After Trump, can universities help rebuild the American dream?

Observers concerned by lack of coordinated effort to tackle populism and its causes

November 17, 2020
People celebrate at Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House in Washington, DC on November 7, 2020, after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election
Source: Getty

US higher education has escaped, just, from having to endure another four years of Donald Trump.

That gives it a chance to recover from the pandemic, win new government aid for its students, re-emerge as the world’s top education destination, avoid major losses in its scientific enterprise and – perhaps – work to deter such threats from rising up again.

But will it? And how?

Looking around, US higher education can comfort itself with reminders of its Trump-era survivalism, at least until the pandemic. Total state and local funding has been increasing for several years, and institutions fended off Mr Trump’s threats of major cuts in federal research funding.

And upon taking the US presidency in January, Joe Biden can unilaterally reverse much of Mr Trump’s antagonism towards international researchers and foreign-born students with the regulatory and enforcement powers of the executive branch.

On balance, though, the situation being left by Mr Trump is undeniably tough. With federal student aid already shrinking, the pandemic has pushed down autumn enrolment, slicing a fifth off the $650 billion (£500 billion) that US colleges and universities spend each year.

As such, the upbeat notion of a politically friendly president arriving with his college-teacher wife may be more than offset by a Republican-controlled Senate bent on obstruction, ongoing pandemic lockdowns and a badly battered economy.

The nation’s chief higher education lobbyist, Terry Hartle, said there could well be some bipartisan progress in Congress for aiding minority and low-income students and institutions.

US universities also hope that Congress will finally approve a new coronavirus bailout bill. The latest, stuck for weeks in the Senate, would add nearly $40 billion to the $14 billion that colleges received in the early days of the pandemic.

But beyond that, said Dr Hartle, the senior vice-president for government relations at the American Council on Education, lies “a much tougher slog”.

In particular, he said, Mr Biden and higher education can expect a “serious problem” fulfilling the campaign trail promises of tuition-free college and large-scale debt forgiveness.

Prospects look even worse at the local level, where public institutions traditionally have obtained most of their government support. States generally cannot borrow money, making them more likely to cut from their colleges than to give to them. “In that environment, things can get very bad for higher education very quickly,” Dr Hartle said.

Experts watching the action from beyond Washington tend to agree.

“Higher education and its lobbying associations have a lot of work to do,” said John Thelin, a professor of the history of higher education and public policy at the University of Kentucky.

After four years of Mr Trump, Professor Thelin said, “having a president-elect who is supportive of and sympathetic to higher education as a broad topic is more a sigh of relief than a cause for celebration”.

Compounding that anxiety, some experts in academia fear that their leaders have grown so absorbed by their daily emergencies that they are paying too little attention to the long-term social deterioration that keeps spawning the crises.

The severity of the pandemic and the depth of the accompanying recession are widely attributed to a US president elected – and then nearly re-elected – on the strength of voters he embraces for their relatively poor understanding of the divisive tactics he employs.

Yet US higher education, experts warned, appeared to be doing relatively little to direct its prodigious talents in the service of finding the most effective response to such behaviour.

“I don’t see the leadership out there to take that step,” said Stanley Katz, a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University. “These people are so preoccupied with meeting this year’s budget and dealing with the pandemic.”

The inertia, Professor Thelin said, reflected a system of US higher education that cherishes its diversity but cannot identify the moments when it really needs to work together.

“Higher education groups bicker among themselves, always trying to get an edge for their group over another group,” he said. “It may have worked when funding was abundant, but it has not been productive or effective for several decades.”

And for those who agree that higher education needs to take a more expansive view of its self-interest, there is little agreement on the best course of action.

One of higher education’s best-known reformers, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, very much recognises the need. The country was getting worn down by people angry at their condition and blaming others for it, Professor Crow said.

“What they need to be is upset with institutions – including universities – that have let them down,” he said.

Professor Crow’s prescriptions would include expanding online technologies, implementing research-proven teaching methods and building partnerships between institutions to make education far more accessible and effective.

ASU also is among a number of US universities getting more involved at the school level – many even run their own high schools – to make a difference in an environment where most Americans still do not even reach college.

As they seek to revive government investment in higher education, Professor Crow said, Mr Biden and his team needed to prioritise incentives for transformational change. “I’m hopeful that these guys will figure that out,” he said.

Yet at the moment, many US higher education leaders appear too complacent, said Thomas Buchanan, a US national who studies the situation from afar as a senior lecturer in modern US history at the University of Adelaide.

US university leaders might recognise the threat they face from widespread and prolonged social dysfunction, but they just don’t know what to do about it, Dr Buchanan said. Rather than back away, however, institutions should treat it like an important research problem and get their best minds to work on it, he argued.

Educators, Dr Buchanan said, must “tackle the country’s political divides head-on as a learning outcome”.

After decades of watching the situation develop and grow worse, Professor Katz was wary of what might come next. He recalled presenting a paper to an academic conference many years ago that argued for the idea of a “just university”. He remembered the president of a major university, offering a quick assessment afterwards, saying: “Stan, it’s OK for a Princeton professor to write crap like that. But the public universities can’t worry about a problem like justice.”

Dr Hartle said that US colleges and universities did appreciate the dangers posed to them and others by the growing phenomenon of partisan rejection of science and factual evidence. But the proper response, he said, might not necessarily involve any aggressive new strategy from academic leaders.

“The best thing for higher education, and the best thing for America,” he said, “would be a cooling of political tensions and a renewed commitment to bipartisanship and compromise.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Beware calling a nations concerned citizens 'populists' it doesn't help the situation, especially when it's their taxes that are paying the bailout monies. Not everyone is a University indoctrinated left of centre virtue signalling fool. Universities, and Governments, need to remember they work for the whole of their society, left, right and especially centre, though I'm sure the Universities will have lots of weapons and related research once Biden's warhawk loaded cabinet starts a few new wars or restarts some older ones.