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Five things that went right for higher ed in 2023

Donors and alumni took a stand, the Supreme Court banned affirmative action, and more

Confidence in higher education continued to plummet in 2023.

In June, only 36 percent of those polled by Gallup said they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in colleges and universities, compared to 57 percent in 2018.

In October, onlookers condemned elite universities’ initial non-response to the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel, and the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced widespread criticism in December for denying that calls for the genocide of the Jews always violate their campus harassment policies.

Not long after, President Claudine Gay of Harvard, the most prestigious university in the world, came under fire for dozens of instances of plagiarism.

Yet all was not bleak. New institutions and key court and legislative victories are among the highlights of the last 12 months. For example, 2023 will forever be known as the year the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action.

Here are five things that went right in higher education in 2023:

New institutions came on the scene, championing the search for truth

The nonprofit UATX, aimed at transforming and renewing education, became the University of Austin in November following state certification and opened admission to undergraduates for the class of 2024.

Its plans include banning tenure, ditching doctorate requirements for faculty, and hiring the “leanest possible administration,” President Pano Kanelos told The College Fix in January.

University founders previously told The Fix the institution would offer an education without the censorship and ideology present at so many universities. “It’s neither right nor left,” founding faculty fellow and philosopher Peter Boghossian said. “Its North Star is truth.”

Meanwhile, in October, the Christian nonprofit Hildegard College, dedicated to education in the classics, faith formation and entrepreneurship, announced the launch of an undergraduate degree program in 2024, The Fix reported.

Hildegard joined other new or revitalized Christian liberal arts schools, including The College of St. Joseph the Worker and Franciscan University of Steubenville, in offering career training alongside theology and robust spirituality.

In August, New College of Florida abolished its gender studies programs amid an ongoing transformation of the school begun by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who fired and replaced more than half of its trustees in January.

“It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the South,” DeSantis Chief of Staff James Uthmeier told the Daily Caller in January.

Among the college’s new hires is Stanley Fish, a literary theorist and professor of law at Florida International University who has taught at University of California Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, and Duke, according to his faculty bio.

In a Nov. 15 Chronicle of Higher Education interview with the pointed headline “Why Is Stanley Fish Teaching at Florida’s New College?” Fish responded to leading questions describing the school as a “political project” by saying he has been left free to teach as he wishes.

“What I can control is the kind of teaching I do, and of course I wouldn’t want to get engaged in a classroom experience if I felt that that classroom was being monitored for political or ideological reasons,” Fish said. “But I’ve had no hint of any such monitoring in my discussions.”

Supreme Court overturns affirmative action, Texas and Florida ban DEI

In two landmark decisions in June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the use of affirmative action in higher education, outlawing college admissions decisions based on an applicant’s race.

A slim majority of the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a pair of cases that targeted these policies at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued many university leaders “have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

Also this year, Florida and Texas passed laws to rein in DEI on public campuses and enact post-tenure review.

Pushback against harmful aspects of transgender ideology gained strength

In September, doctors at a Washington University in St. Louis clinic stopped prescribing minors puberty-blocking drugs and surgeries to assist in youth gender transition, citing a recent Missouri law limiting such treatments, The College Fix reported at the time.

Even more, on June 1, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced it would no longer give transgender procedures or medications to minors due to a Tennessee law that went into effect on July 1.

These steps more closely align the United States with progressive European nations such as Finland, Sweden and England on this issue. Each of those countries moved this year toward dramatically restricting minor access to transgender interventions, as The Fix previously reported.

As the youth gender clinics shuttered, important critics of transgender ideology gained ground. Activist and detransitioner Chloe Cole spoke on medical malpractice issues and her own regret in series of campus appearances, including at Drexel University, Dartmouth, and the University of Utah.

Meanwhile, activist and former NCAA competitive swimmer Riley Gaines made waves defending female-only sports and spaces in appearances at Harvard, UC Davis, and elsewhere.

Donors and alumni fight back

Whether they were forming alumni associations to host free speech events or defunding universities for failing to condemn atrocities, 2023 was the year of the donor revolt.

In January, two Harvard graduates formed the Harvard Alumni for Free Speech group in response to the university’s ranking in the bottom 17 percent for free expression.

In August, the Cornell Free Speech Alliance, an alumni group, published a 100-page report calling for sweeping changes on campus.

Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have both faced fierce backlash from wealthy donors disgruntled by how the schools responded to Hamas’ slaughter and kidnapping of Israeli civilians, and later, by university presidents’ denial that calls for Jewish genocide always violate campus policies.

In October, billionaire Israeli couple Idan and Batia Ofer protested by stepping down from the executive board of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Another billionaire couple, Leslie and Abigail Wexner, said they are disappointed by Harvard’s failure to properly denounce the terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. As a result, the couple terminated their organization’s “financial and programmatic relationship” with the university.

After President Liz Magill and the presidents of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology denied before Congress on Dec. 4 that calling for genocide of the Jews violated campus policies on bullying and harassment, donors voted with their pocketbooks.

Penn alumni Ross Stevens, founder and CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, withdrew a gift from the university worth approximately $100 million.

Amid ongoing criticism, Magill and the chairman of the university board of trustees both resigned a few days later.

Despite a year’s share of cancelations, sometimes free speech prevailed 

Student and faculty protests succeeded in canceling a fair share of speakers this year, including renowned hematologist-oncologist Vinay Prasad, prevented from speaking at the University of California San Francisco because of his unrelated but controversial views on COVID-19, and Christian apologist Corey Miller, whose talk on the influence of the religion was canceled at the University of New Brunswick in Canada after one student complained.

However, some unorthodox speakers survived cancelation efforts.

Abigail Shrier, author of “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” spoke in October at the University of Virginia despite the loud objections of more than 100 people gathered outside.

That same month, U. S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett spoke at a University of Minnesota campus amid opposition by about 200 students who took issue with her majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade. 

In September, writer Heather Mac Donald, the author of “When Race Trumps Merit,” defended her book’s themes against opposition at UC Berkeley School of Law.

“Standards are not racist,” Mac Donald said repeatedly over her one-hour talk.

In March, after students yelled at and scolded federal Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford Law School, who had been invited by the Federalist Society to give a talk, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Stanford Law Dean Jenny Martinez issued an apology. Martinez wrote a lengthy memo defending free speech and chastising the protestors before she was promoted to provost.

MORE: 10 countercultural female scholars to watch

IMAGE: Hildegard College

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