Right-Wing Activist Chris Rufo Calls for “Siege” of University at UT

Chris Rufo, right-wing thought leader, speaking at UT this week (Photo by Brant Bingamon)

It wasn’t a cakewalk for Chris Rufo.

The right-wing thought leader delivered a smooth and articulate call to “lay siege” to the nation’s system of higher education at UT’s Republican donor-funded Salem Center on Nov.13. But by the end of the Q&A, a trio of university professors had neutered his message.

Who is Chris Rufo? He’s an enormously influential and connected conservative activist (he has counseled Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis) who has helped popularize some of the most successful right-wing propaganda of recent years. He is credited with initiating the controversy on the right over critical race theory. He helped pass the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a Florida ban on teaching or even discussing gender issues in public schools. Lately, he has turned his attention to higher education, advocating for legislation like SB 17, the new Texas law that bans diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in the state’s public colleges and universities.

Rufo brought his anti-DEI argument to UT on Monday and because he is – like many on the right – a catastrophist, he gave it an apocalyptic twist, claiming that initiatives like DEI have made public universities frightening, insecure places. “I think people from across the political spectrum would acknowledge a sense of anxiety [at the universities],” he said. “A sense of fear. A sense of foreboding. Something has gone quite wrong.”

Rufo preaches that the beginning of the crisis came in the 1960s as progressives initiated a “march through the institutions” that put them in control of higher education and, indeed, the country’s entire culture. (Rufo has written a book about this: America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.) He seeks to reverse the process, saying it is necessary to replace liberal voices with conservative ones at institutions like UT.

Rufo aims to accomplish this transformation in Florida after being appointed in January to the board of New College, a state school that has historically been very progressive. Rufo told the Salem Center audience that one of his first votes as a board member was to dismantle New College’s DEI office. In August, the board approved a motion by Rufo to abolish the school’s gender studies major. Since then, dozens of faculty members have left the college. Rufo wants to repeat the process across the country. “If it’s got ‘studies’ after it, it’s probably a pseudo-discipline,” he claims.

Rufo ended the scripted portion of his remarks by noting that people paint him as a barbarian at the gates of academia. “I find that kind of fun, kind of entertaining. But I would suggest that actually the opposite is true – the barbarians are behind the gates. … So I think what I’d like to see in the immediate term is a protracted siege of the institutions on the part of the people of our republic, whether it’s on the state level or the federal level.”

Afterward, Rufo took questions. Naomi Campa, a classics professor at UT, challenged Rufo to define what he meant by “truth, beauty, and goodness,” a standard he had repeatedly referred to in his remarks that he said higher education should re-prioritize. A numbing digression followed in which Rufo complained that leftists reject the concept of beauty. He did not, however, offer any insight into what he considers truth, beauty, and goodness to consist of. “I would like some actual examples,” Campa replied with a note of impatience, “not some argument that says beauty is anti-diversity. … I agree that people give word-salad as answers but I challenge you not to do the same thing – because that was word salad.”

Ten minutes later, Polly Strong, an anthropology professor and the president of the UT chapter of the American Association of University Professors, told Rufo that she believed in intellectual diversity but that a commitment to the concept wasn’t what she heard from him. She said her personal hero is John Dewey, the pragmatist philosopher who advocated for academic freedom, due process, and neutrality in higher learning and asked if Rufo supported those values.

Rufo thanked Strong for her question but his words came faster and more insistent than before. He derided Dewey, saying it would have been better if he’d never been born, and dismissed his values. “Academic freedom, due process, neutrality – those are means, not ends,” Rufo said. “If you have an erasure of ends, what you get is sheer power politics, you get everything reducible to will and domination, and then you get an academic life that drifts into witchcraft, into phrenology, into gender studies.” Rufo concluded by saying that academics who continue to adhere to Dewey’s principles, “frankly, deserve what’s coming.”

Strong was completely unawed by the implied threat. “The ‘ends’ of academic freedom, due process, and shared governance is education for a democratic society,” she said simply. “That is the basis of John Dewey’s vision and many, many university professors believe that today.”

The audience was silent after Strong’s remark. It had become clear that Rufo wasn’t dominating his opponents. It got worse for him when Samuel Baker, a UT English professor, came to the mic. Baker reiterated that Rufo’s veneration of beauty and truth was meaningless if he provided no idea of what the concepts mean to him, and he criticized Rufo’s use of violent imagery like “laying siege” and deserving “what’s coming.”

“I just want to be honest with you,” Baker said, “your rhetoric in relation to barbarism and the way you smugly say that the university is not going to like what’s coming – I think that in the context of the world right now, where there is a lot of really tragic violence, that we ought to be careful to remove ourselves from that and from groups with white supremacist associations. I really think you should rethink the glibness.”

By “white supremacist associations,” Baker was referring to reports linking Rufo to the figures who constitute a new alt-right bro culture, including the recently disgraced Richard Hanania – a visiting professor of the Salem Center who was, in his words, canceled after revelations that he’d written pseudonymously for white supremacist publications a decade earlier. Rufo also associates with anti-democratic voices like Bronze Age Pervert, as well as people from the Claremont Institute, who advocate for the overthrow of the 2020 presidential election, and Charles Haywood, an extremist who has called for a war of extinction against the left through his “No Enemies to the Right” philosophy. (Haywood is speaking at a far-right conference in Austin next month, by the way.)

Rufo responded to Baker’s remarks directly: “Well, well – be straightforward. What are you saying? You’re alluding, you’re insinuating –”

“That you hang around with fascists?” Baker replied. “Is that what you’re insinuating I’m insinuating?”

And there it was. The colloquy between Rufo and Baker continued for a moment more before Rufo launched into a strident self-defense, claiming he is more sensitive to fascists than anyone because of his family’s history in Italy. But the damage was done. Minutes later the Salem Center’s Carlos Carvalho hustled him out of the building as Baker and Campa tried to continue the back and forth.

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