What is the role of universities in Donald Trump’s America? Ever since Trump took office on 20 January 2017, shock after shock has hit the nation. In his first 12 days in office, Trump signed 18 executive orders and memos, an average of 1.5 per day, including his infamous immigration ban. Civil rights are under siege.
Trump is dangerous and unpredictable, and many Americans, especially young people, are afraid for their futures. Feelings of uncertainty and anger dominate college campuses, as xenophobia, misogyny and racism become the White House’s new reality.
In this uncharted territory, how can institutions support their students? The truth is that universities can be powerful allies for students impacted by the Trump presidency and we need them to be.
Resistance requires support. There are concrete ways that universities and colleges can step up to the plate and administrators should do so. As Rory Wong Jacobs, a student at the University of Puget Sound or UPS, said: “I wish UPS would work with students more... progress is really slow.”
One extremely important way that universities can support students at this time is to allow (and even encourage) protest. Student protesters should be allowed in public spaces on campus like the quad, and faculty, staff and administrators should engage with protesters and participate. We want to be heard. We want to collaborate.
A recent example of this was the protests at the University of California, Berkeley over Milo Yiannapoulos' appearance on campus. Many complained about the protests, saying that they ‘turned violent’. The truth was more complex – the only damage done was to property and it was not done by Berkeley students, but by an anarchist group not connected with the university.
Despite the fact that they had no role in the damage done, student demonstrators helped staff clean up the campus the next day – a powerful show of solidarity and unity between the university and its students.
Juliana Mora, who organised the clean-up, told student newspaper The Tab the day after the protest: “I was at the protests last night when they got violent and it was really heart-breaking to see our campus, our home, get destroyed.
“The violence was just re-enforcing what the Right thinks of Berkeley so I wanted to do something to show everyone that UC Berkeley students are not hypocritical and that we do not stand for violence.”
This story is not unusual – students want to work with universities to create stronger communities.
Student health is important
The health of students – mental and physical – is also hugely important. With the Affordable Care Act under threat, many students could lose their health insurance.
Students could be unable to afford medications or testing that they need. They may be forced to live with health issues because they cannot afford to treat them – and as a university, that should be unacceptable.
Having vibrant healthcare and counselling services on campus is a must, especially because living under Trump’s administration is extremely taxing on students’ mental health – with anxiety so high in our communities and in our world, students are struggling.
Daniela Silva, a sophomore at the University of Southern California, said: “I wish there was a better mental health programme on campus. On-campus, long-term, care. More counsellors and staff dedicated to helping students.”
Silva said that what mental health programming they do have on campus “doesn’t make students a priority”. Other students feel the same. One says: “I think for the amount we pay to the University of Alabama, ideally there should be free healthcare and counselling that comes along with it.”
Supporting students also needs to include services for survivors since sexual assault remains at epidemic levels on college campuses.
After the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, this has become even more key since she has threatened the progress that former president Barack Obama made through Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education programme or activity.
Silva and Wong Jacobs both feel strongly that universities need to do more to end rape culture on their campuses. This can be done through a variety of avenues, including better reporting processes and consent education, but it must be done.
Universities can and should also go beyond the role of simply supporting students and show resistance themselves. Students who are undocumented are at high risk under Trump.
He has already expanded homeland security significantly and threatened to destroy Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the policy which allows certain illegal immigrants to the United States who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation.
Universities can make a commitment to protect undocumented members of their communities by declaring themselves ‘sanctuary campuses' and not cooperating with federal immigration authorities. “The top thing would be for the university to become a sanctuary campus, in action if not in name,” said Wong Jacobs.
Some universities, like my own, have made commitments to protect undocumented students, but have fallen short of using the sanctuary campus label. This is less powerful for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it leaves the universities that are official ‘sanctuary schools’ more at risk of retaliation from the federal government.
According to USA Today, there are now about 28 sanctuary campuses in the United States, a number I hope will rise. Reed College and Portland State University were the first universities in the nation to declare themselves sanctuary campuses.
The president of Reed College, John Kroger, said in his announcement of the policy that “we steadfastly support all members of our community regardless of their immigration status”. This should be the policy of every American university.
Universities should also come together and use their powerful voices to resist Trump – if university administrators jointly say that they will not stand for the horrific policies put forth under Trump’s White House, they will be heard.
On 29 November, the heads of the University of California, California State University and the California Community College System sent a joint letter to Trump urging him to reconsider his stance on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.
They wrote: “On behalf of DACA students currently pursuing their dream of higher education in the United States, we urge you to continue this important programme and allow these young people to continue to pursue a college education and contribute to their communities and the nation.”
We, as students, need our educational institutions to stand with us and fight with us – because democracy is not a spectator sport.
Casey O'Brien is a junior at national liberal arts college University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington State, United States. Originally from California, she serves as news editor in chief at the college newspaper, The Trail. She is majoring in sociology and anthropology, with a global development emphasis, and minoring in Latin American studies.
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