One year of Donald Trump: how are US universities faring?

John Morgan travels to the University of California, Berkeley, a key battleground in the campus culture wars, to assess the mood towards US higher education and the threats that it faces

January 18, 2018
Trump watches Berkeley
Source: Getty/Alamy montage

If there is a new kind of culture war being waged over America’s universities and colleges then the University of California, Berkeley has been the definitive battleground. The university’s decision last February to cancel right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ scheduled talk on security grounds, in the face of a protest by “black bloc” protesters, was seized on by Donald Trump as an example of campus bias against right-wing views. The US president, who had been inaugurated less than two weeks previously, threatened in a tweet to end all federal funding for Berkeley. 

All that seems a distant memory as Berkeley’s famous campus is consumed by preparations for the “Big Game” of American college football between Berkeley’s California Golden Bears and their arch rivals, Stanford Cardinal. Noisy gatherings of students are handing out flyers for the climactic “bonfire rally”, which consists of the torching of a giant tower of wooden pallets topped off with a Stanford flag. Just good, harmless student fun.

But the political legacy of the clashes over free speech are being discussed at Berkeley today, too, at a conference on “the new nationalism and universities”. Carol Christ, who took over as Berkeley’s chancellor from Nicholas Dirks in the summer, tells the conference: “Free speech has been adopted by the alt-right as one of its strategies to construct a narrative about universities that is extremely useful for their political goals.” 

For those who subscribe to the “culture wars” theory of US politics, the term is used to refer to a political shift that they believe began in the 1960s, whereby key divides in political debate became less associated with class or economics and more with cultural identity and values. And, rightly or wrongly, higher education institutions have become very much associated with the liberal side in that conflict. Conservative concerns over their perceived left-wing bias stretch back decades, but the heat has been turned up by Trump’s election, the rise of social media and alternative forms of news media, and perhaps also by the worsened economic prospects for many Americans since the economic crisis of 2008.

The frenzied coverage of free speech controversies on campus has poured gasoline on bonfires that were already burning; recent surveys showing declining trust in universities and colleges among Republican supporters have alarmed many in the sector, and some higher education experts believe that measures in the recently passed tax bill that will hit universities open a new front in the culture wars. 

The apocalyptic wildfires that recently wreaked such havoc further south in California led news bulletins across the nation. As the 45th president continues to fan the flames of political division, some could be forgiven for seeing in those fires a metaphor for the threats that American higher education is now facing. Just how much of the state’s and the nation’s campuses will the flames consume?

Trump supporters

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law and co-author of the recently published book Free Speech on Campus, puts recent events in context. Going back to the 1950s, the McCarthyist “fight to deal with communists was in large part [conducted] on college campuses…the civil rights protests were often directed at colleges, the anti-Vietnam protests were centred on colleges”, he points out. “So it’s not surprising that if there’s going to be so-called culture wars, campuses will be at the centre of them.” And “if conservatives want to pick a place that they are going to target, it’s easy to see why they select Berkeley”.

In response to the cancellation of his speech, Yiannopoulos, a former editor at the alt-right news website Breitbart, planned a “Free Speech Week” at Berkeley, featuring right-wing speakers. However, he then cancelled it after the university had planned for it to go ahead. In September, Berkeley also ensured that he was able to make a brief speech on campus, which went ahead without incident but with security costs to the public institution of about $800,000 (£605,000).

Another controversy raged in April over the circumstances of right-wing author Ann Coulter’s non-appearance at Berkeley, while, in September, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro – author of Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth – was able to speak amid a major security operation.

“Sometimes your brand is your curse,” says political scientist Henry Brady, dean of Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, noting that the university is “the home of the Free Speech Movement”. Originating on the left during the 1960s civil rights era and continuing during protests against the Vietnam War, the movement pressured university administrators to lift the ban on on-campus political activity. 

“We are the place where American students got a chance to really bring political speakers to campus on their own, without its having to be done by a professor or an administrator,” Brady says. “That’s what they fought for, so it’s very hard for us to now say…to the Berkeley Republican club: ‘you can’t invite Ben Shapiro’, or to the Berkeley Patriot club: ‘you can’t invite Milo Yiannopoulos’. Even though I would personally make a distinction between the two: I think Shapiro is worth listening to; I think Yiannopoulos is just a complete jerk.” 

With his Free Speech Week, Yiannopoulos “hoped that he could really explode apart Berkeley and, therefore, in the end, be rejected [by the university authorities]”, Brady says. This would give him a “great internet story” about Berkeley’s liberal bias. By permitting him to organise his event, “Carol Christ played chicken with him – and he veered first”.

