Donald J. Trump’s upset victory in the presidential race early Wednesday morning, after an acrimonious campaign that cast a harsh light on deep racial divisions across the United States, stunned higher-education leaders and left many questioning what his administration would mean for colleges.
Mr. Trump’s win represented one of the most surprising results in a presidential election in decades. He defeated Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee and former secretary of state, thanks in large part to a groundswell of populist support among white, working-class voters without college degrees. During the campaign, he angered many Americans with pronouncements and policy proposals that singled out Muslims, Hispanics, and African-Americans, among other groups, potentially frightening off international students, and he earned widespread condemnation for his remarks and his actions toward women.
Mr. Trump overcame sagging poll numbers in the weeks leading up to the election, which had predicted a comfortable win for Mrs. Clinton. Now that the prospect of a Trump presidency has become a reality, students, professors, and others in higher education are left to wonder how the business mogul and former reality-television star will treat colleges and universities in an administration that very well may prove as unconventional and unprecedented as the campaign itself.
For much of the race, Mr. Trump offered few clues about his specific plans for higher education. During the Republican primary fight, he received significant attention over fraud claims and lawsuits related to Trump University, a shuttered venture that offered training seminars in business and real estate. Those claims faded from the headlines as the campaign progressed, but nothing resembling a true higher-education platform emerged in their place. He did speak about higher education last month at a rally in Ohio, but he focused much of his attention on an income-based repayment plan that observers described as generous to student-loan borrowers.
By the time the campaign reached its final month, some policy experts had lamented Mr. Trump’s presidential bid as a missed opportunity for Republicans to shape the public debate over higher education.
For now, the biggest and most lasting imprint of his abrasive campaign may be apparent in the charged climate on college campuses — one that could worsen after his surprise victory. Across the country, colleges have grappled with questions of diversity and inclusion that arose in part because of Mr. Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
He proved to be a deeply unpopular candidate for many people, but especially those in academe. More broadly, he proved less popular than usual among Republican nominees with college-educated white voters.
White male voters without a college degree largely powered his stunning victory. That leaves academic leaders facing an existential question: What’s their place in a society with which they now appear to be so profoundly out of touch?
As election results were called in, Franita Tolson, a professor of voting rights at Florida State University’s College of Law, said she always thought the race would be close, mainly because it’s an election that’s been notoriously hard to poll. And the polling difficulties may also be why academics were in such shock on Tuesday night, she said.
More than other elections, during this race voters felt a deep and personal connection to the candidates, and it’s a connection that’s giving academics perspective on what the world outside the ivory tower values, Ms. Tolson said.
“People also feel an emotional connection to the candidate in a way that we tend to overlook falls that would probably doom any other candidate,” Ms. Tolson said. “Politics based on emotion,” she added, are “tied to anti-intellectualism.”
The anti-intellectual movement is not just tied to the current electorate, but is reflected in state legislatures and trickles down to future generations, she said. For example, state legislatures’ discussions about the lesser value of certain majors, like those in the liberal arts, or their moves to slash funding for colleges show voters higher education isn’t a priority for elected officials. Costs are passed onto students and their families, she said, and a pattern of anti-intellectualism is passed on to a new generation of voters.
“That’s the risk of trying to appeal to the everyday man, by de-emphasizing the importance of education, you run into a situation where education is put on the back burner and then institutions of higher education experience significant cuts and then we have trouble preparing the next generation of voters,” Ms. Tolson said. “I do see it as probably the biggest and honestly the saddest fallout of how our political system has developed.”
Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism who teaches at the City University of New York’s Hostos Community College, said this race highlighted that the lines between political speech and hate speech had grown blurrier.
The race was largely perceived as a statement of national values, he said, and how people on campuses deal with the country’s new political identity will be a tough dynamic for students and campus leaders alike to grapple with. And for activists, the stakes are going to be higher, for groups on all parts of the political spectrum.
“We are going into uncharted territory here,” Mr. Johnston said. “We have had for a while some very powerful and growing divides on the campus, and I think the question of how to resolve those contradictions, it’s just gotten a lot more urgent.”
University administrators may be unsure of how to interpret the election’s outcome, he said, and figuring out how to deal with the aftermath will take time.
“If something is a refutation of your assumptions and your expectations, humility kind of demands that you take a few moments before you start talking about what it means or what it portends,” Mr. Johnston said. “Clearly, we don’t know as much as we thought we did about what the future holds.”
Focus on Contentious Discussions
Kevin Kruger, president of Naspa, an association of student-affairs administrators, said the reaction to Mr. Trump’s victory would not be immediate. But he expected that the continued trend of outcry and protests from minority students would continue with even greater intensity.
“This political debate has been one of the most contentious in our history, and we would expect some of those issues would play out on campuses,” he said.
Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, held an informal conference call with faculty members and administrators from several campuses to discuss what preparations they were making for after the election. Few, however, were doing much of anything to facilitate dialogue, she said.
At Tufts, Ms. Thomas said, the institute was going to open a room, provide snacks, and let students share their thoughts on a big sheet of butcher paper. There are no rules about what they can write, she said. If students don’t like what they’re reading, they are free to respond with their own sentiments.
Regardless of the outcome, however, Ms. Thomas said, colleges are realizing that preparing students for the contentious discussions sparked by the election is the primary work of higher education. The challenge will be in accomplishing that goal in an environment with such charged opinions between various groups of people that may share many interests but differ in their lived experience and political views. “I think relationships are in trouble,” she said.
Jerry L. Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a private, Christian institution in Virginia, said Mr. Trump’s victory was a peaceful revolution, of sorts, by the “common man” against the elitist establishment in Washington, D.C.
Despite the likely fallout at other colleges, Mr. Falwell said he expects the mood on his campus to be cheerful and civil following Tuesday’s vote. While some students at Liberty had protested Mr. Falwell’s support of the Republican nominee, Mr. Falwell asserted that news-media reports had overplayed their dissent. There were students who supported both major-party candidates as well as a number of third-party candidates, he said. Yet the dialogue on his campus was civil, he said.
Mr. Falwell expressed relief that Mrs. Clinton’s proposal for tuition-free college would not be enacted, calling that measure a potential disaster for all but the wealthiest private universities. Instead, under President Trump, he said, the role of many colleges would be to better train minority and inner-city residents for an increase in jobs.
Nick DeSantis is an editor who supervises coverage of daily news across all areas of academe. Email him at email@example.com.
Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.