Right’s greatest threat to universities is yet to come

Higher education and research is under threat not just from nationalism under Donald Trump’s presidency but also from the character of the man in office and long-held conservative ideology, speakers concluded at the New Nationalism and Universities conference held at the University of California, Berkeley, or UC Berkeley, in the United States last month.

There was common agreement that while higher education seems embattled on many fronts, the biggest threat of all will come from the conservatives’ attempt to ‘starve the beast’ by offering large tax cuts now and thereby creating a need for massive cuts across the board later.

“Two years from now, with a huge deficit and inflation going up, that is what a lot of conservatives hope will happen,” said Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Trump may be anti-science and anti-climate change action, as the installation of a nihilist on protection in the Environmental Protection Agency showed, and his administration has proposed severe cuts to scientific activity and research, said C Judson King, former director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley and a professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering, “but it is not well received by Republicans in congress, as they do favour science”.

King, too, predicted a situation where the ‘starving the beast’ scenario will shape the science budget. “The problem for science may that the whole budget will be constrained, so science will be treated evenly but within a much smaller budget,” he said.

In the meantime, higher education and research remain embattled as a result of the new nationalism agenda and disruptive nature of one man.

“When we look at the US and try to figure what is going on, there are clearly effects of new nationalism but there are also many things happening that are just the nature of the individual who has been elected president,” King said.

The moves against climate change science, for instance, say much about Trump’s appeal to the Rust Belt, offering to bring back jobs, and his consequent development of a “coalminer’s view” of the world.

Criticism from a broader base

Shireman, meanwhile, said poll analysis showed that Trump had reached the highest office on the back of a mixture of anti-elitism, evangelicalism and nationalism, but suggested that criticism of universities had been building from a broader base than his political campaign.

“We have had for some time career conservatives making claims of discrimination against them on campuses, too much left wing activity in higher education among the professoriat and then on top of that we now have these protests and provocations and people supposedly not being able to speak on campus unless they are politically correct,” Shireman said.

On the plus side the US has not experienced the type of pressure seen in Hungary or Poland for changes in higher education. There had been no insistence on changes that would ensure higher education “would talk about our heroic history in the US, or firing of faculty and replacing presidents”.

“It has not happened and the biggest reason is when at the federal level we started financing aid for higher education, a firewall was erected where federal government was not to have any influence over faculty or curriculum but would rely on states and accreditation agencies to have that oversight and that firewall for the most part has tended to be maintained,” Shireman said.

But that firewall is just a law and laws change every day. “A tax bill could carry something like a provision that would insist on some kind of intellectual diversity, require that universities be more balanced; that would be a logical political step for Congress to take,” he said. “But we have not seen that.”

Instead attacks were being made in more indirect ways by seeking to tax endowments and graduate students’ tuition benefits, cutting research funding in the budget, and in the wholesale embrace of for-profit colleges and universities that “do not have the sort of scholarship that upsets conservatives”, he said.


Henry E Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, said the new nationalism is a lot of different things but is problematic for universities because it seems illiberal at its core, casts doubt on globalisation and even democracy and does not care for knowledge and truth.

In addition, it is distrustful of elites and elite knowledge, often to the point of being directly anti-intellectual. “That’s often because they see universities as footloose from society and too cosmopolitan.”

He said in the current age US universities face a variety of threats from ‘new nationalism’. These include the threat to university and research finances, threats to core principles such as freedom of speech, provocations designed to discredit universities, and attempts to control student admissions, such as the travel bans.

New nationalists attack universities for being radical or disruptive or simply not being for them – Trump supporters say ‘I can’t see any of my people going to universities’– a point echoed by Shireman citing research showing that working class swing voters were strongly opposed to the concept of higher education because they felt it was for ‘other people’s kids’.

They also rail against universities producing too many PhDs or irrelevant research, Brady said.

Tackling these threats can be difficult and costly as UC Berkeley has discovered. “The Berkeley brand is free speech,” Brady said, and if the university had to continually stage the same level of security it did for the controversial visit of alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos, it would break the bank.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ had played along with the alt-right’s quest to stage a Free Speech Week and won, when she let it go ahead but the event imploded because organisers had to cancel, but UC Berkeley was left out of pocket by US$800,000 due to security costs.

“The point was we defended free speech,” Brady said. “But if we had to do a Milo every week it would be US$50 million a year. We can’t afford that.”

He said that in responding to new nationalism, universities should consider what the core functions are that must be protected, including academic freedom, funding for research, a broad liberal education and remaining open and inclusive.

But also, what are things that can be done to change? “We probably need to reach out more to society – online education is one way.

“There is a lot of criticism of the University of California that it doesn’t touch enough people. One way would be online certificates which could increase the number of people touched by the University of California by a factor of 10.”

Restrictive immigration policy

Lisa Garcia Bedolla, chancellor’s professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies, said there was also a conflict between immigration policy becoming more restrictive and science enterprise being about global competitiveness.

The latter relied on being able to bring the best and brightest into US universities and that was why US universities had the most international students in the world – more than one million of them. In some STEM fields, particularly engineering, more than 65% of graduate students were international.

But the effort to attract the brightest and best was also under threat from the idea of exclusion at the core of new nationalism, which was “antithetical to what universities are doing”. It perhaps explained why conservatives have been trying to hurt the vulnerable by proposing taxing tuition benefits.

On a campus like UC Berkeley’s where 40% of graduate students are “food insecure”, this would “significantly impact on the kinds of students who think about engaging in graduate education in the US and limit it to the kind of folks who have financial resources, and limit the vision of who can be in higher education”, Bedolla said.

Sidebar illustration credit: Maya Spielman


It's nativism not nationalism. Words matter. US nationalism has been around a very long time ie long before DJT became president, but virtually no one in the profession has noticed.

See this story from University World News: https://www.universityworldnews.com/ar...6192441402.

I wish UC Berkeley and other institutions had organised conferences about this in the BT (Before Trump) era. https://www.universityworldnews.com/ar...7005217625.

Mark Capstone on the University World News Facebook page