The Atlantic

A History of the Conservative War on Universities

The GOP tax bill is the latest example of an anti-intellectualism that’s been brewing for decades.
Source: Petros Giannakouris / AP

The Republican-controlled Congress is now poised to pass one of the most dramatic changes to the tax code in more than a generation—one with significant benefits for the wealthiest sector of society. Yet an aspect of this legislation receiving little attention is how it marks the culmination of a decades-long renouncement of higher education by portions of the American conservative movement.

The GOP and the American right consistently position themselves against the universities. This is a commonplace of the culture war. But why? America’s universities regularly rank among the most prestigious worldwide, making undeniable contributions to medicine, science, technology, economy, the arts, athletics, and the humanities. America’s universities also attract some of the world’s brightest minds, spurring innovation and dominating globally by countless measures. Conservatives might be proud of the universities as particularly stunning examples of American pluck and ingenuity. Instead, the tax bill appears to be symptomatic of the GOP’s growing disillusionment with higher education. This is, at least, how a number of college presidents and leaders have interpreted it.

For one, the legislation would for the first time ever on their endowment income. Universities have traditionally received tax exemptions on those assets in part because they are viewed as contributing to the public good. In addition, the House bill to end graduate-student tax breaks, leading professors and graduate students at top universities that studying for a Ph.D. will become unaffordable for all but the wealthy. (The Senate bill doesn’t include the latter provision; the two pieces of legislation head to conference committee shortly.) With tax analysts corporations as the Republican plan’s biggest winners, a politics of factionalism seems implicit in the bill: Private corporations deserve even greater assets, while America’s universities merit higher levels of taxation.

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