A new frontier: US academia under President Trump

John Morgan considers the impact on students and US scholars, and the political earthquake’s potential positives

January 19, 2017
Donald Trump and US flag montage
Source: Getty

As a winter afternoon darkens into evening in Washington DC, about 100 people are gathered in a hall at George Washington University for what the university’s students’ association has billed as “a conversation on campus climate”.

The panel is led by the university’s president, Steven Knapp, and its provost, Forrest Maltzman. The audience is racially mixed: white, black, Latino. One young man is wearing a US flag-style shirt with stars down one sleeve, stripes down the other.

First to speak from the audience is a Latina student. She is among those who have benefited from the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals programme, introduced by President Barack Obama under disputed executive order powers in 2012. The programme grants temporary rights to work legally to those who were brought to the US as children illegally by their parents, and it has eased the path to higher education for many students. Some colleges make institutional aid available to those with the status, while some states make reduced in-state tuition rates available to them. But, during his presidential election campaign, Donald Trump – who will be inaugurated on 20 January – pledged to scrap what he referred to as Obama’s “illegal executive amnesties” (although he has since signalled a possible change of approach specifically on the DACA programme).

The Latina student thanks Knapp for signing a public statement by university presidents calling for DACA to be maintained and extended, saying that she feels like “you guys have got my back”.

Another Latina student, not a DACA participant herself but in tears nevertheless, urges Knapp to allow DACA students to live on campus to give them greater protection from being picked up and deported. Knapp calls that a good suggestion and pledges to give it consideration.

A Trump-supporting student says that he was at a meeting where academic faculty at the university’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design talked about giving backing to anti-Trump protesters. “How can I share my opinions in class when the deck is stacked against me?” he asks.

Panel member Mike Tapscott, who is director of George Washington’s multicultural student services centre, acknowledges that “this isn’t a Kumbaya happy moment for everybody”. But he adds that “we still have to talk…and we still have to treat each other with dignity and respect”.

Jennifer James, associate professor of English and director of the Africana studies programme, speaks passionately from the floor against “the idea that this is about different opinions”, referring to the “racism” and “misogyny” that are “embodied by this president” and the duty to protect Jewish, black and Latino students.

To a round of applause from most people in the audience, she concludes: “There are not two sides to every story, right?”

George Washington’s main campus is in the heart of Washington DC: the White House is a 10 minute walk away, the Lincoln Memorial a little more. When Trump is inaugurated, tens of thousands of people will stream through the campus from its Metro station, as they head to join celebrations or protests.

The conflict of ideas at this institution is echoed on campuses across the country, as colleges and universities, jolted culturally by Trump’s victory in last November’s election, become the sites of some of the bitterest disputes over the election’s legacy. Whether it is the anti-immigration rhetoric perceived to threaten some minority students in particular and campus openness more generally, the populist disdain for expertise that some saw revealed in the campaign, or the sharpening sense among those on the Right that US campuses are “out-of-touch” liberal bastions, Trump poses huge questions for US universities and those who work in them.

Anti-Trump tax protesters

"Bad hombres and nasty women live here,” some George Washington students have written on a banner above the entrance to their dorm. This is in sardonic reference to two Trump comments during the presidential debates: the latter, a jibe against Hillary Clinton seen as sexist by some; the former, a comment about illegal immigration widely seen as racially offensive to Latinos (“We have some bad hombres here and we’re going to get them out,” Trump said).

With Trump also having famously promised a “shutdown” of Muslim immigration during the campaign, and having repeatedly upset the Chinese since his victory, there are concerns that his immigration rhetoric or deteriorations in international relations under his presidency could deter international students from coming to the US.

Martha J. Kanter, who as under secretary in the Department of Education between 2009 and 2013 was Obama’s lead on higher education, identifies a number of possible themes in higher education policy under the coming Trump administration. Noting the president-elect’s pledge to ensure that “all vetting of people coming into our country will be considered extreme vetting”, Kanter focuses on themes including international student recruitment. “Will we have a chill in foreign student enrolment? If we’re fighting with China…will China get mad enough to put all of our institutions in a tailspin?” she asks.

US universities and colleges increased by 7.1 per cent the number of international students they enrolled between 2014-15 and 2015-16, bringing the total to just over 1 million. China accounts for the largest proportion of that cohort, amounting to almost one-third, according to figures from the US-based Institute of International Education.

