Are American Universities Woke or Asleep? | Opinion

American colleges and universities have been both commended and criticized for being hotbeds of "wokeness." There has been episode after episode where a university professor, student, or administrator has been accused of some verbal slight or inappropriate action when it comes to litmus tests related to race, gender, or related diversity concerns. A number of colleges have increased their staffing of administrators who focus on enforcement of policies, or resolutions of controversies, that arise from campus disputes concerning violation of a variety of left leaning wokeness values.

Some believe these campus controversies bring an appropriate level of attention to a new vision of social justice, and some believe it is an indication of an illiberal left that has become intolerant of any expression that does not conform to the way they wish to define socially appropriate norms. However, the point of this column is not to wade into the midst of this debate, but instead suggest that these campus dust ups miss the point and have failed to recognize the real fight both sides of these debates need to focus on.

Whether one is truly concerned about freedom of expression without having to worry continually about the campus wokeness "police" trying to silence or punish you, or you believe that it is important to scour the words of students and professors to call out microaggressions which call into question one's commitment to racial and gender equality—if our very democracy is blown up, neither of those sets of values will be able to thrive.

What I mean here is diversity and equality are being challenged in a much more fundamental way, and American universities are nowhere to be seen in organizing to confront this enormous challenge. The challenge is one that got a lot of chatter around the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection and will get even more around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that the Republican Party in a number of key swing states is now openly pursuing a plan to create legal legitimacy around stealing elections. It has become abundantly clear that the Jan. 6 riot was part of a far broader scheme to overturn legitimate election results and thereby steal the 2020 election, all while perpetuating a Big Lie that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. The attempted coup to appoint alternative electors and throw the race into the House of Representatives where Trump would have won the presidency, would have succeeded but for a handful of Republican state officials who stood up for what was right, and against immense pressure, upheld core democratic principles.

Instead of what was in 2020 a relatively clandestine scheme to steal the election, Republican state legislators are now openly putting in place, in full public view, statutes which provide for the very state and local officials who defended the integrity of the 2020 results to be pushed aside, as well as other paths state legislators have created to enable partisan interference of election administration. This is a nice way of saying they have created mechanisms to overturn legitimate election results and totally subvert our democracy. In order for Congress to do something about this, the filibuster rule needs to be cast aside which the Democrats do not seem to have the votes to do. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department have a number of statutes which they could announce to enforce vigorously in 2022 if federal laws pertaining to election fraud are transgressed, but there seems to be a great deal of passivity on that front.

So, an apparatus of election theft is being implemented in full public view that would have the effect in key swing states of potentially negating legitimate election results. Of course, the very votes that would be negated are those of minorities and other liberal constituencies which provide essential support for the values of racial and gender equality, that move us toward a more diversely inclusive society. Of course, these are the very goals pursued on college campuses around social justice activism. This activism takes the form of finding great injustices around systems of language, or speakers invited to appear who are viewed as lacking progressive credentials, or protesting readings viewed as re-enforcing notions of oppression—but at its essence, these passion filled conflicts about creating a more equal and just society, they seem to be missing the macro threat that could undermine all they are attempting to fix. Some will take offense to this analogy but it's almost as if they are fighting over who left the dirty dishes in the sink while the house is burning down.

What is hard for me to understand is why those college campuses seem to be asleep at the switch when it comes to this immediate electoral threat from what can only be categorized as authoritarian forces looking to deprive those liberal woke constituencies of their voice in the political system. When you combine the threat of manipulating voting results through newly enacted legal schemes along with voter suppression statutes that have passed, intended to minimize urban minorities voter participation, you have a formula for campus social equality wokeness agendas being reduced to political roadkill. Yet there have been hardly any college protests or any organized efforts among university communities to become vocal activists on the election issues, despite this immense threat to our democratic election system.

Students walk on campus
Students walk on campus. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

When you think back over 50 years and the civil rights movement of the '60s, that ultimately resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, college students were a major part of the public pressure to create a society that did not disenfranchise Black Americans through state action intended to deprive them of political participation.

Where is that university voice today? Why aren't the college administration diversity troops hired by universities over the last decade trying to drive student activism toward opposing these state legislative efforts intended to deprive the very constituencies of political rights these administrators were hired to serve? It is not that a slew of microaggressions related to racial and gender equality are not worthy of addressing, but they do not amount to the level of significance of authoritarians manipulating election outcomes to eliminate the left's wokeness agenda from having any meaningful political voice in election outcomes at all.

The election laws of Georgia now in place would provide a basis for the state legislature to claim irregularities, remove local election officials from election tabulation responsibility and engineer a different election result. Is this not far more concerning to the wokeness brigade than whether a single professor is appropriately sensitive to a certain classroom's feelings or interests? You would certainly think so—but it clearly does not seem to be the case, given the lack of interest in voting rights issues on campuses today.

There are vast numbers of young people who could provide the grass roots mass activism to capture press attention and kindle a broader civil protest movement. Think of all the universities in Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida alone which should be focused on creating a widespread student movement on behalf of election integrity. Where is the intellectual leadership among students, faculty and university presidents to push wokeness sentiments into the broader political arena when the political voice for racial equality is in such jeopardy?

I have been a part of many efforts to get CEOs to weigh in on the issue of voting rights and election administration issues. Many pundits believe that CEOs could do more than they have but I do not see those same pundits pointing at American universities and saying, "We understand that you may feel much of American society is not sufficiently woke, and how intensely you feel about issues of racial and gender equality, but are you really prepared to lose it all by ignoring authoritarians that are out to strip you of your vote by lying about and then stealing elections and thereby deprive you of your political power to change society?"

There are a lot of voices that need to be a lot louder on countering the dark forces of the Big Lie, which need to involve all kinds of civic groups. However, the intensity of passion being demonstrated in college campuses as to whether a campus personality or policy is sufficiently progressive while ignoring the threat of these new election laws to our democracy, particularly in light of the historical role universities have played in providing the people power to fuel civil rights movements, is extremely disappointing. It is clear American universities are not really woke, but asleep.

Tom Rogers is an editor-at-large for Newsweek, the founder of CNBC and a CNBC contributor. He also established MSNBC, is the former CEO of TiVo, currently executive chair of Engine Media and is former senior counsel to a congressional committee.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.