The 2020 Election

Our Perspective

Peter Wood

The National Association of Scholars does not make endorsements of political candidates or parties, and it involves itself in politics only to the degree that educational matters become the subject of proposed legislation or actions by government authorities. Our detachment from other political matters proceeds partly from our non-profit 501 (c)(3) status, but more importantly it expresses our mission:

The National Association of Scholars upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.

Becoming embroiled in partisan politics would compromise NAS’s mission. But plainly, standing too aloof from the great political debates of our era would render NAS superfluous. We must not search for No Man’s Land but for the right altitude above the battlefield.

We do not survey the political views of our members. My sense is that a significant majority supported President Trump during the 2020 election but that a substantial minority supported Vice President Biden. I have heard from NAS members in both camps who hold very strongly to their views including their dislike of the “other guy.” Such a divergence of opinions is natural and welcome. We are not and do not seek to be an adjunct to any political party.

But we are not blind to political realities. The Trump administration, whatever its other characteristics may have been, advanced several policy objectives that NAS advocated. These include

  • adopting formal regulations that replaced the Obama-Biden 2011 “Dear Colleague” interpretation of Title IX
  • subjecting proposed environmental regulations to stricter scientific scrutiny
  • challenging the legitimacy of “Confucius Institutes” and other ventures by the Chinese Communist Party in American higher education
  • enforcing Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, a law requiring colleges and universities to divulge foreign gifts of $250,000 or more
  • urging public colleges and universities to protect and maintain First Amendment freedoms for students and faculty members
  • prohibiting federal contractors and federal grants from promoting race or sex stereotypes, including critical race theory (“CRT”) (EO 13950)
  • removing federal support for the Common Core State Standards
  • rejecting the “1619 Project” as a basis for teaching American history or civics

Numerous statements from President-elect Biden suggest that he will either reverse the Trump administration’s policies in these areas or drastically lower the level of enforcement.

Where does that leave NAS? We will continue to advocate for the policies as we have been all along. In some of those areas we may find ourselves in opposition to the Biden administration. In others we may find we can work with his administration.

We are also not blind to the larger context of the recent election, including its highly irregular conditions because of COVID-19. As an organization that promotes “virtuous citizenship,” NAS can hardly ignore the judgment of millions of American citizens that the presidential election was marred by suppression of key stories by the news media, political bias by social media companies, election rules that facilitated the possibility of unchecked voter fraud, failure by election officials to follow their own rules and laws, and documented instances of outright voter fraud. A substantial minority of our elected federal representatives have endorsed the judgment of their fellow citizens that the presidential election did not meet the standards of a free and fair election. When so many millions of American citizens, and so many of their elected representatives, question the legitimacy of the election, the arguments that underlie their judgment must be recognized, met by a full and sober consideration of the charges, and weighed on their merits. The tendency by many academics as well as the legacy media to brush aside these complaints as mere partisan rancor, to dismiss them unheard and seek to prevent their fellow citizens from having the opportunity to judge them themselves, is ill-advised. It undermines intellectual freedom as well as virtuous citizenship.

It is not part of NAS’s work to argue one side or the other regarding the election’s legitimacy. We must be prepared to work in a situation where starkly opposed and strongly held views define the landscape. If unity were to emerge from the wise policies of a new administration, we would support it. But if an administration attempts to impose artificial “unity” on a profoundly divided country, we will stand apart. Our view is that these controversies have to be settled in open public debate.

We would hope that American higher education will provide one of the places where that open public debate will arise. At this moment, the prospects for that kind of engagement by colleges and universities look dim. All too many of those institutions have allowed themselves to become political agents in what they teach, what they censor, and what they foster among students outside the classroom. NAS has spent the last decade presenting a series of meticulous reports on “the new civics,” “social justice,” “sustainability,” and “Western civilization” that detail higher education’s politicization and ideological one-sidedness. The result is that our colleges and universities are in a poor position to arbitrate our current national division.

In the last year, NAS has turned its attention to how American higher education can manage in an era of steep declines in enrollment, financial exigency, the student debt crisis, and the growing disaffection of the American middle class with the role of colleges and universities as the gatekeepers to professional careers. Altogether these factors add up to serious instability in higher education. That instability is exacerbated by higher education’s position as the nation’s primary incubator of anti-American sentiment. This is one more reason why colleges and universities are so unlikely in their current comportment to play any constructive role in facing the nation’s deep cultural and political divisions.

Our aim is to help American higher education rediscover its core mission. It could well be that at this moment of crisis for republican self-government, boards of trustees, elected officials, and the general public will begin to insist that our colleges and universities recommit themselves to their civic duty.

That said, the incoming administration, if it proceeds as it has signaled to stifle the fledgling reforms of the Trump administration, may well create the conditions for a more catastrophic collapse in Establishment higher education in the decade ahead.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

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