As shocking as Donald Trump’s victory has been for many of us in academe, maybe it can have the salutary effect of blasting higher education out of its chronic self-absorption, forcing collegiate leaders to reclaim the public intellectual leadership we once exercised for the nation. Too often, in recent years, the collegiate voice has been an outcry against too much governmental regulation rather than a call to create social change for the greater good.
Despite widespread academic disdain for the racist, misogynist rants of Candidate Trump, the administration of President Trump might actually tempt some college leaders with the seductive appeal of a regulation-lite approach to higher-education policy. Much as we are tempted to burn the College Scorecard, in our desire to escape excessive regulation we must not squander the opportunity for intellectual leadership. Instead, we in higher education must shift our focus away from institutional defensiveness toward shared responsibility to help this nation get back on track politically, intellectually, and socially.
Four issues that arose during the 2016 presidential campaign illustrate the potential for a stronger public intellectual voice during the Trump administration:
Closing the education gap
The election exposed a fault line in American society between those who have gone to college and those who have not. The education gap is a huge economic, political, and social problem for this nation. We need to work harder to make higher education a valuable, progressive solution for people who feel economically stressed and left out of the mainstream.
While we often discuss access to higher education as an issue for low-income students of color, in fact the access issue is a much broader concern, involving students and families across many income levels and demographics. Our admissions and financial-aid policies are byzantine. Some colleges and universities have operated for too long on the belief that quality has a direct correlation in high prices and low selectivity rates, leaving a narrow pathway for a privileged few to gain admission.
For those institutions that offer broader access, the costs are still prohibitive for too many students, and financial-aid packages are confusing.
We need to invent new models of delivery — particularly to underserved areas — and, even more important, new models of pricing related to more-efficient cost structures. Rather than waiting for some proposal to emerge from the Trump administration, which is unlikely, higher education needs to devote considerably more of its intellectual bandwidth to the development of creative, effective solutions to tuition pricing, cost efficiency, and delivery of value in innovative formats.
Advocacy on race
Candidate Trump’s rhetoric denouncing immigrants, threatening to build the wall at the Mexican border and to engage in mass deportations, deserved more pushback from presidents of colleges that educate significant numbers of immigrants, including undocumented students, or Dreamers. We must not remain silent during the Trump administration. Ensuring that DACA — the Obama administration’s order on Deferred Action for Childhood Access, which, among other things, protects undocumented students in college — must be a top priority for the sake of justice for our students. We would do even better by using our research and advocacy power to promote better solutions for immigration reform.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign was a time of affirmation for many women on college campuses, and her defeat has been a deeply difficult moment. Her opponent had so many despicable moments of misogyny that it’s hard to single out just one, though his excuse of "just locker-room talk" for his words about women in the infamous audio tape may be at the top of the list.
During the Trump administration, college presidents should exert much stronger advocacy for women’s rights, for the appointment of more women judges and public officials, and in encouraging more women to run for public office. We must set the right example by improving women’s advancement on campus, especially in tenure decisions and executive appointments, and in eradicating once and for all the scourge of sexual assault. We must promote the ideal of political engagement among the women on our campuses, who will be in the next generations of leadership throughout American and global society.
Colleges and universities, small and large, public and private, have the capacity to make significant contributions to the quality of our national conversations on these big issues, and to use the power of our research engines, our conferences and presidential bully pulpits, to reclaim higher education’s role as an essential intellectual pillar of this free society.
Let’s not spend the next four years whining about regulation and complaining about President Trump. Let’s raise our voices in advocacy for justice, equity, and the liberation of the American psyche from the demons that haunted us in this election.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.