Now it is the University’s turn and it is not a coincidence, but a plan. “The old universities, such as Salamanca, Bologna or Harvard, designed to enlarge culture, have today been converted into machines of censorship, coercion, indoctrination or anti-Semitism. We want universities that are temples of knowledge, of freedom of thought, of the transmission of knowledge, and we do not want disturbed commissioners who invent genres, who pervert the innocence of minors, who rewrite history or who promote criminal ideologies. If yesterday universities were a space of freedom against the authoritarianism of power, today, unfortunately, they are the spearhead of the totalitarianism that is coming. “They have declared war on common sense, on truth, on language and on biology.”

Last Sunday, the president of Vox, Santiago Abascal, launched a tirade against the University of Salamanca and other higher education centers, taking advantage of a trip to Washington DC to participate in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). These messages have been common in the American far right for decades. The ultras point out university institutions for considering them elitist, promoting a single progressive thought, practicing cancel culture and imposing debates on race and gender, among other issues. Abascal directed this ammunition towards Spanish institutions in an internal translation of a practice already proven in other areas of the planet. With a public dedicated to the cause, the president of Vox received ovations and shouts of encouragement, especially in the mentions of “criminal ideologies” and “biology.”

Like (almost) everything the extreme right does, Abascal’s speech was not improvised. “Almost nothing they do or declare is a coincidence, it usually has a deeper meaning,” says Sergio García Maragiño, professor of Sociology at the Public University of Navarra. “In these processes there is a lot of imitation. But they don’t do it because they see it in a pamphlet somewhere. There is an international argument to which local context is then put, but there are meetings, exchanges of documents,” adds Luis Miller, scientist at the Institute of Policies and Public Goods of the CSIC. “These phenomena are linear, you don’t go from nothing to a brutal debate,” he explains.

Jesús Casquete Badallo, professor of History of Thought at the University of the Basque Country and author of the book Vox against History (Critical Thinking), corroborates the idea that Abascal’s message “responds to a strategy” that is not his, but shared by the entire spectrum of the extreme right, which involves putting universities in the spotlight as a bastion of expert knowledge . “The university is the quintessence of expert knowledge, from which climate change research comes. It is where the studies on gender, etc. come out. For them, they are all experts and their opinion on climate change is worth the same as that of a researcher who has been studying it for 20 years,” he maintains.

From the US to Hungary

In this case the precedents are clear. The American far-right has been attacking certain centers of the country for “decades,” says Miller. “There the focuses of the debate have been in elite, very expensive universities, where there is a very large predominance of progressive consensus. That generates an important tension, because in contrast you have Trump voters, who do not see themselves reflected in any of these two characteristics: economic elite and progressivism.”

One of the references of this entire movement is the book The Post-Truth University, by former Spanish dean of the Princeton School of Architecture Alejandro Zaera-Polo, who was fired for plagiarism. The text narrates, in the words of its own synopsis, “a story of violation of academic freedom for ideological reasons that we would do well to take note of. Only in this way can we prevent cancellation and identity persecution from also establishing themselves on our campuses.”

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) explain in a document how this entire movement has been created in that country, with a nuance: in the United States, where the Trumpism, which serves as a reference for Vox, governs in many states, from rhetoric has turned to action. “Right-wing lawmakers continue to wage a coordinated attack on public colleges and universities with legislation that would undermine academic freedom, chill discourse in classrooms, and impose partisan agendas on public higher education. Currently, at least 57 such bills have been introduced in 23 states. Top categories and trends include bills to: limit education on race, gender and sexual orientation; cut funding to work on diversity, equity and inclusion; and put an end to tenured professors,” reads the document, which for the next five pages elaborates on these statements with concrete examples. Verbal attacks become laws.

In Spain Vox does not have the power to get there, at least for the moment. The electoral program with which the party presented itself to the 23J elections does touch, without delving into them, some of these points: “The University must be rescued from all totalitarian ideological impositions and its culture of cancellation, recovering its vocation as a space of freedom and search for truth and beauty. We will guarantee the academic freedom of teachers in the classrooms against the impositions of political correctness.”

At the moment, Vox’s electoral program does not pay much attention to the University, but it will come, predicts Casquete Badallo, who recalls that in Hungary, where the extreme right governs, higher gender studies are prohibited. “They will end up picking it up,” he predicts.

Argentina is another example of the international nature of the movement and how the arguments and actions are repeated. The current president, Javier Milei, already described public universities as “indoctrination centers” two years ago, when he was a deputy. And when he came to power, he included in his – for the moment failed – Omnibus Law several measures against these institutions, to which he has cut funding and opens the door for them to start charging.

The deep state and the elites

García Magariño frames the speech in the far-right rhetoric of the Q-Anon theory that there is a deep State behind the visible State that wants to dominate the world and is controlled by the elites, easily identified with the university. In this context, the cultural war is raised, the supposed cancel culture is attacked and a university that is far from the people, whom they claim to represent, is attacked.

In any case, Miller believes that it is difficult for this debate to take hold in Spain because, in his opinion, it is somewhat artificial. “In the case of Vox, these arguments that come from outside often grate because the origin of the party connects more with a more Spanish traditionalism. I don’t know how it will evolve, but for now they are failing in Spain in these cultural wars. This does not mean that this will evolve in any way, but in this far-right international, when debates are brought in from outside they are not gaining traction.”

In the case of the Spanish university, the duality between the urban elite and the rural conservative does not exist, Miller points out. “You can criticize many things about the university, but not that there is a dynamic of urban elitism with high incomes that opposes the conservative movement. If anything,” he elaborates, “the problem in Spain is that we do not have intellectual elites.” But that is a different problem.

The party had already made its first steps in the discourse against the university while trying to introduce its own. In the 2019 campaign, they were already holding events with university students, who were encouraged to discuss with their professors whether they were taking them “down the path of political conviction,” under the axiom that “the faculties of Politics are in the hands of leftists.” in the words of the then party deputy Iván Espinosa de los Monteros. Abascal himself had already mentioned the issue in the debate on the motion of censure that Vox presented in October 2020. The leader of the ultra party then said: “For your crazy historical theories, you already have the universities and almost all film production occupied.” ”. In that same speech, Abascal slips some of the ideas that Jesús Casquete alluded to when he spoke of gender as “a product”, “a business that all of you have introduced in companies and universities, which already offer even master’s degrees for things that “We knew from the EGB.”

Finally, Miller closes, an element that favors Vox’s attacks on the University is that it barely has a presence there. Its relationship with the campuses is more based on student groups trying to boycott, with more or less success, the talks that some Vox leaders have tried to give, as happened to the spokesperson at the Madrid City Council, Ortega Smith, in the Complutense University, or the former party member Macarena Olona.


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