Nevertheless, if Yiannopoulos had a goal to “discredit” universities, perhaps it may have been partially achieved anyway. Last June, the headlines were grabbed by a survey carried out by the non-partisan thinktank the Pew Research Center. Americans were asked for their views on five groups of major national institutions: religious organisations, banks, unions, the national news media, and colleges and universities. Republican voters and Republican-leaning independents viewed the media least positively: 85 per cent thought that they have a “negative effect on the way things are going in the country”. But 58 per cent of Republican supporters felt the same about colleges and universities; by contrast, 72 per cent of Democrat supporters said that higher education institutions have a positive effect. What is particularly striking about the finding is the fact that, just two years ago, “a 54 per cent majority of Republicans and Republican leaners said that colleges were having a positive effect, while 37 per cent said that their effect was negative”, the centre noted.

“It was a pretty big dip in Republic[an] support for universities,” agrees Bob Shireman, senior fellow at the Century Foundation non-partisan thinktank and a former deputy undersecretary in the Department of Education during the Obama administration. “I can only attribute that to the heavy news coverage of protests on campuses around conservative speakers, and related issues.”

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, describes the Pew findings as “alarming and a matter of great concern to all college university leaders”. Hartle, sometimes described as US higher education’s top lobbyist, adds that the sector has previously relied on bipartisan political support, but that the findings are “consistent with some of the things we’re hearing, informally, from Republicans on Capitol Hill”.

Hartle sees free speech as just “one of the factors” accounting for Republicans’ declining faith in higher education institutions. Another is that there is “a part of the Republican Party that simply doesn’t believe in scientific research as it used to – that could undermine support for universities as well”. A third, Hartle thinks, is “that American higher education, rightly or wrongly, is seen as elite. We are living in a very populist era in the United States and whenever you have populism, elites don’t fare terribly well.”

Hartle points to additional evidence that “especially since the Great Recession, white working-class voters are very uncertain…whether it is financially worthwhile to get a college degree”. And this group is “the centrepiece of the Trump constituency. We simply have not done a good enough job, in higher education, of underscoring to that part of our citizenry that higher education is the best investment most people will ever make.”

Anthony Monaco, president of Boston’s Tufts University, also blames “economic factors such as the cost of higher education and the growing economic disparities in our country” for the “negative views of higher education that have become common in some sectors of American society”. And he admits that he is “quite concerned”. 

But not everyone is convinced that the Pew survey shows what has been claimed. Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of centrist thinktank Third Way and Ben Miller of liberal thinktank the Center for American Progress, have described the survey as “vaguely worded” and suggest that it has been over-interpreted. They point to a Civis Analytics poll of 5,600 Americans, conducted in August and September, in which 86 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that it is “easier to get a good job with an education after high school…than…without one”. This is “an important reminder that regardless of the headlines…the need for education beyond high school still maintains broad popularity in our country  –  and that’s not likely to change anytime soon”, they write. They also suggest that the Pew questioning doesn’t reflect the diversity of the US higher education sector, and wonder whether some Republicans are unhappy
specifically with four-year institutions.

Pro-Trump rally

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of the California Community Colleges System, which, with more than 2 million students, is the world’s largest higher education system. He calls the Pew findings “a troubling sign”, indicating that many people “don’t see the direct link any more [between] economic mobility and higher education”.

In his view, “people have this angst around what they see as those in the elite – even though our president comes from that…and they link it to elite education in the universities, whether it’s Harvard, Yale [or] Berkeley. And then they make…these very general conclusions that this [elitism] is the case for all of higher education.”

In fact, though, “the bulk of students coming to our [community] colleges and public universities are first-generation students who just want to get connected to the economy [and] who are much like everyday working-class Americans”, says Oakley. “So we have to find a way to disconnect those two visions of higher education. I think that we all can find fault in the elite, selective universities, but that’s not what’s happening at 90 per cent of the other colleges and universities.”

That view is backed up by recent research led by Raj Chetty, professor of economics at Stanford and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Chetty connected data on the family incomes of more than 30 million college graduates, the institutions they attended and their graduate earnings. He found that “children whose parents are in the top 1 per cent of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile”. But he also found that rates of “bottom-to-top quintile mobility are highest at certain mid-tier public universities, such as the City University of New York and California State colleges”. And he discovered that Berkeley was the institution most effective at taking students from the bottom 20 per cent of the household income distribution and getting them jobs in the top 1 per cent of the income distribution.

