Trump Picked a Fight With Higher Ed. It’s Still Learning to Punch Back.

In the early-morning hours of November 9, 2016, Miriam Feldblum walked the grounds of Pomona College, where she was vice president for student affairs and dean of students, trying to assuage the fears of international students. Some were getting texts or calls from their parents overseas, who urged them to come back home before it was too late. Too late for what, none could say, but there was a palpable sense that they were targets.“Students were in distress,” Feldblum said.Donald J. Trump’s election the night before, which had followed a campaign that centered on building a wall at the U.S. border and vilifying Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” had shocked many on the campus of the private college in Claremont, Calif., about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. So, too, had it set the stage for continuous conflicts between the White House and college leaders, whose views on the value of globalization and international collaboration could not have been in sharper contrast with those of the newly elected president.Within his first days in office, Trump issued an executive order banning travel to the United States from seven largely Muslim countries. The decree sent colleges into a panic, as they tried to encourage students from the affected countries to remain calm — while also advising them not to travel abroad, lest they be barred re-entry.The ensuing months, filled with a flurry of orders with far-reaching implications, challenged the deliberative nature of academe, forcing swift legal action on multiple fronts.“There was going to have to be a more active, personal, sustained focus,” said Feldblum, who is now executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. “That was already clear by the end of 2017. But even at that point we had no idea what was coming.”What has followed over the next four years is a series of frenetic and uneven responses from college leaders, who have been forced to determine when and if to challenge a president prone to running roughshod over their favored policies and cherished ideals. From globalism to diversity, from civility to safety, from sexual assault to science, there are few areas of public policy in which the Trump administration has not been in tension, if not outright war, with higher education.Covid-19 has ratcheted up the stakes, as college leaders reckon with a public-health crisis that has been made all the more difficult to manage because of the intense politicization around it. Preaching social distancing and mask-wearing, college leaders are competing with the cacophony of a president who questions public-health guidelines and calls his top scientists “idiots.”The 2020 election, therefore, represents what one former college president has described as a “break the glass” moment for higher-education leaders, whose traditional risk aversion and desire to project political neutrality may be ill-suited to a moment in which so many core institutional values appear under threat. College leaders have thus far responded with occasional legal action, but they’ve mostly waged this fight with sober messages and carefully worded press releases that stop just short of calling Trump out by name.Nearly four years on, it’s still an open question: Has this presidency taught higher education anything about fighting back? Or is the sector just riding this one out, white-knuckled and squirming as the roller coaster careens along another blind curve?It was a bit unexpected, in the first weeks of his presidency, when Trump cozied up to historically Black colleges and universities. Leaders of HBCUs, long unsatisfied with federal funding, had learned to be skeptical of U.S. presidents bearing gifts. Was this the real deal, John Silvanus Wilson Jr. wondered, or just a photo op?Like so many other college leaders during those first months of Trump’s presidency, Wilson wondered: Can we do business with this man?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, APPresident Trump meets with leaders of historically Black colleges and universities in the Oval Office of the White House on February 27, 2017.

