‘Uncharted waters’ for higher education in Trump era

There has been no shortage of predictions about what to expect under the administration of President Donald J Trump. But any forecast of how a man with no experience in elected office, no demonstrated interest in the process of policy-making, and a record of contradictory and dishonest pronouncements will govern should be read with caution.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Anticipating Trump on higher education policy may be especially fruitless. An October speech in which he sketched out a few higher-ed ideas was greeted with surprise – he had been almost silent on the topic until that late stage of the campaign.

Trump’s pick to lead the Education Department, the billionaire charter-school advocate Betsy DeVos, has no background in higher education. That’s not unusual for education secretaries, but it means that her selection provides little additional insight into where the administration might go on higher education.

"We’re in uncharted waters," says Michael S Roth, president of Wesleyan University. "We know more about tweets right now than policies."

Still, many of Trump’s actions beyond the realm of higher education policy could have a profound impact on colleges, universities and the people who study and work at them. Some of those things are easier to anticipate, and some have already begun to emerge.

Perhaps the most concrete effect of Trump’s victory to date has been a surge in hate-motivated incidents, many of which have occurred on campuses.

White supremacist posters and fliers, swastikas, and other anti-Semitic graffiti have appeared on campuses around the country. Students have reported attacks in which they seem to have been targeted as members of racial or religious minority groups. Representatives of the so-called alt-right, a white nationalist movement, are trying to recruit students.

Whatever Trump might actually do in office, his election has already brought plenty of racist and xenophobic activity out of the shadows and into the quad.

Of course, many vulnerable populations are plenty worried about what Trump might do as president. His inconsistent positions, combined with his divisive rhetoric, have created for many a climate of uncertainty and fear.

Undocumented students, some of whom have gone public as advocates, fear that Trump will follow through on his campaign pledge to revoke President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, programme – the executive action that allows some young people brought to the country illegally as children to stay for renewable two-year terms.

That would leave students and others protected by the policy at risk of being deported – and Trump has threatened to deport millions of undocumented people.

There are a number of steps that Trump could take to weaken DACA, says Michael A Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston who is serving as interim president of the University of Houston – Downtown.

It’s unlikely that the administration will go so far as to deport students, he says. After all, the country has invested in their education. "Having made that investment," he says, "we want to capture that investment and keep them here."

But even less-extreme measures, like ceasing to provide DACA status to applicants, would be "awful”, Olivas says. And whatever happens, he also worries about undocumented students dropping out of college because they fear immigration raids.

In response to fears that students might be targeted for deportation, petitions have been circulated calling for colleges to become sanctuary campuses, where the deportation efforts of government officials would be given minimal cooperation. While many higher education leaders are supportive of DACA students, few have made promises on that front. Trump has threatened to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities, which provide the model for the sanctuary campus idea.

Olivas has written that the notion of providing such a haven is misguided. The term "sanctuary", he said in an interview, is "completely devoid of legal significance". Instead, he argues, those who want to help DACA students should direct them toward organisations that have worked to support them – and should push Congress to take up immigration reform.

Under siege

Many in academe feel that everything they stand for – the value of expertise, the authority of science, the pursuit of truth, or even the possibility that it might exist – is under siege.

At such a time, the knee-jerk reaction tends to be, "Look how good we are, and they don’t understand," says Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

To regain the public’s trust, higher education must address shortcomings that can be more obvious to those outside its walls: Costs keep going up, faculty members don’t focus their efforts on teaching, and colleges have accepted a false distinction between the liberal arts and vocational preparation, she says.

The election’s result, then, should inspire scholars to do some soul-searching. "There’s a lot of things we can and should be doing better or differently," Kezar says, and this could be a good moment for colleges to make some of the changes for which the public has been pressing.

Others have argued the election results should encourage academics to communicate their ideas more broadly and help students become better media consumers.

Still, it’s important to remember that "a majority of voters did not vote for Donald Trump", who won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote, notes Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. That fact has no bearing on Trump’s victory, of course, she says, but it "is something I say every time someone says, ‘Americans this’ or ‘Americans that’."

Rejection stings

Yet even if it was a minority that rejected academe’s ideals, rejection still stings. Scholars have felt threatened "that particular values they hold or expertise they have does not have a place in this administration", Skocpol says – a feeling that has only grown, she adds, as the names of Trump’s cabinet picks have trickled out.

