President Trump recently signed an executive order directing federal agencies to link funding for higher education to how universities enforce “free inquiry” on campus. This order was motivated by the claim that professors have endeavored to prevent conservatives from challenging the ideology of the far-left. At this time, the details of how the order will be implemented are lacking.
Since I am often cast as a lefty, it would be expected that I oppose this order. However, I will not be arguing this matter from a leftist perspective. Rather, I will advance arguments enshrined in classic conservative principles in opposition to this order.
One key principle professed by conservatives is the idea of small government. This principle is supposed to manifest in opposition to unnecessary laws, in opposition to government overreach, and in support of local governance. This executive order clearly violates this principle.
First, the order is utterly unnecessary as a means of protecting free speech on college campuses. While some universities have endeavored to keep controversial conservatives and speakers like Richard Spencer off their campuses, the existing free speech laws have sufficed to thwart these efforts. In the case of Richard Spencer, the University of Florida had to let him speak on campus (and the state paid for the security). In the case of public institutions, the first amendment protections apply—thus making it clear that the executive order is attempting to order what already exists: legally protected free expression.
It might be objected that private universities that receive public money would still be free to exclude people from speaking on campus. The easy and obvious conservative reply is that these private universities are private. So, like any private business, they have no legal obligation to provide avenues for free speech. There are, of course, some exceptions—but these are covered by existing laws.
Second, the order is a case of government overreach that seems to be aimed at picking winners and losers in the realm of inquiry. Conservatives profess an opposition to such interference in the free marketplace of ideas, so the state coming down in support of one side (in this case, explicitly going after the allegedly leftist professors) should be anathema to them. Even if, in this case, Trump purports to be putting the might of the state on their side and against those they disagree with.
It might be objected that the order is aimed at making life fair and using the compulsive power of the state to create ideological diversity on campuses. But conservatives have long argued that life is not fair and that the compulsive power of the state should not be used to serve an agenda of diversity. Principled conservatives would not embrace this big government approach—even if it purports to be in their favor.
Third, this order goes against the core conservative principle of local governance. Conservatives have often argued for state and local rights when it comes to making decisions. This order places the federal government over state and local control, making such decisions in faraway Washington, D.C. While a conservative would certainly favor more conservative expression on campuses, to jam this down the throats of the people and to sweep aside states’ rights would be an unacceptable means of doing so.
Conservatives also make a point of being for fiscal responsibility and profess opposition to government bloat. While the order itself comes with no cost, the actual enforcement will require a significant bureaucracy. One obvious analogy is that of Title IX. This law prohibits discrimination based on sex by educational programs receiving federal funding and resulted in the growth of bureaucracy in the federal government and on campuses. If Trump’s executive order is going to have any teeth at all, it will need a similar bureaucracy in place. It will also need a set of standards for sorting out what counts as violating “free inquiry” in all the relevant contexts on campus ranging from the classroom to speaker invitations.
While I am not familiar with the inner workings of the federal government, I am familiar with how universities operate. This order must generate a demand for data on compliance, which means the creation of an office on each campus to gather and report this data as well multiple committees. The office will require administrators and staff. In the case of state institutions, this will require more taxpayer money to fund. In the case of private institutions, they will need to increase tuition. While these costs will not be extreme, they will add even more to the rising cost of education.
Thus, while a conservative would rightfully rejoice at having more conservative thought on campuses, doing this by means of the federal government would be a violation of conservative principles. As such, conservatives should oppose this executive order on conservative grounds.