Americans rightly see former Harvard University president Claudine Gay as an intellectual lightweight who ascended to her position because academia now values identity over merit. Gay was the avatar for the governing ideology of American higher education. Until Gay’s downfall began with the now-infamous congressional hearing in December 2023, campus diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) commissars saw their positions as morally and administratively unassailable. Even after her ouster, Gay’s colleagues have every right to feel secure in their posts. Sure, Americans, acting through their elected representatives, can exert enough pressure to get Harvard’s president replaced. But with so many anti-Semitic ideologues inside and outside DEI bureaucracies, whacking a mole or two won’t make a systemic difference, right?

Wrong. Americans can decide in 2024 whether to allow our universities to remain structurally anti-Semitic. Consider the case of Middlebury College. Last week, the Washington Free Beacon reported that shortly after Hamas murdered more than 1,000 Israelis, raped an untold number of women, and beheaded babies on October 7, 2023, Jewish students at Middlebury asked the college to host a vigil for the victims. Shockingly, Middlebury refused to permit the students to hold the event in the campus chapel, refused to provide police protection, asked them not to display Israeli flags, and insisted that they not identify the victims as Jewish. All in the name of “inclusivity.” (The vigil ended up being held outside.)

Shortly thereafter, Middlebury provided access to the chapel and police protection for an event titled, “Vigil for Palestine.” It began with a sectarian Islamic prayer and featured remarks from Middlebury’s vice president of equity and inclusion, Khuram Hussain, who conveniently did not attend the Jewish vigil. The director of StandWithUs’s Center for Legal Justice, the legal arm of the well-known Jewish advocacy organization, told the Free Beacon that “the Middlebury administration seems to think they’re off the radar and can get away with the disparate treatment of Jewish students because everyone is focused on Harvard.” The center filed a federal Title VI civil rights complaint, arguing that “there’s not just a hostile environment for Jewish students; the administration also seems to be directly complicit.”

The Biden administration announced last week that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) had opened an investigation. To the uninitiated, that may sound impressive, but the most likely outcome is that OCR’s top official, Assistant Secretary of Education Catherine Lhamon, will do with this investigation what she usually does: leverage them to mandate more left-wing administration on campuses. The last thing Middlebury’s Jewish students need is more DEI funding, but that’s about all that the college need fear from the Biden administration.

Higher education would have much more to fear, however, from a second Trump administration. Earlier this month, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a 3,000-word essay on the policy agenda that Donald Trump might pursue. Somehow, neither the author nor anyone he quoted seemed able to imagine President Trump playing a natural trump card: defunding a university for violating federal civil rights law.

It’s not hard to imagine how it would play out. Two-thirds of Republicans believe that our universities are bad for America. Not that tuition is too expensive, or the return on investment is bad; rather, the objection is that universities actively harm America and undermine the common good. You don’t treat an institutional cancer by increasing its funding more modestly; you cut it. We suspect that if Trump were to suggest defunding a left-wing college at a political rally, the applause would be deafening.

Middlebury would be the perfect place to start. As a Top Ten-ranked liberal arts college, it holds a special place in the hearts and minds of liberal elites but means next to nothing to the rest of the country. On the right, its nearest analogue might be Hillsdale College—but if Hillsdale can thrive without taking a dime of federal money, shouldn’t Middlebury be able to do the same?

Though OCR has never defunded an entire educational institution, Democrats have leveraged the threat to coerce schools to do various things: establish kangaroo courts to adjudicate sexual harassment allegations; limit teachers’ authority to discipline K–12 students; force teachers to use “preferred pronouns”; keep pornographic books in school libraries; and more. Republicans have historically been reluctant to play the same game. But a GOP-controlled OCR could prohibit DEI statements in faculty hiring; abolish schools’ DEI administrative apparatus altogether; force universities to admit students by a colorblind, merit-based lottery; keep women’s sports female-only; and more.

Ousting Harvard’s president took a congressional hearing and millions of dollars in earned media. Dismantling the apparatus of leftist indoctrination in American higher education would take part of a day for a few ambitious Trump appointees. The protective bubble around academia is far too thick for university leaders to realize this yet, but come November, that bubble may burst.

Photo: Kenneth James Burchfiel III, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next