As in most Western nations, international student enrolment is seen by many in the US as bringing financial, cultural and soft power benefits to institutions and the nation, and George Washington’s Knapp says that international student enrolment is “the most immediate concern” arising from the election.

“Not just our university but most American universities have some degree of dependence on international students,” he tells Times Higher Education. “We’ve heard some anecdotal talk about how students from some countries might feel unwelcome in the US, so might prefer to go to another English-speaking country, such as the UK or Australia…We’re going to have to be watching very closely the numbers of both our international applicants and, even more so, the number of international students who actually decide to come.”

Another of Kanter’s possible themes for a Trump administration, in light of his earlier stated stance on DACA, is the “elimination” of access to higher education for certain groups. Beneficiaries of DACA give the federal government their names and addresses, potentially making them easy targets for such a ban – not to mention deportation.

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, one of the major representative bodies for US universities and colleges, says that DACA was the number one issue for his organisation after the election.

DACA beneficiaries enrolled in college “are scared”, he adds. “And they want their college or university to protect them.” It was in this context that Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, announced in late November that the institution would not allow immigration officials “on our campus unless required by warrant”, saying Penn “is and has always been a ‘sanctuary’”, including for undocumented students. Penn is by no means the only institution to declare itself a “sanctuary campus” but Gutmann’s move is particularly significant given that Penn is the alma mater not only of Trump himself but also of three of his children. Gutmann, a political scientist whose academic specialisms include the need for compromise in democracies, had faced criticism in the run-up to the election for declining to condemn the Republican candidate’s rhetoric or behaviour, which included Trump’s excusing his mocking of a disabled reporter with the comment: “Who would mock a disability? I would never. I’m a smart person. I went to [Penn’s] Wharton School of Finance.”

Proud to be deplorables Trump supporters

The question of how universities should respond to Trump’s victory is important. The president-elect’s attitude to facts and evidence, fluid at best, and the antagonistic stance towards education displayed by some of his supporters raise particular questions for universities and those who work in them.

Asked about the so-called post-factual turn that recent politics has taken, Knapp says that it is “in the long run, the most…important and, I think, troubling aspect of this last campaign. It was the sense of the difficulty of getting people to focus on facts and evidence and research.”

This attitude to facts may perhaps be linked to an indifference to, or resentment of, education. Knapp says that the presidential campaign evidenced “to some extent, I think it’s fair to say, a bit of an anti-intellectual tone; a kind of rebellion against expertise; a sense that...people who were left out of universities were being left disadvantaged by the elitism of the educated classes”.

Knapp believes “that kind of populist resentment of education” is “certainly a threat to universities, but more broadly it’s a threat to democracy if we don’t have an educated citizenry”.

There is certainly evidence of indifference to higher education in some quarters in the US. In September, before the election, the Kaiser Family Foundation and CNN conducted a poll of “working-class whites”, defined as “white Americans without college degrees”. One of the questions was: “Do you think your life would be better, worse, or no different if you had a four-year college degree?” Just 45 per cent of “working-class whites” said “better”, against 51 per cent who said “no different”. But among “working-class blacks” and “working-class Hispanics”, aspiration to a college degree was much stronger: 73 per cent and 74 per cent, respectively, said that it would make their lives better.

Hartle calls that a “startling, staggering” finding. “We take it as a most basic article of faith that a post-secondary education will improve your life,” he says. “But a majority of white working-class voters – this would be the centre of the Trump coalition – believes the contrary. How did we get to that point? And what do we do about it?”

After winning the Republican primary in Nevada, Trump said that “we won with highly educated; we won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.” And his victory in the presidential election has been interpreted by many as one delivered by those without degrees. But rather than a rebellion of those without degrees full stop, Trump’s win might be more accurately interpreted as the result of a more complex interplay of education, race and class, varying across demographic groups.

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, says of member institutions: “A lot of our people are probably Trump voters. A lot of our students, some of our faculty…lots of our administrators and employees.”

Although state university and college presidents will have “concern for marginalised students, people who feel threatened or potentially may be at risk from some of these [Trump] policies”, such as Muslims or undocumented students, that is not the end of the story, Nassirian adds – and here it is worth noting that US public institutions rely on state governments for their funding.