Robert Nelsen, president of California State University-Sacramento, has in his office a battered saddle that may once have belonged to Calamity Jane: a reminder of how he “grew up in poverty” on a Montana ranch and that “without an education, I would still be working on a ranch and doing hard labour”. He describes the Pew findings as “incredibly disappointing…To think that anyone in America would think that colleges are not there to support what we are trying to do. What has made America be successful? It started with the land-grant colleges.”

Nelsen points to the fact that California would be ranked as the world’s sixth-largest economy if it were an independent country. “Why? Because you’ve got 23 [branches of the California State University], and you’ve got a community college system that’s unbelievable, and you’ve got a University of California system that is producing some of the best research that’s being done in the world,” he says. “Education has made California what California is. Education makes the United States what it is.”

Could it be, though, that the Pew survey reflects a cultural dissatisfaction with universities and colleges among Republicans, rather than any scepticism about the benefits of a degree? The researchers did note an “ideological gap” among Republicans, stating that “nearly two-thirds of conservative Republicans (65 per cent) say colleges are having a negative impact, compared with just 43 per cent of moderate and liberal Republicans”. But with Conservative Republicanism in the ascendant, that may be of little comfort to higher education leaders. 

Arthur Milikh is associate director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative thinktank where Trump chose to deliver his major speech on tax reform in October. While free speech concerns have “become a rallying cry”, he believes that “the mistrust of universities by conservatives in America goes much deeper”. Milikh argues that, at root, the dissatisfaction arises from a perceived scarcity of “defenders of the tradition of Western thought and way of life” among faculty, and a prevalence of teaching that is “derisive” of that tradition, and intent on “demonstrating to students how foolish and empty it allegedly is”. “The intellectual atmosphere on campuses deeply troubles conservatives,” he says. “On many campuses it has become nearly impossible for professors to publish research in defence of the traditional family without being labelled a bigot by students and colleagues, and denounced by the diversity infrastructure.” His remedy is for there to be “more conservatives” on campus, by which he means “people who teach the essential books of the Western canon and take them seriously”. For this reason, “there needs to be a concerted effort to hire professors who take the Western tradition seriously, and job descriptions should match these values instead of other values”, says Milikh. “If there is a such an effort, PhD programmes will to some degree adjust and train such people.”

The Century Foundation’s Shireman sees an antipathy to elite higher education in some of the measures in the landmark tax reform bill passed before Christmas by Republican majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Although the House’s intention to treat tuition waivers for graduate students as taxable income – which could have added upwards of $10,000 to some graduate students’ tax bills – was dropped from the final legislation, a tax on large university endowments remains: the final bill will impose a levy of 1.4 per cent on institutions with endowments of more than $500,000 per student, affecting about 30 institutions.

The politicians “would like to bring down elite higher education, but they also know that our research universities have contributed enormously to the success of our economy”, Shireman says.

The Heritage Foundation’s Milikh says that tax-free status is “accorded to institutions that perform an unambiguous public good”, such as charities and churches. “If it’s the case that universities have to a great extent become (a) the central hub of transforming American culture and (b) a kind of apparatus of the Democratic Party, so that they no longer perform the objective public good they initially served, then I think that that’s where the idea of taxing their endowments comes from among conservatives.”

Another aspect of recent Republican suspicion of universities relates to research in the social sciences. In 2013, then House majority leader, Republican Eric Cantor, said that public funds for the social sciences “would be better spent helping find cures to diseases”. And, after several legislative attempts to restrict funding for social science, rebuffed by President Barack Obama, the House passed a bill requiring the National Science Foundation to award grants only for research “in the national interest”, with the focus very much on science and commercialisation. The bill was passed almost entirely on the strength of Republican votes, but did not complete its passage through the Senate before the election.

Milikh is in the early stages of work on a report examining federal research funding in US higher education, which he hopes will influence the Trump administration. “Funding for non-science, non-defence related subjects in universities is very large and extremely difficult to pinpoint,” he says. “And I think that taxpayers deserve to know where on earth their money is going.”

For his part, Shireman supports “the idea of putting pressure on elite universities to be more open to low-income and middle-income students”. But if that were their motivation, he argues, Republicans should have introduced targets for top universities’ intake of such students, with the endowment tax being imposed only if the targets were missed. This “would be the logical populist policy to enact”. Without it, the tax amounts merely to a “lashing out”, Shireman says: a “middle finger” to higher education, conveying a Republican message of “we don’t like you”. 

