Put an End to Partisan Courses at Public Universities

Put an End to Partisan Courses at Public Universities
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Anti-Kavanaugh activists were caught red-handed last week in a scheme to award academic credit at the University of Southern Maine (USM) to students who joined an effort to intimidate Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) into voting against the judge’s confirmation. On the event page posted by the university’s Community Outreach Coordinator, Gabriel Demaine, students are asked if they are “willing to get arrested” after being bussed to Washington D.C. “to join activists, political action groups and social justice organizations to meet with Sen. Collins,” and “rally up around the FBI investigation of the Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh.”

Collins had been widely seen by anti-Kavanaugh activists as a potential defector from the Republican majority supporting the candidate.

When the story of this misuse of the public university came to the attention of the Maine Republican Party, it protested and the university president, Glenn Cummings, hastily announced that the course was canceled. President Cummings’ chief concern was that the course “was not appropriately reviewed.” He did, however, also acknowledge that “taxpayer funded institutions must be non-partisan” and “institutionally impartial.”

But the course, titled “Engaged Citizenship,” was not a strange outlier at the University of Southern Maine. Indeed there are thousands of such courses, funded by taxpayers, at public universities across the country. “Engaged Citizenship” stood out because it happened to hit at a moment of heightened public attention to political extremists twisting civic norms to seek partisan advantage. Political extremism masquerading as “academic instruction” in colleges and universities is now so common that it typically leaves administrators such as President Cummings blithely unconcerned.

The issue extends far beyond the Pine Tree State. But President Cummings will have his hands full if he is serious about ridding the University of Southern Maine of political partisan courses and hard-edged political activism payed for by public funds.  

The protest-Kavanaugh expedition offered as “Engaged Citizenship” (Topics in Social Justice 130) was part of USM’s Social Justice minor. This program teaches students about “the multiple processes that inform the human experience of exploitation, and of justice, injustice, domination and resistance.” These are code words for the political program of the progressive left in the United States and signal the partisan spirit of the “education” on offer. Social justice “education” means social justice activism, or as USM puts it: “the Minor emphasizes the practical knowledge necessary to be an informed and active citizen.”

The general public may not yet be fully attuned to this rhetoric. “Social justice” sounds nice, and who would not want citizens to be “informed and active”? But these words conceal meanings that would dismay most taxpayers if they understood what the activists are really saying. “Social justice” in these contexts typically means justifying the government when it overrides our Constitutional rights. The “informed” citizen is one who believes that the free market is a conspiracy to oppress the poor. And an “active” citizen is one who participates in a mob that tries to intimidate elected representatives.

USM’s indulgence of this sort of political advocacy lightly disguised as civic learning extends beyond the now-cancelled “Engaged Citizenship.” Other courses include “Social Work at the State House,” in which students “board a bus to Augusta for “Social Work Advocacy Day at the State House.” In 2017, USM’s Social Justice professors received $600,000 from the National Education Association to funds its social justice “pop-up courses,” of which “Engaged Citizenship” is pop-up perfection.

But let’s not pick only on this one university and this one state. The academic pseudo-disciplines of “civic engagement,” “community engagement,” “global civics,” “leadership,” and “service-learning” are all part of a nationwide movement to turn civics education into propaganda for progressivism, free labor for progressive nonprofits, and skills training for progressive activism. Civic Engagement, Service-Learning, and Social Justice build on “experiential learning,” i.e. doing trumps studying. This is how training in progressive activism is packaged as education.

The National Education Association makes grants all over the nation for Social Justice Lesson Plans. National organizations such as Campus Compact and the Association of American Colleges & Universities support “civic engagement” — and the United States Department of Education now requires all institutions that participate in Federal Work Study to reserve 7 percent of their funds for “community service jobs.” That’s designed to be hijacked to fund future progressive activists — at Northwestern University, Federal Work Study for community service funds a Student Services Aide with “Knowledge of or interest in social justice, [and] feminism.”

Taxpayers should demand a halt to these diversions and deceptions. State legislatures must defund all public university programs that promote or use social justice, civic engagement, or service learning. And getting rid of anything that presents itself as experiential learning in the public universities would be a good start. Yes, experience is a great teacher, but it can teach perfectly well without academic credit. And speaking of learning by experience, the whole nation, not just the state of Maine, should learn from the experience of seeing a public university marshal its students to support a partisan protest.

What we should learn is that higher education is not trustworthy or self-correcting. In addition to withdrawing funding for experiential learning classes, the federal government should rescind the requirement that all institutions that participate in Federal Work-Study reserve 7 percent of their funds for community service jobs. Until it does, universities will keep on paying students to engage in progressive political activism.

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars, where David Randall is Director of Research.

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