Trump's immense power already a threat to universities

Immigration restrictions jeopardise traditions that made US universities great, writes John Morgan

January 30, 2017
Lincoln Memorial

Film4 showed Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln on the night of Donald Trump’s inauguration. The politically and morally astute Republican president – played by Daniel Day Lewis – battles to push through the thirteenth amendment to the constitution that will end slavery.

At one point in the film, he rages at a Congressman: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power. You will procure me these votes.”

Donald Trump hasn’t needed to procure any votes yet, and planning a 2,000-mile wall to keep out Mexicans is not quite ending slavery. But he has already been clothing himself in the presidency’s immense power.

His opening salvo on immigration, in the shape of Friday’s executive order on visas, has brought unified dismay from world-leading US universities. The world’s number one destination for international students, the home of highly internationalised universities that are the world’s best, is closed for the time being to nationals of seven “majority Muslim” nations.

I visited the US prior to the inauguration to look at what the Trump administration might mean for America’s universities. The concerns of university leaders, of students, of policy experts were mainly around what Trump’s anti-immigration stance could mean for the continued recruitment of international students and leading overseas scholars as well as the future of undocumented Latino students, his loose or even inimical relationship with evidence and fact, and signs of indifference or hostility to knowledge and education emerging among his followers.

Already, in the wake of the visa order, less than two weeks on from the inauguration, stories abound of students and scholars at US universities prevented from returning to America (one Iranian researcher planning to travel to Harvard University to work on a tuberculosis project was turned back at Frankfurt airport) and so do the statements of condemnation from US universities.

One of the strongest is that from Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system and former secretary of homeland security under Barack Obama, along with the system’s individual chancellors. Their statement calls Trump’s order “contrary to the values we hold dear as leaders of the University of California”, adding that it is “critical that the United States continues to welcome the best students, scholars, scientists and engineers of all backgrounds and nationalities”.

The US owes to immigrants a significant part of its status as the world’s leading power in universities and science.

Since 1906, 30 per cent of all US Nobel laureates have been born outside the US, on one tally.

US universities reaped huge benefits from an influx of Jewish academics fleeing Nazi Germany. There was a 31 per cent increase in US patents after 1933 in fields common among those who fled from Germany, according to a Stanford University economist who says such émigrés had “a huge effect on US innovation”.

By hitting Iranian nationals, Trump’s order reopens a wound that has never really closed, in terms the country’s relations with the US. “Students from Iran, the 11th leading place of origin [of international students at US universities], increased by 8.2 percent to 12,269, the highest US enrollment by Iranians in 29 years,” notes the International Institute of Education’s 2016 Open Doors report. The US-based organisation adds this is still way below the peak flow of students from Iran, which was the top sender of international students to the US between 1974-75 and 1982-83.

There is a bigger context here for universities, researchers and students around the world. As I have written previously, the assortment of anti-immigration populists and xenophobes gaining popularity across several Western nations potentially pose major problems for universities, as generally cosmopolitan institutions that rely on the international movement of researchers and students, and on the flow of ideas that movement can bring.

Another film given fresh relevance post-Trump is Disney’s Zootropolis. The plot centres on a deceptively ruthless sheep who ascends to become mayor of Zootropolis by manipulating its “prey” majority (hamsters, a giant water buffalo voiced by Idris Elba, and others) to fear the hitherto mostly peaceful “predator” minority.

“So that’s it. Prey fears predator and you stay in power?” objects the rabbit-policewoman heroine. “Yeah. Pretty much…Fear always works,” replies the dastardly sheep.

Given Trump’s win in the electoral college came after he had pledged to halt all Muslim immigration into the US and his voters were clearly happy with that, dismay from universities over the executive order may not come clothed with immense power.

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