Wilson, who was at the time president of Morehouse College, had served as executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs under President Barack Obama, and he knew that if Trump wanted to do something truly historic with the sector, he would have to secure more than $2.4 billion for the institutions. That was the watermark for funding, reached through an extraordinary appropriation, in 2009-10, as the nation recovered from the Great Recession.Despite his trepidation, Wilson felt he had to attend a meeting of HBCU leaders and White House officials. Whatever Trump’s motivations, Morehouse and other historically Black colleges stood to benefit. If Wilson, as an Obama-era official, skipped the meeting, it could create “an unfortunate headline, and that would not be good for HBCUs,” he said. “So I had to go.”Wilson calculated in real time the risk that his presence at the White House might be seen as an endorsement. As the college presidents gathered outside the Oval Office, Wilson seized on what he thought was his only chance to ensure that the event would produce something tangible. The White House power broker on this issue, Wilson surmised, was Omarosa Manigault Newman, an HBCU graduate and aide to Trump, who had gained fame as a cutthroat competitor on Trump’s reality-television show, The Apprentice.Newman was hurrying past the HBCU presidents when she stopped for a moment to greet them.“I saw that as my only chance,” Wilson recalled. “So I said something like, ‘Well, if he wants to make the announcement historic and record-breaking, he will have to boost HBCU funding by over a billion dollars.’“If she heard me, she didn’t act like it,” Wilson continued. “She kept moving … and we eventually went in for the pictures.”Many pictures were taken, but the indelible one was that of Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, kneeling on a couch in a pose sufficiently casual to invite charges of disrespect toward the assembled guests and undermining the supposed gravity of the event.The meeting was further marred by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who had sparked a brushfire by suggesting that HBCUs were “pioneers” of “school choice.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. These were institutions created for Black people living under Jim Crow, who had scarcely any choices at all under segregation.Beyond a symbolic commitment to move the operations of the federal initiative for HBCUs from the Education Department into the White House, little came of the meeting. Federal appropriations for HBCUs in 2017-18, the most recent year for which full data are available, were a bit lower than the average of the previous decade, and the $2.4-billion peak hasn’t been topped, a recent analysis found.“I don’t see a difference in how much money HBCUs are getting as a result of Trump being in office, good or bad,” said Ivory A. Toldson, a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and editor in chief of The Journal of Negro Education, who conducted the analysis.This hasn’t stopped the president from portraying himself as the sector’s savior.It is true that Trump, in 2019, signed into signed into law the Future Act, which restored about $255 million to historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions, after Congress had let the funding lapse. Making that funding permanent, as the bill did, was welcome news for historically Black colleges. But the president’s role in securing the money wasn’t particularly significant in the eyes of those close to the process.“The president speaks about that, but the action on that happened in Congress,” said Lodriguez V. Murray, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at UNCF (United Negro College Fund).

I don’t see a difference in how much money HBCUs are getting as a result of Trump being in office, good or bad.

For HBCUs, working with allies in Congress, including Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate and a Howard University graduate, has proved more valuable than the actions of any one president, Murray said. Still, he said, Trump has “normalized” historically Black colleges by speaking of them so frequently as legitimate players in higher education, rather than relics of a bygone era.At the end of the day, UNCF has made the same calculation with Trump that many other higher-education associations and leaders have: We’ll do business with anyone willing to help us — for whatever reason.“We can’t wait on the president that people think is popular, because we really do believe in our motto that ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste,’” Murray said. “We have to get the resources from those that Americans elect.”As Trump savored his burgeoning relationship with Black college leaders, something sinister was brewing. White supremacists, empowered and organized, were forging a secret plan to march across the University of Virginia’s historic Lawn in a torch-bearing demonstration reminiscent of Nazi Germany.The episode would not only lay bare a growing strain of racist nationalism but also reveal the limits of higher education’s capacity or will to respond to it.Devin D. Willis was a rising sophomore at UVa when the so-called Unite the Right rally came to Charlottesville. The loosely organized group had planned on August 12, 2017 to protest the pending removal of a statute of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, from what was then known as Emancipation Park. But the marchers made a show of force the night before at the foot of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder, on the UVa grounds. A melee, fueled with fire and pepper spray, ensued between the white supremacists and a group of counterprotesters, including Willis.Willis and his allies had formed an arm-locked circle around the statue, as a ring of flaming torches drew closer. At some point, the circle broke, he said, and he recalls being punched and kicked as he struggled to escape. From a distance, he said, it would have been hard to discern who the aggressors were. Willis, who is Black, immediately feared the worst.“I was worried about a Nazi shooting me,” he said. “These guys had been wanting to shoot somebody all day.”Willis and other counterprotesters felt abandoned by the campus police officers, who appeared slow to intervene, as well as by administrators who had underestimated the threat.The next day, the rally took place as scheduled, and before it was over, three people would be dead. Heather Heyer, a counterprotester, was mowed down by a car. Two state troopers, who were monitoring the event, died in a helicopter crash.In a press conference days later, Trump infamously said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict. But his response wasn’t the only one that disturbed people. At UVa, critics on and off the campus faulted Teresa A. Sullivan, who was then the university’s president, for being slow to call out the marchers as racists and anti-Semites.

Edu Bayer, The New York Times, ReduxWhite nationalists march through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., on August 11, 2017.

Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville was central to Biden’s campaign announcement. He condemned the president and described counterprotesters like Willis as “a courageous group of Americans.” But the episode and its aftermath have shattered any faith that Willis may have had in the power of appointed leaders — be they politicians or university presidents — to protect him or address systemic racism. Willis is exhausted, he said, from being used as what he describes as a tool in higher education’s standard damage control any time racism rears its head.“It was a big moment of radicalization for me,” said Willis, who graduated in May, and now lives in Mexico, where he teaches English online.Willis did not “turn toward militancy and violence,” he said. But he came to resent the tools of liberal education that are so often employed in the wake of race-related incidents: the call for dialogue, the forming of commissions, the removal or “contextualization” of Confederate symbols. Those are empty gestures, Willis concluded, or, worse yet, feel-good public-relations stunts that rely upon his Blackness to make things right.Trump, with his rhetoric, had helped to create an environment that emboldened white supremacists, Willis said. But he saw another problem as well: The higher-education playbook of dialogue and reconciliation was simply no longer operative.“I don’t exist to enlighten privileged young white people at a university,” Willis said. “I’m not the curriculum. If you say the response to violence is dialogue in the hopes that I can open the eyes of some super-rich kid, that’s ridiculous. That is something that optically serves UVa. It gives them the impression that they’re dealing with something, which they’re not.”The Trump presidency has often offended the sensibilities of college leaders, but as a general rule this is a group that avoids the political fray. There are practical and legal reasons for this.Most college presidents are reluctant to say or do anything that may be seen as partisan, if only to avoid offending donors or lawmakers upon whom colleges rely for support. Under the Internal Revenue Code, the leaders of tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, which include private nonprofit colleges, are forbidden in their official capacities to endorse or oppose political candidates. They can speak out on public-policy issues, and, in some cases, college leaders have personally endorsed presidential candidates. But many simply don’t stick their necks out.“University presidents do not give up their individual First Amendment rights,” said Ellen P. Aprill, a tax-law professor at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles. But there is “prudence as well as law” for presidents to consider before taking political stands, she said.Prudence may be overrated at this moment. As Brian C. Rosenberg, president emeritus of Macalester College, wrote recently in The Chronicle Review, Trump is an “epistemological hand grenade,” whose hostility toward so many of the central tenets of higher education presents “a challenge to the existence of the university itself.” Publicly opposing Trump, rather than vaguely rearticulating values, constitutes a “break the glass” emergency for presidents — and it is fair to ask, Rosenberg wrote, “whether it is time to break the glass.”Rather than engage in open warfare with U.S. presidents, college leaders often rely on associations and lobbyists to push back. Even old Washington pros, though, have struggled to get a handle on how to deal with the Trump administration. A presidential tweet can spark a new policy debate — and it is often difficult to square the president’s public statements with the administration’s policies.Terry W. Hartle, the American Council on Education’s vice president for government relations, said he attended one meeting at the White House over the course of Trump’s first term. It was, ironically, about encouraging international students to remain in the United States.“The gap here between their rhetoric and their policy actions is Grand Canyonesque,” Hartle said.Higher-education lobbyists had disagreements with the Obama administration, too. Private colleges strongly opposed a plan that would have tied federal aid to a new college-ratings system, and community colleges were fearful that their own programs could be threatened by policies designed to crack down on for-profit colleges. But there was a coherence to Obama’s approach, which combined an interest in consumer protection with an underlying belief that higher education has a vital role to play in the production of human capital.The Trump administration, on the other hand, has had “a remarkably confused and scattershot approach to governing,” Hartle said. The hallmarks of its positions on higher education, he said, have been a distrust of establishment elites and a willingness “to throw high-level research under the bus of political expediency.” The latter tendency, he said, has helped to cement public skepticism of science at the worst possible moment.“Like the smile from the Cheshire cat,” Hartle said, “I fear that will be with us for a long time.”Even before the pandemic, Trump’s election presented a tricky proposition for scientists, who, not unlike college presidents, see the value of publicly maintaining political neutrality. There are exceptions, but widespread protests aren’t the norm for the lab-coat set. That is what gave the March for Science, an unprecedented demonstration in 2017, a particular air of defiance and even desperation. An official motto might well have been: To hell with it.Anchored in Washington and featuring a speech by Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” the march spanned more than 500 cities across the globe. Organizers insisted the event was nonpartisan, even though it had the flavor of an anti-Trump rally.Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and an affiliate professor of earth and planetary sciences, was among the participants in Boston’s march. For too long, she said, scientists had clung to the notion that they must appear nonpartisan in order for their work to be accepted as objective. The “supply-side model,” in which scientists crunch numbers and passively let policy makers decide what to do with them, “isn’t really working for us,” Oreskes said.

The gap here between their rhetoric and their policy actions is Grand Canyonesque.