“On the other hand, we are part of this society – as divided and seemingly incommensurable as its components seem to be with each other,” Nassirian says. “Even if that’s your view, you can’t just go out there publicly…and just dismiss the guy [Trump] as a clown. Because the chances are the governor and the [state] legislature voted for him and like him a lot and respect him and think that he is going to solve a lot of problems – as crazy as that may sound to his detractors.” That is why “our [university and college] presidents are being fairly nuanced in terms of their pronouncements on the new administration. I think that’s right.”

Girl power Trump protesters in Washington

The response to Trump from universities and those who work in them is likely to bring further scrutiny of the predominantly liberal leanings of academic faculty, which conservative critics have noted and decried for decades.

On the campaign trail, Trump said that “political correctness…has transformed our institutions of higher education from ones that fostered spirited debate to a place of extreme censorship”, and pledged to “end the political correctness”. Amy Laitinen, director of higher education at thinktank New America, hopes the Trump administration does not choose the “crazy culture wars route” in its approach to higher education – although she adds that this route is “great for Republicans because it motivates their base”.

Matthew Hartley is a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education whose research focuses include the social and democratic purposes of higher education. He says that it has been “very interesting to see the uptick in articles in which people are beginning to call out universities as being these ‘knee-jerk liberal bastions’ and suggesting that ‘we really need to revisit what these institutions are and what they are doing’.

“There have been interesting op-ed pieces by people saying ‘I’m a silenced conservative faculty member.’ So I do think [Trump’s victory] will raise those questions. But I think those are good questions to raise – that’s perfectly fine.”

One of those conservative faculty op-eds was by Daniel Bonavec, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, who in October wrote in The Washington Post about “What it’s like to be a college professor who supports Donald Trump”. That came after he signed a statement of support for Trump backed by 145 academics and writers. He has since been interviewed on right-wing television channel Fox News.

How has Bonavec responded to colleagues or students who question how he could support a candidate who has expressed views widely seen as racist and misogynist?

Bonavec, a native of Pennsylvania (one of the traditionally Democrat “Rust Belt” states that flipped to deliver victory for the Republicans), sees Trump as “very much the model of a Pennsylvania or Ohio Democrat from the 1960s or 1970s”, by which he means that Trump is “strongly patriotic, pro-American, concerned about immigration because of economic effects [and also about] these factories closing down”.

Bonavec rejects the accusations of racism levelled against Trump. “He simply said: ‘Look, given especially Obama’s announcement that, in effect, he wasn’t going to enforce immigration law, we’ve got a lot of criminals crossing the border and taking advantage of that.’ That just doesn’t strike me as a racist sentiment.”

Bonavec has stayed in touch with a number of academics who signed the statement of support for Trump. Some report “feeling very lonely in taking a stand” and he believes that it is true to say that “American higher education is becoming much more unified [politically], and far to the Left”. But, he adds: “I haven’t seen – and I don’t think [my fellow signatories] have seen – bullying tactics, or other attempts to retaliate or harm anyone as a result of this”.

Bonavec also welcomes the possibility that Trump’s win could shine a spotlight on the political imbalance within US university faculty, because it will “make people realise: ‘Wow, we’re really out of touch, in a way that makes us unaware of things we really need to try to understand’”.

Hartley sees different potential positives. “The silver lining of the incredibly divisive campaign is that it’s surfaced these issues that were very easy to sweep under the rug,” he says. “There was [previously] a lot of conversation around [the idea that] we’re moving towards being a post-racial society. No, we’re not.

“We have not dealt very well with class issues as a country [either]. And now we have to confront that…We have to take that seriously and ask: ‘what’s the role of education’ [in facing these issues]?”

Alan Ruby, senior fellow for international education at Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, adds that “it would be fair to say that I’ve had my first conversation about race and privilege this year in class in 10 years”. He adds that the discussion among students has been “very tense”.

That tension was very much on show at the George Washington town hall event. And the way it was subsequently reported offered more evidence of the kind of cultural conflict going on at US campuses.

University urges dialogue, not partisanship, in wake of election”, ran the headline on the report by GW Today, the university’s “official online news source”. Campus Reform, a website that describes itself as offering “conservative coverage of liberal bias and abuse on America’s campuses”, offered a different take. “GW students question validity of pro-Trump opinions”, ran its headline.

At the event, a faculty member asked panellists to give examples of occasions when they had to show resolve to come through tough political times.