He also thinks that the attacks on universities are made more virulent by the presence of “an anti-intellectual mentality in the White House”, and the fact that such attitudes are “dominant in the Republican Party” as a whole. There have been Congressional plans for cuts in financial support for students or higher education before, “but it has usually been in a situation where Congress has been more split, or in the hands of the other party, and there was not as great a chance of it all being implemented”, Shireman says.

Campus bonfire
Daniel Parks

Brady rejects the idea that Berkeley is a liberal bastion and talks about the conservative speakers invited to speak to students at its School of Public Policy. “A lot of us are working really hard to make sure that we continue to have conservatives in academia. I feel strongly as a public policy dean that I would do a disservice to my students were they never to hear a conservative viewpoint,” he says. If Berkeley graduates regard people of that ideological stripe as “odd, exotic creatures…they are not going to be able to work with conservatives”, he adds.

Monaco, the Tufts president, admits that there are “political excesses on campuses – on both ends of the political spectrum”. For that reason, “we need to continue to work to bridge and learn from differences so that we can improve understanding”. He highlights Tufts’ Bridging Differences Initiative, launched in autumn 2017, which aims to “position Tufts to lead nationally and internationally in supporting and developing structures, processes and skills to engage constructively across differences”. And he points to the university’s record of bringing “potentially controversial speakers to campus without disruptive protests” by holding public events running alongside them that feature “students of varying points of view”.

On the economic front, Oakley, the California Community Colleges System chancellor, talks about “working-class Americans” aged over 50 “who came out of high school and got a good job, but during the recession were displaced – and they can’t gain that foothold any more. And they see all these young college students taking jobs. I understand that frustration. But that just means that we, as educators, have to do a better job of helping those displaced workers gain new skills. And we’re not having that conversation – I think that’s unfortunate.”

Publicly prioritising contributions to regional economies may be another way to shield higher education from the culture wars crossfire. As Times Higher Education has previously reported, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania have led the way here, as wealthy institutions embracing their civic role in the deprived neighbourhoods of Baltimore and Philadelphia where they are located. But the impact of such efforts on public perceptions could be limited unless elite institutions also admit more students from low-income backgrounds.

In her address to the Berkeley “new nationalism” conference, Christ says that failing to support free speech “plays into a narrative of the far right to discredit universities. So it’s just extraordinarily important that we do not play that part in that narrative.” But Brady believes that upholding free speech for right-wing speakers is insufficient to resolve the current cultural divide in US society. 

“You need to have places where people can actually sit down and talk with each other,” he says. “You also need to have institutions that are dedicated to the truth. That’s what the media used to be in this country. It’s less so now, since it’s been gutted by the rise of Silicon Valley’s apparatus. And Silicon Valley has not yet taken on the job of worrying much about the verifiability of the things that appear on its web pages.

“So what’s left? Higher education. And we are devoted to truth: we really care about that.” 

Indeed, for Sacramento State’s Nelsen, the role of higher education is intimately bound up not so much with party politics as with the health of the American polity itself. “We are educating the populace that will make democracy exist and continue to exist,” he says. “When I got into the administration [of universities] I never thought that I was defending democracy. I now understand that that’s what I’m doing in many ways.” 


Print headline: Fire in the halls

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Reader's comments (3)

It's not just the principle of free speech that is important. Part of higher education is teaching students to be able to argue the case for the opinions that they hold... so you should be actively encouraging a diversity of views so that they can be debated.
Honestly, all I can do is laugh. The universities wanted Free Speech in the 1960s and they got it but now that others want it they don't want to allow it. There was a time when a whole range of ideas were experessed on university campuses but now there's just one. Surveys of US universities have shown that there are so few staff members holding conservative political views that they could almost be considered an endangered species. Also, I came from a farming family and there's no way that I could have gone to university when I did if it wasn't for the financial assistance available at the time. I recognise now that university is not for everyone, many people graduate but are employed in jobs that don't even require a degree. I conclude that alternative paths should be available to train people and develop their skills in a wide range of occupations. Not everyone needs lifting from the farm to the degree factory; to give them opportunities for advancement in whatever field they wish to work in is all that's required.
“Free speech has been adopted by the alt-right as one of its strategies to construct a narrative about universities that is extremely useful for their political goals.” Aha, sounds like a very convenient excuse from a place that calls itself "Home of the Free Speech Movement". Free Speech only applies to the approved, politically correct themes, but not to others with a different opinion?