Was first term just a warm-up?

November 19, 2004

Stephen Phillips asks US academics what four more years of Bush means to them and finds a sense of foreboding.

You ain't seen nothing yet," was President Reagan's rallying cry to the Republican faithful. After George W. Bush's surprisingly convincing victory in the November 2 presidential election, many in US higher education fear the catch phrase of the man considered Bush's intellectual forebear could ring true for them over the next four years.

The margin of Bush's triumph - 3.5 million more votes than Democrat challenger John Kerry as the Republicans extended their majorities in Congress - confounded projections. But no one is under any illusions about the bitter political divide in America. Although Kerry emphasised the need for reconciliation in his phone call to Bush conceding victory, early soundbites from the Bush camp are not giving Kerry supporters grounds for optimism.

Responding to questions about whether he would seek a broader consensus for policy-making, Bush pledged to embrace "everyone who shares our goals".

Another statement - "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it", followed by the swaggering flourish, "it is my style" - was seen by many as ominous.

That sense will have been deepened by the announcement this week that Colin Powell, who was widely seen as the most moderate Cabinet member, is stepping down as Secretary of State. Condoleezza Rice, the hawkish National Security Adviser and former provost of Stanford University, is tipped to follow him in the post.

The first Bush Administration was marked by an unprecedented rupture in relations between campuses and the White House amid complaints that it disregarded scientific consensus that clashed with its policy.

Critics say that the Administration placed right-wing ideologues with scant intellectual credentials and unrepresentative views in influential positions. Restrictions to government-funded embryonic stem-cell research (under pressure from Christian fundamentalists) were seen as hobbling US scientists in a cutting-edge field.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks have also reinvigorated the culture wars waged by conservatives against supposed campus political correctness. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, run by Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice-president, and other self-appointed conservative watchdogs compiled blacklists of "unpatriotic" academics supposedly indoctrinating students with liberal propaganda.

One group, Campus Watch, was set up to police Middle Eastern studies. It appeared to gain official endorsement when Bush appointed its founder, Daniel Pipes, to a government-funded think-tank. Republican law-makers backed Pipes' calls for political oversight of a field deemed a hotbed of anti-Americanism and sympathy with Islamic terrorists.

In contrast, Kerry vowed to restore the integrity of scientific advisory panels and the tradition of government cognisance of scientific wisdom. He also promised to overturn Bush's stem-cell proscriptions.

Academics have expressed a sense of foreboding about a second Bush term, tempered by resilience and a determination to find common ground.

Stephen Schneider, a Stanford climatologist, says: "I'm one of a large number of depressed academics." He says he got the measure of the Bush Administration during run-ins with Rice when she was Stanford's provost. "I had combat with Condi all the time. She would constantly remind you who was boss. I'd say, 'we're here to discuss the issues', but she'd just inform you about what she was going to do," he recounts.

"The Bush Administration is very similar," he says. "Reagan was hardly Mr Environment, but you had interactions. These guys just don't want to know, they have a direct line from God and a lock on power.

"(Bush) didn't win the (2000) election, he was selected not elected, but that lack of mandate did nothing to stop the largest ideological revolution in the US since Roosevelt and the New Deal."

But the radical caste of the Administration caught others unaware. Bush campaigned on a moderate "compassionate conservative" ticket in 2000 and took office after the disputed Florida recount.

Eugene Skolnikoff, emeritus professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served as a science adviser to the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter presidencies. "I've worked in three White Houses and none would have taken that absence of mandate and do what Bush did by enacting a radical conservative agenda," he says.

Bush's intransigence on stem cells may be mitigated by a defiant California measure endowing a $3 billion (£1.63 billion) stem-cell research institute there. But Skolnikoff predicts declining overall research funding amid a spiralling fiscal deficit, the exorbitant cost of military engagement in Iraq and the cost of implementing social security reforms flagged by Bush as a legislative priority.

Elsewhere, there are fears that the White House is looking to kill off affirmative action through the nomination of an arch-conservative to the Supreme Court. With race-conscious University of Michigan admissions policies upheld by a 5-4 margin in a 2003 test case, it wouldn't take much to tilt the precarious balance of power over affirmative action in America's highest court.

David Wilkins, a Harvard University law professor, says: "If you believe the analysis that this is an election where the conservative base rallied around values, then it's possible the Administration will (go after) affirmative action. There's certainly a lot of opposition to it out there."

But Wilkins thinks it will shrink from a "frontal assault" and will opt instead for chipping away at affirmative action through vehicles such as ballot measures outlawing it in individual states.

Many universities have already retreated from race-based scholarships, which are also used to redress historical underrepresentation of minorities, amid scrutiny from litigious right-wing activists. Such attention will make universities extremely careful in framing affirmative-action admissions policies, Wilkins says.

Wilkins also conjures up the spectre of a potential crackdown on campus dissent. "There are going to be a lot of questions about the war and faculty members' right to speak out. To the extent that people take this election as a vindication of conservative values, it may be time to go after those on the other side."

Edmund Gordon, director of African and African-American studies at the University of Texas, has already suffered the attentions of the conservative thought police. He appears on an "academic watch list", circulated by a Republican group, for supposed liberal bias. Such conservative campus critics typically extol traditional academic projects such as constitutional US history, deriding "trendy" multiculturalism.

"Their values are about intolerance towards people of colour, gays and women," Gordon says.

Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University, was targeted by Campus Watch during Bush's first term for opposing the Iraq War and supporting the Palestinian cause.

He sees little likelihood of a let-up in the attack on Middle East studies.

"Area studies are in for a very difficult time because we're talking about the world in ways that conflict with the fact-free presentation of reality by this Administration."

There was a moratorium during the campaign "when (Democrats echoed) us in saying there were no weapons of mass destruction or Iraq-al Qaeda link", Khalidi says. But the result will be taken "as the triumph of a particular ideological view of the Middle East and of what's not patriotism".

Although Democrats foiled previous efforts to apply political tests to grants for the field, their thinned post-election ranks will make it harder for them to resist further attempts to introduce vetting, Khalidi fears.

This climate of uncertainty has prompted some US academics to consider posts across the border in Canada. US expatriate Susan Smith watched the first Bush Administration's progress from the University of Alberta, where she is associate professor of history. Last week, she fielded anxious emails from US cohorts "worried about suppression of civil liberties, gay rights, women's rights and the impact this could have on their personal (and) professional lives". She says: "They view Canada as a safe, sane haven." But the lack of academic openings rule out any stampede for the border, she adds.

Moreover, there's plenty to fight for at home, some say. "In some respects, our members are galvanised by four more years of Republican administration," says Alison Kimmich of the National Women's Studies Association. "People in the field may have wished for a different outcome, but there's a way (to) position yourself as a counter-narrative." Efforts to ban abortion, for instance, would be met by "incredible mobilisation", she warns.

Meanwhile, administrators are warily eying next year's reauthorisation of the Higher Education Act amid concerns about the Administration's cosy relationship with for-profit colleges. Bush's top higher education aide is the former chief lobbyist of the Apollo Group, owner of Phoenix University, America's largest for-profit university, and leading players have lavished donations on law-makers who are expected to frame the legislation.

Mark Smith of the American Association of University Professors is all for extending access to higher education under the statute, but he is uneasy about doing this via for-profit chains amid revelations of alleged profiteering. Proposals to liberalise access to public student grant funding for for-profits would deplete traditional campuses' share of student numbers, he says.

It promises to be an eventful four years, but Khalidi counsels against "hysteria". "There's a strong tendency for America to right itself," he says.

Next week: What's going on with US for-profit universities?

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