Commentary

The Specific Threats Now Facing Higher Education

November 15, 2016

Three questions: What does Donald J. Trump’s election portend for higher education? How should we respond to ill-conceived, threatening, or dangerous initiatives from Washington? Is higher education somehow complicit in President-elect Trump’s victory?

He did not focus on higher education during the presidential campaign, beyond an occasional bombshell, but with the Republicans retaining control of both houses of Congress, many of their initiatives will now receive support from the new president.

Some proposals will spring from basic Republican values — reducing federal power and influence; shrinking the government; spending much less (except on defense), coupled with tax cuts; reliance on the free market. Some proposals will result from President Obama’s past actions, especially executive actions. Still others represent spillover into the world of higher education from deeply held concerns in other realms.

Here’s a quick list of things we should not be surprised to see.

What are the threats?

  • Pressure on colleges to reduce their costs or risk having their endowments taxed.
  • Greater emphasis on career education, at the expense of study in the liberal arts.
  • Re-enfranchisement of for-profit institutions.
  • Additional pressure on regional accreditors, and a push for even more educational credentialing by corporate America rather than by traditional colleges and universities.
  • A reduction of federal support for higher education, including the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Pell Grant program, and greater reliance on student loans through private banks.
  • Institutional risk-sharing, if a sizable percentage of students default on their loans.
  • Raising the bar for unionization.
  • A weakening of Title IX, possibly including the elimination of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, or perhaps the department itself.
  • A rollback of pending changes in overtime eligibility.
  • Significantly fewer new international students.
  • Direct threats to the status of undocumented students.
  • As a result of one or more Supreme Court appointments, negative changes affecting the rights of members of the LGBTQ community and women.
  • Defunding of climate-change research, weakening of environmental regulations, and expanding the use of fossil fuels.

What should we do in response?

Those things will surely not all come to pass, but it would be dangerous to assume that our academic lives will continue as before once Trump is sworn into office. What the higher-education community does in response will depend on the specifics of any proposal. But with a large number of academic associations having their annual meetings in January through April, this would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values, our students, and our historic role in supporting the American economy and way of life.

Has academe been complicit in the situation we face?

Sadly, I think the answer is yes. Ernest L. Boyer warned us more than 20 years ago that higher education had lost a key and historic value: the idea that we exist primarily to serve the public good. This was a universally held position at the beginning of the 20th century, even though those then going to college were primarily young, white, relatively affluent males. Ironically, as higher education became accessible to many more people in the years following World War II, it also gradually lost its spoken commitment to serve the public good. We started representing our worth by using metrics such as research dollars and publications, endowment size, exclusivity in admissions, and national rankings.

This would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values.
Underlying the 2016 presidential election was a deep divide between those who were succeeding (or at least who saw a pathway to success) and those who felt disenfranchised and abandoned by a society and a government that were not paying enough attention to their needs. The disenfranchised on the left backed Bernie Sanders and lost; the disenfranchised on the right backed Donald Trump and won. The responsibility of college presidents now must be to articulate higher education’s role in creating agency for many of those who feel disenfranchised.

My campus has promoted affordability by freezing tuition for the past five years and increasing financial aid 30 percent; created educational programs for such nontraditional students as prisoners on work-release, teenagers entering the juvenile justice system, and inner-city high schoolers; provided training for corporate employees; and instituted work-force-development programs for underemployed workers.

It’s time for college presidents to make a collective pledge to America to stand for social justice and the creation of opportunities for those whom higher education has traditionally excluded. It’s time we recommitted to having as our primary mission "to serve the public good."

Donald J. Farish is president of Roger Williams University.