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Republicans believe college campus chaos works in their favor

On Oct. 7, 2023, a series of pivotal events unfolded that could shape the landscape of the upcoming November election. 

That was when Hamas staged its audacious, terrifying raids into Israel,  launching a Middle East conflagration which dwarfs the wars of 1967 and 1973.

The subject of abortion remains a prominent factor in this fall’s election. But the Middle East has the potential to supersede that. The schism which is cleaving the Democratic Party is now on full display in quadrangles across the country. Photos of occupation, tent cities and ransacked university buildings are now a staple of the daily news consciousness. This all comes nearly 54 years to the day of the massacre at Kent State University in Ohio.

Democrats are struggling to balance the First Amendment rights of students on top of support for human rights in Gaza. But a thread of rampant antisemitism permeates many of these demonstrations. This isn’t lost on voters. Democrats are torn between criticizing the protests and not alienating their base.

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A cynic might argue that Republicans are exploiting the Democratic schism. But the GOP really doesn’t need to do much. The daily collegiate contretemps speaks for itself.

Neither party frankly has much of a legislative agenda for the rest of the year. The foreign aid package is complete. TikTok is on the books. Months of work on a bipartisan border security package evaporated within minutes over the winter. Nothing exists in a vacuum. So, the university melees simply presented the GOP with an opening. And the GOP is seemingly better equipped to grapple with the issue than Democrats.

“Students are students, and you’re going to have demonstrations. And that’s just part of being a college student,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House Education Committee. “There’s a difference between protesting against the war and being antisemitic. And many of the protests have slipped into antisemitism.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., led the charge to challenge higher education. Johnson deputized multiple committee chairs to launch a myriad of investigations and hearings into prospective wrongdoing by universities, failures to protect students and threats of switching off the financial spigot for colleges.

“The biggest supply of money comes from us. And so we’re taking a look at how to condition that money on how they handle their campuses in situations like this,” promised Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

House Republicans have already targeted higher education for months – with great success. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., bragged “one down, two to go,” after University of Pennsylvania’s Liz Magill stepped down in December following her congressional testimony about collegiate antisemitism.

By January, Stefanik added another trophy to her collection, the resignation of Harvard’s Claudine Gay. Gay also stumbled at the same hearing as Magill. It’s notable that Stefanik graduated from Harvard in 2006.

“Two down,” Stefanik said at the time.

MIT President Sally Kornbluth remains on the job after that fateful December hearing. But now, Stefanik and other Republicans are pursuing Columbia University President Minouche Shafik after demonstrators stormed Hamilton Hall.

“President Shafik has allowed campus to be taken by mob rule,” said Stefanik. “She must be immediately removed.”

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The issue about the university unrest was practically served up to Republicans on a silver mortar board. Expect a public thrashing for other university presidents at another hearing before the House Education Committee on May 23. 

The House Oversight Committee has jurisdiction over Washington, D.C. That’s why House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., summoned Washington, D.C., Mayor Murial Bowser and D.C. Police Chief Pamela Smith for a session next week. Comer is “deeply concerned” that the D.C. police rejected a request from George Washington University to help “remove antisemitic and unlawful protesters” from the campus.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently sent a letter to university presidents in which he blasted the harassment of Jewish students. In particular, Cardona said Jewish students were subject “to verbal abuse” and found swastikas on their doors. Others were told to “go back to Poland.”

“These and other such incidents are abhorrent,” wrote Cardona.

But Republican lawmakers believe Cardona and the federal government were slow to probe potential civil rights violations on campuses. Cardona appeared before a Senate hearing earlier this week.

“Do you think right now that this administration is upholding Title VI?” Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., asked.

Title VI is part of the Civil Rights Act that bars discrimination based on race, color or religion.

“We are with the resources that we have,” said Cardona. “The number of cases has tripled since 2009. And we have 58 less people (to investigate now).”

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Cardona asked for an additional $22 million this budget cycle to hire more investigators and open up additional campus probes. But expect that to be a flashpoint. Especially after Republicans aim to trim funding for the Department of Education.

“Republicans tried to cut it by 25% for the FY ‘24 budget. And the result was flat funding,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

The GOP is also angling to slash funding for universities lawmakers believe failed to protect students.

“If you’re going to break the law, violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, you’re going to have your federal funds removed,” warned Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the top Republican on the panel that handles education dollars. 

“Think of the research dollars that go into some of these universities. Think of the federal student aid that goes into these universities. Think of the buildings that were built with federal funds.”

Cardona agrees with some senators about the cash flow.

“Ultimately, if a school refuses to comply with Title VI, yes, we would remove federal dollars,” Cardona testified.

But some lawmakers suggest it’s challenging to determine when a school crosses the line.

“There’s natural tension between the First Amendment (and the) criminal code, Title VI, to make sure that students can have an environment free of hatred and hostility,” said Scott. “And it’s going to be difficult to decide.”

But the politics may be a little clearer.

Voters see chaos on campus. Some on the right are skeptical about higher education to begin with. Democrats are torn about the conflict in the Middle East. Republicans won the House partly because they flipped seats in New York. That’s why freshmen members of Congress, like Reps. Mike Lawler and Anthony D’Esposito, both New York Republicans, have been outspoken about protests at Columbia.

This maelstrom of demonstrations at colleges and universities is now officially on the ballot this fall. And Republicans have demonstrated they believe the milieu works in their favor.

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