“If the findings of scientific research threaten people’s interests, their ideology, they will reject that work,” said Oreskes, co-author of the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, which examines how scientific consensus on issues like global warming is undermined by industry-friendly researchers. “It doesn’t matter how lily-white the scientists are, how strict they are. Scientists could bend over backwards to prove how open they are to criticism, and it has no influence on the rejection of the science. Because people are not rejecting it because scientists weren’t objective. They’re rejecting it because they don’t like the consequences.”One of the troubling aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, in which public-health guidelines are being followed or rejected along partisan lines, is that it reveals how deeply ideology and self-interest govern the way people evaluate scientific information, Oreskes said.Climate scientists have long assumed that, if the effects of climate change were more readily discernible to the average person — if carbon dioxide were purple — people would wake up and do something about it. But even after more than 230,000 people have died in the United States from Covid-19, experts can’t persuade everyone to wear a mask.As it turns out, the abstract nature of climate change “wasn’t actually the problem,” Oreskes said. “The problem was actually politics. It was the politicization of knowledge.”“That’s something that’s really hard to swallow,” she said. “It’s really hard for scientists to swallow, because we don’t want it to be political. We want to believe that if we just supply good information, that will do the trick.“But what we’ve now seen, beyond any reasonable doubt, is it just doesn’t work that way. Not in America. Not in 2020.”It wasn’t until this summer, after four years of skirmishes with President Trump, that higher education had what could be described as a pure and swift victory.Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard’s president, had gone to bed on July 6 unsure how to respond to the Trump administration’s latest salvo: an order that foreign college students would have to take in-person classes in the midst of the pandemic or face possible deportation. By 6:30 the next morning, Bacow, who was still in bed at the time, was on the phone with his lieutenants, mapping out a legal strategy to fight back.A line had been crossed. This was political pressure that flew in the face of public-health guidelines, Bacow realized, a step that would force Harvard and other colleges to reopen fully or abandon thousands of students. (At Harvard, 15 percent of the student body is international). Over the course of the next 24 hours, the university’s lawyers crafted a legal complaint, securing affidavits from administrators about the deleterious effects of an order whose “cruelty,” Bacow said at the time, was “surpassed only by its recklessness.”Harvard is the biggest name in the higher-education business, but Bacow, who is a lawyer, wanted more muscle. He recruited L. Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to join the lawsuit. Soon 18 attorneys general were backing the plan. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, hardly a liberal bastion, got on board. An avalanche of support came from colleges across the nation.Trump backed down. In a blink, the order was rescinded.“When our students’ ability to study is threatened, we move,” said Bacow, “and we try to move quickly.”Was this successful full-court press, led by two prominent universities, an indication that higher education had learned something about how to respond to Trump? Perhaps. Harvard’s legal team was ready to go in part because it had plenty of practice. The university had spent the previous two years fighting with Trump’s Justice Department over affirmative action.But there are other battles that haven’t been waged as vociferously. A recent order banning federal grant recipients from providing certain diversity and sensitivity training, for example, sent colleges scrambling to cancel speakers and programs. There has been pushback from higher education, but not at the scale or speed with which colleges mobilized over the deportation threat — an order that, along with threatening colleges’ values, had financial implications for those that rely on international students’ tuition dollars.After all of these fights — some lost, some won, some unfought — it’s still hard to say what it all was for. What has Trump’s skewering of higher education really been about?

European Sports Photographic Agency, AlamySupporters wear “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great” hats during a rally for President Trump at the Las Vegas Convention Center on February 21, 2020.

In the days after the 2016 election, some professors and presidents tried to figure that out. After all, they were the elites against whom Trump had run and won. Their campuses, often blue dots surrounded by red counties, surely had something to learn from the nearly 63 million people who had cast ballots for Trump. There’s little indication, though, that this kind of soul-searching has happened on any significant scale, and every indication that higher education — like the rest of the country — is even more dug in than before.Much of what the Trump administration has accomplished in the higher-education sector has been through executive orders or regulatory guidance that, if Biden is elected, are likely to be reversed. It is hard to imagine, though, that the nation hasn’t changed in some fundamental ways, with far-reaching implications for higher education, regardless of the outcome of the election.The calculation, unchanged, is whether college leaders serve their institutions best by acting as cooling saucers or Bunsen burners. Do they preach calm or call the moment what many think it is: an emergency? John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the former Morehouse president, says the latter is the only course.“Silence is unacceptable,” he says, “because too much is at stake.”

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