conservatives and academia has become more fraught.
Religious conservatism and liberalism in the United States have historically clashed in the realm of higher education. From the Scopes trials of the 1920s to the culture wars of the 90s, the past century yields plenty of examples of such conflict. Perhaps more than any other American institution, academia has long been stereotyped as liberal. William F. Buckley even wrote his infamous book, God and Man at Yale, on the topic of conservative disillusionment with the liberalism of modern college campuses. However, instead of trying to promote their own ideas on what they consider intransigently liberal college campuses, conservatives have decided to build their own.
Some conservative, religious and evangelical groups have established their own highly ideological universities, such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University or Oral Roberts University, founded by its eponym in 1963. These institutions ostensibly exist to provide an alternative to “left-wing” schools. But political polarization, along with evangelical tendencies to push a narrative of “good vs. evil” in society at large, have only made the tension between religion and higher education more egregious. Against the backdrop of religion, the growing divide between left and right, liberal and conservative, has actually become something of a barrier to higher education itself. Because of heavy state government involvement in public universities, this politicization of education has often time come at the cost of access to higher education. Students are either told they might be better off not going to college, as Senator Santorum has suggested, or their state schools are denied funding due to educational cutbacks.
Republican governors from Florida to Wisconsin have cut deep into funding for public education. Though many such cuts are instituted under the guise of budgetary constraints, there appears to be significant ideological motivation behind them. Conservatives have cited everything from a lack of need for “more anthropologists” to a seemingly general dislike of the humanities’ supposed tendency to defy market principles, as explanations for these cuts. Furthermore, conservatives often cut funding to certain programs while prioritizing others for ideological reasons — many often stress a need for STEM graduates, in the hopes of bolstering American science and tech innovation. The important principle is that these policies to cut back on spending on higher education — some disciplines more than others — enjoy backing at the grassroots level. The culturally conservative voter, perhaps caring little of what the market might desire, can certainly sympathize with the anti-elitism of Rick Santorum or North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory who launched into a tirade in 2013 over the “educational elite.”
North Carolina, in fact, has cut back so much funding from its nationally renowned university system that schools have had to accept funding from private activists with the stipulation that they promote conservative curricula. Funding cuts impede access to higher education in two ways: they result in higher tuition costs and less expansionary capabilities to make way for new students and the grants needed to fund the school come with requirements influencing the education students receive. Conservative legislators have laid out other policy alternatives, such as basing funding on post-graduation employment success instead of enrollment or simply limiting the number of majors offered to students. But these policy measures still reflect the underlying principle that higher education budgets should be cut.
Throughout all of this, a pattern has begun to emerge. Conservative voters, energized by calls against academic elitism and liberal excess, elect lawmakers who cut back on university funding and allow the void to be filled by private donors wishing to influence the system. Of course, fiscal conservatism plays a role in all of this. But at its core, these efforts spring from the widening gap between the Religious Right and the world of higher education, one that will continue to challenge access to higher education across the United States.
This article is part of BPR’s special feature on higher education. Please click here to return to the rest of the feature.