Illiberal Reactions to the University in the 21st Century

Evan Schofer, University of California, Irvine
Julia C. Lerch, University of California, Irvine
John W. Meyer, Stanford University

Following decades of rapid global university expansion, there are now instances of retrenchment. We describe examples of efforts to impose political control over universities, in some cases leading to enrollment decline, and suggest a common dynamic. Neo-institutional theory linked the post-1945 growth of modern universities to the ascendance of a liberal international order rather than domestic economic forces. This line of theory suggests that the recent weakening of the liberal order, associated with growing populism and nationalism, erodes the legitimacy of universities and emboldens criticism. We thus suppose that attacks on the university are most common in countries least integrated into the established liberal order and in countries affiliated with international organizations that espouse anti-liberal discourses. We examine cross-national data on tertiary enrollments over the period 1970-2015. While enrollments continue their upward global trend, they are lower in countries linked to illiberal or anti-liberal organizations, especially in the last decade. Exploratory analyses of university funding, shifts in the fields of study, and direct attacks on universities show similar patterns, supporting the broader theory.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 242. Interrogating the Intersections between Higher Education and Civil Society