The Professor Helping Trump

National co-chair of campaign discusses his role, proposal about Muslims and how it would affect international students, and coming "revolutionary" plan for higher education.

December 14, 2015
Bloomberg/Getty Images
Sam Clovis with Donald Trump at Iowa event

Some colleges boast about how their faculty members are sought to advise presidential candidates. Not Morningside College.

The small private college in Iowa last week was distancing itself from Sam Clovis, a tenured professor of economics who is currently on leave so he can be national co-chair of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. After Clovis was quoted defending the Trump campaign's proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States, the link between Clovis and the college attracted attention.

A statement from the college said, "We find the view that a particular religion should be discriminated against to be repugnant to the values held at Morningside College. When he was on campus, Dr. Clovis was a staunch defender of the Constitution and a strong advocate for religious freedom. His recent comments appear to be at odds with his earlier views. We find his recent position to be outrageous and disappointing." (The college says it has one student who self-identifies as Muslim.)

So who is Sam Clovis?

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed Saturday, Clovis described his campaign role, defended Trump's call for a moratorium on letting Muslims into the United States, explained how the plan would affect international students and said the campaign is working on a higher education plan that will be "revolutionary" (and that will differ from that of Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican presidential candidate who thus far has been the only one to focus on higher education).

While Clovis is not a nationally known figure, he is prominent in conservative, religious circles in Iowa, where he is a longtime political activist (and unsuccessful candidate) who is sought after by Republican politicians. He started the 2016 race as a key aide in Iowa to Texas Governor Rick Perry, but defected to the Trump campaign in August in what was seen as a coup for Trump, and that prompted Perry allies to release emails from Clovis while on the Perry campaign, in which he criticized Trump.

When he is not engaged in politics, Clovis has been teaching for the last 11 years at Morningside. "I'm very proud to be on the faculty at Morningside. I'm very loyal," Clovis said in the interview. He said he was "surprised" that the college would criticize his recent statements, which took place outside the classroom and while he was on leave. Officials at the college "probably were told certain things," and didn't have time to look into "the real story" of what Trump has proposed or its context, Clovis said.

Clovis is speaking out on the proposed Muslim ban and other issues in his role as campaign co-chair. He said that what this means on a daily basis is that he is coordinating various policy proposals from advisers and helping to prepare briefings and potential positions for Trump. "My job is to be a clearinghouse," Clovis said.

Key criteria for all policies, Clovis said, are whether they have "a foundation in law," "historical precedent" and are consistent with the Constitution.

Proposed Muslim Ban

Does the proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States meet those criteria?

Clovis responded by noting that in many cases, the United States has adopted policies that treat members of some groups in different ways than others. He cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt's policies that led to the internment of Japanese-Americans and President Carter's actions against Iranians as examples. Many legal and history experts would note that the internment of Japanese-Americans was unconstitutional.

And Politifact, the nonpartisan fact-checking outfit, disputed the comparison to the action President Carter took, which required all Iranian students in the United States to report to authorities to have their visas verified. Politifact noted that Carter's actions were against a nation, not a religion, and noted that Carter acted in a manner consistent with countries taking nonviolent actions against one another during a crisis.

Clovis added that the Constitution protects U.S. citizens and, in some cases, people in the United States legally who are not citizens. He said that "nothing in the Constitution" bars discrimination based on religion against those outside the United States. (Many would dispute this view.)

People "need to recognize the historical context" of past limits on immigrants and to be honest about the realities of terrorism today, Clovis said. "The issue is that we're looking at people reacting in the microcosm of today and the attitude of multiculturalism and political correctness," Clovis said.

Many international students in the United States are Muslim. Clovis said he did not believe the Trump policy would result in their deportation. But asked whether those in the United States on visas who go home at some point during their studies would be affected, Clovis said that they would, and that they would need to remain outside the United States during the moratorium Trump is seeking. (Those on student visas do face some requirements today if they leave the U.S., but most are able to travel outside the United States and to return, with relative ease, and they currently don't face a ban.)

Clovis stressed that "it's not a permanent ban, but whatever length of time it would take for the United States Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to show we can vet people." He added that "it could be 90 days or 30 days or 120 days," or some other length of time, but "it's a temporary thing."

Asked if it would be unfair to block a Muslim student from returning to the United States from a trip home, Clovis said, "Don't you think it would be prudent if a person leaves that we re-vet them and make sure it was proper?" under the new system Trump plans to create. There are "so many holes" in existing enforcement, Clovis said, that those who leave should be covered by any moratorium.

A 'Revolutionary' Higher Education Plan

Clovis said that the Trump campaign has started work on a "revolutionary" plan for higher education, but that it would probably not be released until after the first rounds of caucus and primary voting -- in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Clovis said the plan is "a work in progress" and not ready for public discussion. "We're working very hard on it."

But he did provide some early details.

He said that a major focus would be a reform of the student loan system, which Trump has repeatedly criticized. He said the plan would likely promote "some risk sharing" by colleges, to assure that everyone has an incentive to promote student success.

To date, the Republican candidate who has spoken about higher education with the most detail has been Senator Rubio, who has called for reform of what he calls the "cartel" of accreditors that he says hinder reform and the entrance of new, low-cost players in higher education.

Trump is unlikely to join the campaign against accreditors, Clovis said. "I'm not sure tinkering with accreditation is where we want to go," he said, adding that his work at Morningside with its accreditor (the Higher Learning Commission) has left him thinking that the regional accreditors do important work.

While higher education should include online options and other new approaches, Clovis said that he didn't want to see face-to-face education diminished. "Online is a very powerful tool," said Clovis, who taught online earlier in his career, with systems he said were far less sophisticated than those used today. But traditional campuses matter, too, he said. "I still love the classroom," he said. "I still love chalk."


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