‘It’s the beginning of the closing of the US door’

Election night in the United States found Kan Wei, a professor at China’s Beijing Normal University, in a living room in Madison, Wisconsin. As he watched election returns alongside other scholars attending an international symposium, his thoughts turned to how a Trump presidency might affect his research on comparative education. “It’s kind of the beginning of the closing of the US door,” he remembers thinking.

Attendee Mauricio Pietrocola, a professor at the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil, kept abreast of the news from his hotel room. As the evening wore on, he began to reconsider plans to take a sabbatical in the United States.

He had been a doctoral student in France during a similar period of political upheaval in 1988 – when far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly secured more than four million votes in the first round of the presidential election – and it had set his research back by three months. The paperwork alone “made things very complicated”, he said. Now, he added, “I’m a little bit afraid to even send my students here.”

Serendipity had brought me to the three-day symposium, sponsored by an alliance called the International Network of Education Institutes. Organised by the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison or UW, the event had dovetailed with my plan to spend a few weeks with my dad, who lives in Janesville, a one-hour bus ride from campus.

A Wisconsin native, I earned my undergraduate degree at the UW’s journalism school, but I was at the symposium as a graduate student. I’m pursuing a doctorate at George Mason University, and my focus is on the role of US higher education in an increasingly interconnected and international context.

I had so often heard US higher education described as the ‘envy of the world’, and I wanted to explore that. The symposium theme of international mobility and migration seemed relevant.

I watched the election returns on Tuesday night with my dad in Janesville, a hometown I happen to share with Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House who had locked horns with Trump during the highly charged campaign season.

Tuesday’s symposium agenda had closed with a lively briefing by UW Political Science Professor David Canon, who explained the US electoral process to his international audience. He also told us what to watch for on TV: Trump had a chance of winning, yes, but all signs pointed to Clinton. The battleground states were New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Florida. The PowerPoint slides placed Wisconsin firmly in the Clinton column.

Within hours, it would become clear that Wisconsin was in a tighter race than had been predicted. By midnight, Dad and I went to bed certain that Wisconsin would not go to Clinton. Nor would the presidency.

I had not intended to write about any of this. I have some major school-related deadlines looming, and my hope in coming to Wisconsin had been to free myself from the distractions of daily life back home while squeezing in some quality time with family. I voted early, in Virginia, where I live, and packed up my schoolwork.

The last thing I needed was for the election to throw a wrench into my plans. But as we watched the results, I soon knew that what we were witnessing speaks so directly to my scholarly interests that I would get nothing done unless I took the time to process it. For me, that starts with asking questions and writing. Thank you for indulging me.


On Wednesday morning, UW Professor David Rosenthal, one of the symposium’s organisers, opened the programme with an opportunity for folks to air their reactions to the outcome. Just a handful of people took up the invitation, and their remarks were brief. One UW graduate student who is doing research in the Middle East later told me she didn’t want to talk about it because “I’ll probably just start crying”.

I happened to bump into Canon, the political science professor, during a break. He was as stunned and stumped as everyone else. He said he saw a few glimmers of hope in Trump’s first public remarks as president-elect: There was no talk of walling off Mexico, no talk of deportations, of locking up Hillary, of ISIS. Perhaps Trump could turn out to be a “reasonable centrist”, Canon said.

“But can we control the dark impulses he brought forth in this campaign? If he doesn’t build a wall, his base is going to be upset. He could be either of those extremes or anywhere in between. We really don’t know.”

There had been a few jokey references to Clinton pantsuits on Tuesday. But during Wednesday's presentations, I never heard a word about the elections. Still, the uncertainty surrounding the country’s future was eerily present. UW doctoral candidate Upenyu Majee mentioned at one point that every student he interviewed while doing dissertation fieldwork in his native Zimbabwe was eager for tips on how to get into a US university. Would that enthusiasm continue, I wondered?

In his talk, Kan Wei, the Beijing professor, recommended a new analytic framework for Asian researchers. Instead of borrowing Western concepts to solve local problems, he told us, researchers from the East and West should look, together, for global solutions. That reminded me of Trump’s vow to eliminate climate change research funding. And my work as a graduate research assistant at George Mason.

We had just spent two weeks with 20 Pakistani professors on our campus and were gearing up for a conference in Lahore next spring. How would Trump’s isolationist tendencies affect international collaboration?

Hugh Starkey, a professor of human rights education at the University College London or UCL Institute of Education, watched the returns along with Kan and other attendees at the home of a School of Education host, where, I’m told, the atmosphere grew increasingly grim.

He told me that the results echoed the UK’s stunning vote earlier this year to leave the European Union. Trump’s victory “sends a message that the US is largely self-sufficient, that ‘We don’t need the wider world’,” he said. It will have “repercussions for the rest of the world”.

Later in the week, the newspapers said demonstrators in Madison protested against the election result with a march down the UW’s Bascom Hill, past the School of Education and toward the Wisconsin Capitol on the other end of State Street.

For me that morning, the election was the proverbial elephant in the room – specifically, the School of Education’s Wisconsin Idea Room, where most of the symposium events took place. The name refers to a longstanding UW philosophy that I remembered from my undergraduate years: that the university’s research, teaching and public outreach belongs to all of Wisconsin and all of the world.

Many pundits have described the Trump victory as a mandate from mostly white, mostly rural and often angry voters. In Wisconsin, the final election tally reflected a stark urban-rural split. Over lunch, Noel Radomski, director of the UW’s Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, reminded me that Madison, which to no one’s surprise went to Clinton, was once described by a Republican governor as “30 square miles surrounded by reality”.

Madison’s physical metro area has since expanded, but the geographical philosophical divide serves as a wake-up call, and will require nothing short of a recommitment by the UW to the Wisconsin Idea, Radomski said. Never mind that Wisconsin’s governor, a Republican who flirted briefly with a presidential run, has slashed the university budgets in recent years. Or that the university relies on full-paying international students to help make up for the cuts.

On Thursday, I called Upenyu Majee, the UW doctoral student from Zimbabwe. His dissertation focuses on higher education in post-Apartheid South Africa, and I was curious to know, in light of Trump’s victory, what he might tell African students today who are seeking advice on graduate programmes at US universities.

He told me that he couldn’t say. Then he added that the election to him “says more about the society than it does the individual being elected”. And that being an international graduate student is hard enough as it is.

* Credit for 'This Week' photo: Anvay Ullal, Daily Trojan