Critical questions on Trump and higher education

This is an introduction to a series of critical analyses of Donald Trump’s impact on higher education.

The intense instability of the U.S. political situation in the days since Trump’s inauguration makes it hard for any of us to know the future or even the present. Nevertheless, the ascension of the Trump administration — a possible misnomer, admittedly, since “administering” is a plainly inadequate label for their praxis — forces us to think reflexively about our situation as academics and as denizens of the U.S. academy. What, then, is the impact of Trump on higher education? What has it been already? What will it continue to be?

Some initial elements of the situation are already becoming clear. Trump’s election sparked a wave of racist incidents across U.S. campuses, particularly by (invariably male) white nationalists, with swastikas painted on campus buildings, Muslim women choked or grabbed by the hijab, and threats of “tarring and feathering.” Scholarly research is being affected across the disciplines, as the EPA freezes and then unfreezes grants for environmental research, while humanities and the arts are targeted by threats to abolish the NEA and NEH. The currently-contested immigration ban on Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen affects more than 17,000 international students, and has led visiting speakers to avoid visiting the country: “I simply do not have the stomach to deal with being held and interrogated for hours after a transatlantic flight only to be refused entry based on directives imposed by a government where neo-Nazis are pulling the strings,” one wrote. Other scholars are proposing boycotts of U.S. academic conferences.

All this is of course prior to any specific higher education policies that Trump’s administration might enact. Trump’s administration is more focused on right-wing shock therapy than policy development, and has not advanced any clear policy proposals in higher education, in spite of conflicting statements that Trump made on the campaign trail. His Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, appears ignorant of basic civil rights legislation. A possible candidate for science advisor, David Gelernter, has predicted that “over 90% of U.S colleges will be gone within the next generation.” One must therefore expect a general demolition of the federal regulatory apparatus, per standard right-wing ideology, and in spite of what this may mean for civil rights, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment requirements. It bears noting that Trump’s own relationship to higher education has been fraught, as he has sought to extract the maximum amount of reputational and economic profits from a social field where his own status is decidedly uncertain. Thus he has long boasted of his elite Wharton School credentials, and encouraged false rumors that he had graduated first in his class, while in reality he was a mediocre and diffident student. He went on to found a fraudulent for-profit “university,” Trump University, which peddled business advice that former students called a “total scam.”

In this unfolding zone of reactionary opportunism, institutional crisis and unprecedented contestation, the exact ratio between tragedy and farce is still hard to calculate. A previous moment’s neoliberal consensus — which has long administered structural violence along racial, sexual, national, religious, political and linguistic lines, on campus and off — is clearly breaking down, as the previous crowd of happy policy elites find themselves sidelined. And yet Trump’s “disruptive” project is far from a total break, since radical privatizers like DeVos have long had resonances with mainstream neoliberals like her predecessors Arne Duncan or, before him, Margaret Spellings. The alt-right coalition that currently commands the American state apparatus is in part only a political transmogrification of the usual capitalist dreams of “disrupting” every sector of society and polity. As such, it looks newer than it is. While it masquerades as a radical break, the cliche of intense rupture can blind us to what’s really a magnification of pre-existing political tendencies. “America was all cool till Trump came & started treating everyone else like Black People,” as one current meme has it.

In that sense, Trump is a symptom as well as an event, a stimulus (to collective action) as well as a reaction (to the slow contradictions of bureaucratized neoliberalism). He calls our attention to social fractures we have long been living with. His presidency is already reopening questions about the relationship between global capital and the (American) state — a complex relationship which the academy has long been caught up in, and helped to mediate for good and ill. Trump’s declared supporters remain a minority of the American population — for now. And colleges and universities are likely to be among the forefront of Trump opposition, even as they harbor substantial populations of white nationalists and more moderate Trump supporters. What, then, is the event of Trump and what does Trump signify? And where does this leave us as critics of an existing academy who may now have to defend it?

— Eli Thorkelson

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

2 thoughts on “Critical questions on Trump and higher education”

  1. Nothing yet has happened to clear up the uncertainties but what has happened so far certainly enhances them. For an administration that claims to be expert in business, I can only say that there is no evidence to support that claim. The attempt to slash overhead recoveries paid by the NSF and NIH is a case in point.

    Before launching an argument, I am not claiming that the overhead recovery bills many universities put forward and the way some are funneling undergraduate student tuition money to make up for shortfalls on scientific and engineering research, inflated by overbuilt administrations and signature facilities are justifiable. Certainly economies are to be had and the cycle of overhead build and administrative structure bloat can be addressed. But apparently the Trump administration has little clue about the relationship between the private sector and university research. A significant amount of both basic and patentable research occurs on university campuses and the private sector is extremely interested in this research. Indeed since Bayh-Dole, the pseudo-wall between proprietary and university research has broken down. The deal for decades was that universities did lots of research of value to the private sector at very little cost to the private sector as the grants and contracts were covered by the NSF, DOD, NIH, etc. To create a similar research infrastructure now would produce significant dislocations on both sides and surely increase the costs of research to the private sector.

    The meat axe approach to public administration is every bit as bad as the sloppy and inefficient practices it pretends to discipline.

    The Trump administration is pro-business? This is a good example of an “alternative fact” and “fake news”.

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