In the initial aftermath of the election, Skocpol heard academics fretting that "facts didn’t matter" and "voters didn’t care", but that seems to have been an immediate reaction born of shock, she says. She hopes that emotions on campuses will settle down now.

One thing scholars have going for them is a skill set geared toward making sense of the world, she says. In her own field, political science, scholars have been busy not only unpacking the election outcome, she says, but also questioning their own tools and techniques.

But some academics fear that their ability to do their work will be hindered once Trump takes office.

Preparing for the worst, a team including scientists and librarians is working to preserve federal data related to climate change that they fear may become inaccessible under Trump. Some political scientists are reconceptualising their scholarly work as an effort to save liberal democracy.

Walking a fine line

Of course, not everyone on campuses is so worried about the incoming administration. Some students and professors supported Trump. And others, who might not have done so, embrace or at least stand to benefit from some of the president-elect’s ideas.

College lobbyists, for example, will probably breathe a sigh of relief if some Obama-era regulations fall by the wayside. And outside groups like the National Association of Scholars, which argues that colleges have taken up liberal causes at the expense of more traditional curricular subject matter, could soon find themselves working with, rather than against, the federal government.

Colleges themselves can be more politically diverse than they sometimes get credit for. While Trump’s candidacy divided student Republicans on some campuses, he found some support even at famously liberal universities like Wesleyan University, while a group of students at the conservative Liberty University came out against its own president’s public championing of Trump.

As a result, college leaders have walked a fine line in their statements about Trump – and still face the possibility of a backlash.

Wesleyan’s Roth, for one, was surprised that more college presidents didn’t speak up ahead of the election, as he felt compelled to do. Perhaps they believed it was their responsibility to remain neutral, he says.

But that was not Roth’s take: "This was not a normal election. The rhetoric and threats of scapegoating that took place throughout the election, and the denial of science and research that was characteristic of the Trump campaign – and so far as what you can tell, the administration – needed to be called out as antithetical to the mission of higher education, no matter how many people voted for it.

“If people vote against algebra, it doesn’t mean algebra doesn’t work anymore."

That stance, he adds, can coexist with ensuring that conservative points of view are heard on campus, and that the students who hold them are protected.

It’s a safe bet that campus climate issues will continue to challenge college leaders in the coming months. What else are they likely to face?

Despite the Trump team’s near-silence on higher education policy, there is an emerging consensus among observers on at least a few probable scenarios. First among them: The near-silence may well continue. "There’s no reason to assume a campaign that was light on policy will suddenly become a White House that is not light on policy," says Matthew M Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

Some policy watchers imagine that Trump’s Education Department will remain relatively hands-off on higher education issues, focusing instead on his pledge to expand charter education at the K-12 level – which clearly dovetails with DeVos’s interests. In that case, Congress is likely to drive federal higher education policy. That makes a certain amount of sense anyhow, given that the Higher Education Act is overdue to be re-authorised.

Besides, "one implication of a Republican president", Chingos says, is that "a Republican Congress might have more success moving the Higher Education Act legislation forward", although no one is sure what the Trump administration would like to see in the law.

Congress, for its part, looks a lot more predictable than Trump when it comes to higher education. Leaders of the relevant committees are known quantities, and some of their ideas – like rolling back regulations – have already been making the rounds.

That doesn’t mean the administration will ignore higher education. Many observers expect that Obama-era rules and practices surrounding the enforcement of Title IX and efforts to hold for-profit colleges accountable will be ignored, weakened or done away with.

The Education Department might focus instead on issues of religious liberty, freedom of speech, and Trump’s campaign commitment to combat political correctness. Some academics are bracing for a new chapter in the culture wars.

Colleges and universities – and not just the for-profit ones – might be relieved to see some rules and enforcement actions fade away. But that doesn’t mean the higher education industry will like what takes their place.

Among many unknowns is what general stance Trump might take toward higher education. Many in academe were disappointed with Obama’s position that raising post-secondary attainment was crucial, and that many colleges were falling down on the job.

Trump has said little to affirm the intrinsic value of post-secondary education, and it’s possible that higher education simply won’t capture his attention. As far as many on campuses are concerned, that would not be the worst outcome.

Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.