• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Title

A Convenient Target

Higher education under assault.

 

August 7, 2017
 
 

Higher education is under attack from the Trump Administration. An agenda to afflict “elites” goes straight to the heart of this effort. Notwithstanding all kinds of data to the contrary, 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. 

The assault began long before January 20. Demonization of faculty goes hand in hand with claims of restricted speech that stretch from Evergreen to Berkeley on the west straight to Middlebury on the east. It has long been a part of Bannon’s playbook. Donald Trump not only has forsaken the academic vote but now uses his post to punish those whom he and Bannon believe lie outside his base. Let’s look at some of these efforts, and they don’t even include the attacks on the National Endowment for the Humanities or other sources of research funding that is also at stake.

The selection of Betsy DeVos set the tone from the start. Unknowledgeable about higher education for the most part, she has taken privatization of K-12 public education as her main focus. This plan blurs into higher ed at a most unfortunate edge: reviving predatory private endeavors (such as Trump University, which settled just such a case for 25 million) in the college space. Facts be damned. The damage that these companies have wrought onto the most vulnerable of students are of no account. The principle of maintaining a free market – and garnering profits no matter what the social cost -- outweighs that expense.
 
At the same time, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act hangs in the balance. Because its central tenet is financial aid, that issue alone probably counts more towards access than any other. Reform of student loans is a critical step that American society must make if it wants to support the college path not only for youth but for those who have been marginalized by the loss of jobs in manufacturing or other sectors. But don’t count on it, because giving access to those who most need it is inherently not what the White House wants. 

The one proactive salvo DeVos made in higher ed is a re-examination of Title IX on sexual assault. Her staff have already had to apologize for hyperbole about how men have suffered in the pendulum swing of concern between victims and abusers. The good will of judicial administrators to address both with due process is lost in the sway of politics. Woe to anyone who enters this path, by choice or not, you are caught in the vortex. It is not about you, after all, it is about perception and votes.

Next let’s look at immigration under Trump. Visiting scholars have been harassed at our borders with the message “don’t come back” conveyed to its fullest. Students attempting to get to American universities are thwarted at the gate; it is no wonder that European, Canadian, and Australian institutions are experiencing a surge of foreign applicants. Dreamers have not had the shoe drop … just yet. There is no affirmation of their status, just the pending, unresolved threat. 

Furthermore, forget it if you are undocumented from way back. I know of a Mexican father of three children, all either college grads or on that path, who languishes in an immigration detention center in Western, New York because the (white, citizen) guy driving a work truck in which he was a passenger did not use his seatbelt.  He and his wife have been here for almost twenty years, paying taxes, working hard at jobs many (native white) people will not do, sending their children to college, but never mind those facts: he has no path to citizenship.  He is useful to Trump for only one purpose: as a scapegoat to whip up anger, fear and resentment amidst his base.

Civil rights and higher education have the quality of access in common. It comes as no surprise, then, to observe that civil rights are also under attack.  Trump promised historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) support as a way to garner votes.  Of course, he has failed to make good on those promises. (In that regard, at least he is an equal opportunity offender.) He sent DeVos to the graduation ceremonies of one of the HBCU schools, Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, (where the population of that state is 14% black and has 4% college enrollment) to make nice. Students protested when she spoke. Spoiled brats? Depends on whom you ask …

The new (tweeted) policy against transgendered persons in the military joins hands with potty talk in North Carolina and Texas. Remember when Trump said that he would support those rights? Forget about it. Transgendered persons, again some of the most vulnerable people in our society – and, in the military, some of the most loyal – also make terrific scapegoats. How about people in same sex relationships?  With a Republican Congress, don’t count on an amendment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include either sexual orientation or gender identity. Just leave it to the Department of Justice interpretation. If you want to live to the next election, don’t hold your breath.

Speaking of the Department of Justice, how about the announcement to cease rule-making on web accessibility? The Americans With Disabilities Act and/or the Rehabilitation Act lack clout without standards such as WC3 2.0 or a 508 refresh. Sure, colleges and universities can continue to “do the right thing,” on their own, but in the 15 years I have taken note, for the most part (or unless they are in a state that adopts a standard such as CA did with 508), they don’t.  My own attempts to create a web accessibility policy at Cornell foundered on the shoals of legal counsel’s advice that the institution was not required to do it.  The Obama Administration put state institutions feet to the fire which resulted in settlements at Montana, Louisiana and Penn State.  If you are strapped for money, have faculty resistance, or the tin ear of administrators who entertain hyperbolic notions of costs, Trump just signaled that you can take a pass.

Sessions also issued policy to prosecutors to double down on drug punishments, which disproportionally affects African and Latino Americans, making it almost impossible for young people to get out of harm’s way that but for the grace of God could have become the fate of so many of us.  They will almost certainly never get to college or vote.  And that, my friends, is the point.

My many posts about the threats in internet space will not be repeated here at length.  Suffice it say that use of the internet is integral to higher education, whether the learning is distant, hybrid, or face-to-face.  Privacy, security and net neutrality principles and practices form the foundation of a stable platform upon which we can built solid academic performance.  If you have been watching developments in this area, then you know already that they are akin to having the rug pulled out. 

 Finally, to affirmative action, or, as it has taken shape in its long judicial path, diversity admissions. What a beleaguered path that subject has had, having come to rest on a principle that, at its core, is not so much about race per se, but, at least to me, institutional autonomy.  And that, my friends, is also the point.  Like I said, higher education is under assault.
 

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