RIP, TEAR, AND SHRED: Higher Education in the United States in the era of Donald Trump

by Dr Barbara Wittman on 28 February 2017

A Personal View by Dr. Barbara Wittman written in the US in early February 2017
Lucy Cavendish College Alumna 1976
, Visiting Scholar 2012

The recent temporary ban of ninety days on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia from entering the United States purportedly to prevent terrorist attacks has sparked outrage throughout the United States and much of the world as the new President in unchartered waters, without a reservoir of goodwill, a law unto himself, has criminalized particular minorities without regard for their moral or legal rights.  In marked contrast to citizens from the above seven countries who are not terrorist inspired, attacks on the United States have been carried out since 9/11 by radicalized extremists from Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan and from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, two countries where Trump has business interests including real estate development, hotel properties, and golf course projects. In an important step, as many Muslims become disillusioned with his incendiary remarks about Islam, his business partners, the Dubai-based Landmark retail group, citing respect for the values of their customers and aware of the power of the purse have suspended sales of Trump-branded home products in 180 décor stores targeting upscale consumers in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE.

What does this tell us about Trump’s style of governance and his plans for higher education, about which he has said little to date? As important, how are higher education administrators and students responding to Trump’s extremism and bigotry?  His policies have been clumsy, confusing and hurtful, and even as the ban is contested in courts across the land, rather than remain complacent, more than 125 private and public institutions, large and small from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Michigan, University of California to Reed College in Oregon have issued strongly worded statements condemning the president’s discriminatory executive order that undermines the mission of all institutions of higher education and their commitment to inclusion, diversity of opinion, teaching, research, shared learning and exchange of knowledge, insights, and ideas that transcend nationality. Over one million foreign students attend U.S. colleges with ten percent, roughly seventeen thousand come from Muslim countries. The question is how many with others from abroad will return for the fall term of 2017, and will American institutions of higher learning retain their appeal or will students seek opportunities elsewhere.  

In response to Trump’s plans to cancel an executive order granting temporary status to non-citizen students living in the country while pursuing their studies, numerous universities are reviewing the legal ramifications of sanctuary status. Over the past decade, international student enrollment has climbed and continues to have a significant impact in host states, cities and campuses, contributing $35 billion to the economy in 2015 alone according to the Department of Commerce, even as many schools face budget constraints and decreased state funding.  Several universities and colleges including University of New Mexico and Eastern New Mexico University, fearing the withdrawal of federal research and student aid funding have rejected sanctuary status, while other campuses including the California State Colleges will not use the term ‘sanctuary’ on any of its twenty-three campuses. In the same breath, the California state system will not cooperate with federal policy that targets immigrant students living in the country illegally.  Wesleyan University and Connecticut College in Connecticut are sanctuary campuses, New York’s Columbia University will offer sanctuary and financial support to immigrant students and New York University, with the largest number of international students in the country has stated that it will provide full protection to undocumented immigrants. Trump’s alma mater, University of Pennsylvania and New York University will not cooperate with immigration officials or any federal agency intent on accessing student or staff information or records based on race, religion or national origin without legal process such as a court order. Harvard and University of Akron (Ohio) have establishing immigration and human rights clinics staffed by immigration attorneys to advocate for and advise undocumented students of their rights in their respective academic communities.

As of February 4, Federal Judge James Robart of Seattle, Washington, (the first of five states with New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Minnesota to sue over the ban) has ruled the White House executive order unconstitutional and unlawful. Homeland Security must follow the court’s directives and take all action to implement the judge’s order at airports throughout the country. Trump is threatening to reinstate the travel ban, and he could add more countries to the list if higher courts overturn Judge Robart’s decision. Judges of the 9th Circuit will hear a further appeal on Monday February 6, and issue their ruling as early as Tuesday, February 7. If the ban is again overturned, the matter may go to the Supreme Court of eight judges who would likely split 4-4 in which case the 9th Circuit decision stands. In the meantime, universities wishing to expand globally and those fully committed to justice issues, the exchange of ideas and learning across boundaries that is vital to academic freedom will continue to push back and support staff, faculty and students and encourage foreign student applicants from across the globe.  

The President has not made any clear and detailed policy proposals as yet for higher education. It is not a particularly good sign that Trump has appointed Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son of televangelist Jerry Falwell to lead a task force charged with suggesting reforms for the Department of Education. The Falwell institution, Liberty University located in Lynchburg Virginia enrolls 15,000 on campus students and six times as many students, 90,000 online. The online revenue stream brought in $591 million in tuition in 2013, while expenses were $470 million. Liberty is authorized as a private non-profit college with cash reserves of $1 billion and as a non-profit college, it does not pay taxes and is exempt from for-profit regulations. In 2015, the college received $347 million from the Department of Education federal undergraduate grant and loan program, but many students unable to land well-paying jobs, 41% of former Liberty graduates earn less than $25,000 per year, are struggling to repay their federal loans. Indeed, according to the Department of Education, less than half of borrowers (46%) at the average college are repaying their debts. While there is a need for changes in lending and borrowing practices, why is Falwell qualified to take on the task of higher education reform? A lawyer with a BA in Religious Studies from the school he now governs, Falwell has overseen a rapid expansion of Liberty University. He has a vested interest in paring down what he sees as Department of Education overregulation of policies and accreditation that increase education costs. The Obama administration expanded the ability of students to attend college by reining in higher priced private lenders and offering flexible repayment terms for student borrowers. In Trump and Falwell’s world, privatization (by private lenders including banks) will reduce or eliminate government involvement in college loans but will put borrowers, particularly low income and minority students at risk from predatory for-profit lenders.  

Falwell and Trump would also pare back the costs associated with compliance of federal Title IX, the law governing gender equality in higher education. Students on campuses nationwide are experiencing harassment on an unprecedented scale, and in response, universities have become pro-active, clearly defining their sexual assault policies, expanding staff and websites dedicated to education, prevention and support, and offering sexual assault awareness and bystander intervention training programs to the college communities.  Trump argues that campus assaults and harassment are better handled by local police and will save tax payer dollars. But without careful planning and coordination, now is not the time to dismantle policies that protect students from harassment and assault. As Trump continues to test the waters of governance, his higher education policies remain poorly defined and unclear, and since his inauguration to office, there is little doubt that he is good at deconstructing and tearing things down, but his record of governance by inclusion and consensus building has so far missed the mark. On November 9, 2016, the American Association of University Professors which does not endorse candidates or engage in politics on a national level, issued a cautionary statement of concern. In their view, Trump’s election presents a clear threat “to the core institutions of our democracy and may be the greatest threat to academic freedom since the McCarthy era.” ( We are a nation of laws and inclusion and let us hope this omen of foreboding does not prove to be the case.

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