AAUP: How wealth is being weaponized to manufacture backlash

At least 150 bills have been introduced in state legislatures threatening to undermine academic freedom and university autonomy since 2020, AAUP declares in a new whitepaper.

Anyone perusing national, state and local news publications would be remiss if they didn’t know higher education is under intense scrutiny across the political and cultural spectrum. What we may not realize is that this backlash is primarily manufactured, according to a new whitepaper from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

The nonprofit membership organization with over 500 local campus chapters and 39 state organizations believes that much of the uproar against higher education since 2020 derives from a small and coordinated effort by wealthy Republican- and Libertarian-backed megadonors. Their advances have led to at least 150 bills introduced in state legislatures threatening to undermine academic freedom and university autonomy, the organization contends.

Nationwide demonstrations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQIA+ advocacy during the COVID-19 pandemic led wealthy conservative opponents and their well-funded think tanks to craft a political response, the whitepaper declares. Higher education became a focal point for conservatives, who made critical race theory a cultural flashpoint following the pandemic.

As a result, the campaign began with placing gag orders on “divisive concepts” such as CRT, which some donors claimed was an existential threat to America. AAUP concedes CRT inspired grassroots social justice movements during the pandemic, but the organization also believes that contemporary academic framework was built on decades of scholarship, peer review and debate on race, gender, American history and social equality.

“Rather than engaging the scholarship on its merit and in good faith, they mischaracterized, polemicized, and weaponized whole fields of academic study,” the whitepaper reads.

Opponents’ tactics soon evolved, targeting institutional DEI initiatives and LGBTQ+ visibility. Faculty tenure, academic freedom and university governance structures have also been targeted “to kick the legs out … so that the next time the state moves to censor … no one is in a position to push back.”


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“[W]hile appearing spontaneous, the supposed public concern about [critical race theory] and DEI was actually part of a culture-war backlash manufactured, in large part, within a network of right-wing and libertarian think tanks,” the whitepaper reads.

The paper mostly pointed to efforts from Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas and Florida, the latter of which has been especially aggressive thanks to Gov. Ron DeSantis. AAUP has been a vocal critic of Florida’s legislation to muzzle instruction around CRT and has detailed what it believes is a descent into authoritarian control following its government’s takeover of a small liberal arts college.

AAUP named several conservative and libertarian think tanks at the national and federal level helping influence political thought and public opinion on higher education, including the Center for Renewing America, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the American Council on Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Claremont Institute. Their funding predominantly derives from overlapping megadonors, the whitepaper states.

“The think tanks … helped foment a culture war backlash against education, creating an echo chamber that delegitimizes scholarship and teaching on race, gender and critical approaches to American history that they find disagreeable,” the whitepaper read. “However, these same think tanks have not stopped at manufacturing outrage over the teaching of ideas they don’t like.”

“Manufacturing Backlash” was produced by the Center for the Defense of Academic Freedom, which is housed under AAUP. The center “will bring together higher education and academic freedom experts over two years (2024–25) to develop a comprehensive understanding of the scope and nature of political interference in higher education and develop means of countering this assault.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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