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Editor’s Note: Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group based in Washington, DC. He is also a former senior policy adviser to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed in this piece are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

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In recent decades, red states were largely content to let their state universities operate at arm’s length. A college degree was generally seen as the pathway to the middle class. And big-time campaign donors were just as likely to bend the governor’s ear about the record of the football team as about the intellectual climate on campus.

Those days are gone. With increasingly politicized campus cultures and renewed questions about the value of a college education, Republicans are growing more dyspeptic about the role that academia plays in society. Eight years of polling data tells the story: In 2015, 56% of Republicans told Gallup they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Earlier this year, it was 19%.

Patrick T. Brown

A rising cost of attendance, increasing student loan debt, uncertain economic payoffs and a sense that higher education is stacking the deck against conservatives are helping drive the latest energies on the right. As Charlie Mahtesian wrote for Politico, GOP lawmakers may also be reacting to deep-blue college towns influencing red state elections.

Conservative governors and state legislatures are increasingly seeking to reshape higher education along lines more congenial to their way of understanding the world. And college and universities, often bastions of liberal values, are ripe targets in states under unified Republican control.

The challenge for GOP lawmakers will be to determine which ultimate ends are desirable, and what desirable outcomes are achievable – both legally and practically. Initial forays in Ohio, Florida, Texas and other states suggest possible avenues for success — and progressives who may be skeptical about such initiatives should welcome their potential long-term benefits.

Though Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ run for the Republican presidential nomination seems to be losing steam, he remains a leader in pushing the envelope in reshaping the right’s view of higher education. His comments in a recent interview with Fox News spoke for many conservatives: “These are public institutions, and they have to reflect the mission that the state of Florida has.”

And he has a point — while many liberals have criticized the University of Florida’s selection of former Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska as its next president or the nomination of rock-ribbed conservative scholars to the board of trustees of the New College of Florida, the governor is well within his rights to want to see public institutions reflect the values he sees espoused by many in his state. Though Florida was, until recently, a fairly purple state, DeSantis is making the political bet that his conservative base is looking to create some friendlier venues in academia.

Conservatives often feel like academia is hostile to their values and beliefs, and for good reason. New leadership, with an eye toward ensuring a climate of intellectual diversity on campus, could help restore a bipartisan sense that these institutions are meant to serve the state as a whole — not just the interests of left-leaning academics and administrators. (And many surveys support the idea that many professors do, in fact, have more liberal leanings, and few openly express conservative ones.)

A vivid example of this is the ongoing fight over state universities’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this year, 40 bills have been introduced in 22 states to curb or halt DEI initiatives, prohibit the use of diversity statements in hiring or ban DEI training on college campuses.

Progressives may see DEI efforts as essential to building campuses more reflective of the country at large, but in most red states, they’re seen as an act of aggression in a larger culture war. In turn, conservatives frequently cite the work of Harvard’s Frank Dobbin, who has found evidence that these trainings can be ineffective or even counterproductive, and argue DEI offices too often blur the line between scholarship and activism. And a state government is certainly well within its rights to bar an institution it has created from spending money on concepts it finds problematic.

Potentially the most intriguing and potentially productive approach conservative legislators are championing is not a defensive action, but a proactive strategy. Multiple states, including Ohio and Texas, have considered or passed legislation establishing hubs for conservative intellectual life at state institutions of higher education.

Florida again is the forerunner, having created the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. Its mission, according to its website, is to encourage a rich engagement with the American founding, equip students for open and honest debate and help implement a K-12 civics curriculum.

Talking about Western civilization, the American founding and civics may strike some as quaint, others as problematic. But for many conservatives, these questions are at the core of what higher education is supposed to be about. DeSantis’ most recent budget request asked for a total of $18 million to help expand the center’s operations and physical footprint.

The Hamilton Center is seeking to become an example of how to integrate a study of the obligations and duties of living in a free society into a modern-day public research university. It’s also seeking to become a foothold for conservative academics within an often-hostile atmosphere.

If the Hamilton Center establishes a successful track record of serious scholarship and an attitude of open debate over the medium- to long-term, it will provide not just a tremendous service to its students, but an example to other public universities and a sign to political conservatives that academia can be renewed. If it fails, it may signal a final souring between the right and the ivory tower.

Of course, not all ideas that have made it into legislative text are worth pursuing. Rolling back tenure protections is an example of a policy that may sound good in theory to Republicans, but could backfire in practice. Tenure protections are designed to give academics freedom to espouse beliefs that could be unpopular on campus, such as, say, economically or socially conservative viewpoints.

Encouraging a precedent where scholars could be fired for disfavored speech could backfire on the few remaining conservatives on campuses. And in North Carolina, North Dakota and Texas, Republican legislatures have rejected or watered down proposals to eat away at tenure protections, even amid some criticism from their right-most flank.

And even a few right-leaning scholars have pointed out First Amendment concerns over some of the more far-reaching bills. Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act,” for example, sought to prohibit private employers, including universities, from requiring mandatory diversity trainings or from causing a person to feel “guilt, anguish, or…psychological distress” due to their race or sex. In November, the law was enjoined by a federal judge who took issue with the idea that “professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves,” calling it “positively dystopian.”

Though the impulse to address the most egregious examples of “wokeness” on college campuses, be it heavy-handed diversity trainings or scholarship that conservatives see as biased, is understandable politically, legal precedent suggests scholars and academics enjoy wide free speech protections in and out of the classroom, and a more delicate touch will be necessary going forward.

A far better area of focus is building up institutions and networks for students and intellectuals tired of the overwhelming conformity on many college campuses. Instead of agitating for tenure revocation, for example, standing up for the principle of academic freedom offers firmer political ground. And, projects like the aforementioned University of Florida’s Hamilton Center could offer a way of getting there.

That isn’t to downplay the challenge of the road ahead. Establishing a center with the personnel to deliver on the lofty mission statement won’t happen overnight, and conservatives and the mainstream academy are used to treating each other with suspicion.

Given the dramatic rise in disapproval on the right for colleges and universities, giving the public a little more influence over public institutions of higher education may help rebuild a sense of buy-in over the fate of our state universities. Too many conservatives see higher ed as a world in which left-leaning professors and activist administrators reward progressive speech and punish conservatives.

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Liberals who care about state colleges and universities should be concerned about the increasing polarization around the academy, too. If Republicans increasingly see higher education as an overt agent in the culture wars, it could spell doom for initiatives aimed at broadening access to financial aid or funds for scientific research. Texas, for example, both increased scholarship money and research funds, while also banning DEI initiatives on state campuses this year.

Florida, too, has paired increases in education funding with additional dollars for alternate pathways to the middle class, like apprenticeships and vocational training. An agreement to open the prospect of more intellectual diversity on campus in exchange for broader public funding could strike many Republicans as a deal worth making.

Republicans will have to avoid the more extreme steps being proposed by members of their political coalition. And Democrats may also find a reason to meet them halfway. A world in which public universities and colleges are seen as tied to only one political party will leave them friendless in red states.

But some of the defensive and proactive steps Republican lawmakers are proposing may end up creating a kind of modus vivendi, where red states that house blue universities could turn down some of the heat around campus politics and funding with a little more tolerance for debate and intellectual diversity.