Caroline Laguerre-Brown, George Washington’s vice-provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, responded that she was brought up in a close-knit Haitian community in New York City. She left it for the first time to study at college just as the beating of black motorist Rodney King by police officers triggered riots in Los Angeles in 1992. She recalled “listening to my colleagues talk about the rioters as animals”, which was “devastating to me”. Although those were the most “difficult conversations about race” Laguerre-Brown said she has “ever had in my life” and left her in tears, she would return the next day, determined to give her classmates the full complement of her thoughts. Her advice to students was to “expose yourself to as much as you can in terms of different ideas”.

Maintaining that openness to ideas and debate in a harsh political climate will be as much a challenge for universities and faculty as it will be for students. That is particularly true given the central and inevitably contentious role that academics and students will play in unpicking the fractures of class, race and, importantly, education that produced Trump’s victory. That unexpected political earthquake already appears to have set in motion a new, more intense phase in the campus culture wars, and universities are under scrutiny from conservative critics as never before.

Who knows what will happen once the man actually starts in his new job as leader of the free world. 

Donald Trump next to Trump University sign

Facing war on endowments, deregulation and uberisation: policy possibilities under Team Trump

The administration of Donald Trump – who owned his own for-profit “university” with disastrous results – may herald higher education policy changes that include rolling back federal regulation, getting tough on big endowments and ushering in new providers.

During the campaign, Trump pledged to cut “the unnecessary costs of compliance with federal regulations so that colleges can pass on the savings to students in the form of lower tuition [fees]”. He also accused some wealthy universities of hoarding endowment funds instead of spending them on student aid – echoing a Republican draft bill that would require universities with endowments of more than $1 billion (£810 million) to devote 25 per cent of their annual endowment income to student financial aid, or face losing their tax-exempt status.

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, suggests that Trump’s legislative priorities in his first six months are likely to include a bill on cutting taxes that could feature the new president’s pledge to tackle large endowments as “a very small piece of a massive piece of legislation”. Hartle notes that similar proposals on endowments have been around in policy circles for a few years, but would only “apply to about 100 of roughly 4,000 institutions” in the US.

The Department of Education, charged with distributing student loan and grant funding of more than $160 billion a year, tried to increase the accountability of institutions receiving this funding during the Obama administration, particularly in the wake of scandals at for-profit institutions. So-called gainful employment rules are a particular target for critics: these apply to degrees at for-profit colleges and non-degree courses at public institutions and limit federal student aid to institutions that provide a decent return for students in the job market.

Hartle says that his organisation has been concerned “for quite a while about the cost and burden and complexity of the ever-growing bales of federal regulations”.

But Amy Laitinen, director of higher education at thinktank New America and a former higher education policy adviser in the Obama White House, warns that deregulation could equate to the federal government saying that the “small amount of transparency or accountability [introduced,] we’re going to pull back”.

The Republicans included in their 2016 policy platform a statement on reversing another Obama move: his decision to have the federal government, rather than banks, provide the bulk of student loans. But while some see switching it back as a possible move under Trump, others believe that the subsidies to banks this would require would make it impossibly expensive.

The president-elect settled fraud claims against his now-defunct Trump University for $25 million after the election.

Intriguingly, the Trump transition team’s document, Making America Great Again, states: “A Trump administration…will make post-secondary options more affordable and accessible through technology-enriched delivery models.”

Laitinen says: “As we’re thinking about new models of education, could we see the expansion of federal financial aid [for students] going to things like Trump University?”

She says of the Republican position on deregulation and new providers: “If you all of a sudden start dumping billions and billions of dollars into a new sector and you don’t have any outcome requirements, what is to stop students from being harmed? The answer is nothing.”

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, describes Republican orthodoxy as aspiring to the “Uberisation of higher ed”. In his view, this is based on the misplaced conviction that “there must be some technology, some snake oil somewhere, [through which] we can break through the cycle of cost escalation”.

John Morgan


Print headline: Enter, stage right

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Reader's comments (1)

Never thought I'd be agreeing with him but when Trump said that “political correctness…has transformed our institutions of higher education from ones that fostered spirited debate to a place of extreme censorship” I did. Too many people are so eager to pander to people who choose to take offence at the last little thing that it gets in the way of open debate. There are no safe spaces in the real world, if you do not care for something that someone else says you need to be able to argue against their views, not silence them by choosing to take offence at what they said.


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