When I wrote last week’s post regarding the Trump assault on higher education, I was not aware of the pending crisis in Charlottesville. The Federal Register note that administrative action has ceased on disability standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act is what prompted me. My intention was to place that action in context of a number of other efforts that threaten higher education such as the re-emergence of predatory for-profit businesses, over-correction on Title IX, and the stalling of the Higher Education Act reauthorization.
Were I to rewrite that post, I would make two changes. One, I would remove the clause “Notwithstanding all kinds of data to the contrary,” from the sentence that continued with, “the Brietbart stereotype of colleges and universities is that they are bastions of liberalism, devoid of free speech, replete with hippy faculty who suck on the public teat while brainwashing spoiled brats.” Not because I don’t believe in the statement, but because it is a complex concept boiled down to too simple a statement. When I wrote the clause, I was aware of surveys and books that show a liberal bias among college and university faculty, a point that one commenter attempted to make, I think, in directing me to Wikipedia. Point taken, although a few surveys and books do not all of higher education make. But what about the remainder of the straw dog stereotype? I stand by that description of what Brietbart peddles as rank prejudice designed to excite an emotionally wrought Trump base.
The second is the paragraph describing an immigration case. In my mind, it is relevant. A thoughtless, heartless immigration policy undermines the dedication of entire families to the success of Dreamer students. I stand by that critique and its associations with higher education. Unfortunately, it gave commenters a tangent upon which to discuss immigration rather than the focus of the post. And as a final retort to last week’s commenters, let me be clear: I, too, believe in critical inquiry. I am no more enamored of extremists on the left than I am on the right. Second only to public service, higher education’s great asset is its pursuit knowledge which always places bias under a microscope.
To the assault on higher education I now return. Under the circumstances of Berkeley, Middlebury and now Charlottesville, assault is precisely the correct term. Used mostly in its metaphorical sense, that term now takes on a deadly meaning given yesterday's August 12, events. About it, I will make three points.
First, free speech. The jurisprudential scope of free speech does not include violence. In fact, even the utterance of such words intended to incite violence is an exception to it. Moreover, violence is an equal opportunity offender. If Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter believe that Berkeley infringed on their free speech rights, then the same could now be said of the White Nativist Rally in Virginia’s effect on the faculty and students of UVA. In this limited sense, I get Melania’s and Trump’s and Sessions’ statements on the event: violence impedes speech. (I do not get Trump’s failure to disavow a political connection with white supremacists, however, except that, well … it points to the obvious.)
Second, President Sullivan. I agree with her decision to cancel the campus events in response to the Nativists. As a student protester when I was in college, I empathize with the disappointment that students and faculty experienced and the frustration that they must feel wanting earnestly to express themselves and their beliefs. But as an administrator I also deeply understand the responsibility of a president to make health and safety a consideration before anything else. This stance explains in large part why the University of Oklahoma President, who expelled two students after the “racist song” incident, went unchallenged in the courts. It goes to a further exception in free speech jurisprudence that the courts give to educational institutions to consider the pedagogical environment in making a decision about speech. And at some point, it is basic common sense. A concern about potential violence, which in this case became a reality, supersedes speech. (Given all that President Sullivan represents in her tenure, I hope someday she is awarded the Medal of Honor.)
Third, the assault on higher education. It is real. Moreover, it serves both a symbolic and tangible purpose for those who support it. If I understand the principal propagator of this assault, Stephen Bannon, higher education must be brought down from its authoritative stance not just because it houses “elites,” or toleratesa “liberal bias,” but because it represents stability over chaos and reason over unbridled passions. For those unfamiliar with his work, Mr. Bannon believes, or wants – the two are bound together – a climactic struggle between Islam and “the West.” Alleged by a former wife to be anti-Semitic, and unapologetic about the white supremacist connections between the him and the alt-right that he rallied to form Trump’s “base,” he can only prove his theory correct if, in fact, chaos and unbridled passions triumph.
Take note: he is not simply a “conservative,” who would otherwise hold that the “marketplace of ideas” is what will prevail in a debate. He is not a traditional Republican who seeks deregulation on the economic front and pro-life social politics. He craves the kind of violence and destruction depicted in his films. What it satisfies in him at a deeper psychological level, I do not know, but I imagine it is something akin to an adolescent sense of inadequacy that even his professional success as an elite has never vanquished. What I do know is that in the political realm those tendencies are associated with fascists. In recent American history, he resurrects a Joseph McCarthy paranoid and prejudicial quality of politics. Time and time again, history has demonstrated that those qualities are neither healthy nor appropriate for a democratic republic.
It is in this context that the assault on higher education is taking place. If the evidence of that metaphorical assault rests on the appointment of a secretary of education who knows almost nothing about it, the rug being pulled out from under civil rights, and yet another strike against “affirmative action,” which already does not exist but is about the autonomy of institutions to create a diverse and inclusive body of students, faculty and staff, then the actual assault is now before us in Charlottesville, Virginia. Failing to appreciate this broader context, treating each issue as separate and distinct instead of a part of the larger Trump/Bannon political fabric leaves higher education as I know it on the ropes and not, as I have always hoped, in a position of leadership. Stand up, association and campus leaders -- and not just in individual statements to your campuses but together to American society -- while you still have a choice or you will be made to sit down. By then, it will be too late.