'This Election Is Catastrophic'

In Trump's win, professors see threats to science and academic freedom -- but also an opportunity to connect with students.

November 10, 2016
 
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One of the major follow-up stories to President-elect Donald Trump’s stunning victory this week is -- rightly -- how the media didn’t see it coming. But the outcome sneaked up on other groups, as well -- perhaps academics most of all. While some professors supported Trump leading up to the election, academe swung overwhelmingly toward Hillary Clinton and, it seems, expected her to win.

Professors are as a group famously liberal; a recent study of voter registration data, for example, found that professors who are registered Democrats outnumber those who are registered Republicans 11.5 to one. But Clinton’s campaign -- even to reluctant followers -- also came to embody some of the values that academics traditionally cherish, along with values that have become central to recent campus discussions about diversity: expertise, evidence-based reasoning, thoughtfulness, inclusion, religious tolerance and gender equity.

While Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks about racial minorities, women and Muslims may have resonated with some academics who have criticized campus culture as becoming too “politically correct” or policing of speech, they also fly in the face of civility -- another burgeoning campus value. And Trump is at least outwardly anti-science, having called climate change, about which there is a near-total expert consensus, a “hoax” of Chinese invention.

His campaign focused little on education, and he actively pursued the votes of Americans without college degrees. (Though, of course, higher education is not a prerequisite to intellectualism.)

Unsurprisingly, a scan of Twitter on Wednesday tells of disbelief and disappointment from scores of professors -- some of whom said they were canceling classes or otherwise taking time to recover from the upset. Others rethought their approach to the election and their engagement with the broader public.

Nyasha Junior, an assistant professor of religion at Temple University, said she’d noticed colleagues on social media not wanting to get out of bed or dreading going to work. Junior said she didn’t feel like going about “business as usual,” either, just yet. “I don’t feel I can have or lead a civil discussion about the election. … I decided not to lecture or follow my original plans for today's classes." She decided to have students in one class watch the film A Lesson Before Dying, a story of death row in the Jim Crow era, instead of reading the novel, for example.

Talking Trumpism With Students

Joshua A. Drew, a lecturer and director of the conservation biology program at Columbia University, said in an open letter to his coastal and estuarine ecology students that they were excused from class Wednesday -- but that class would still take place.

“Why are we having class today? Because the administration that was just elected is demonstrably anti-science, anti-climate and by extension anti-ocean,” Drew wrote. “As students who are majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, you are facing a unique suite of challenges. To the seniors in the class, you are going to graduate within Trump’s first 100 days, to a time where the Republicans hold the [House of Representatives], the Senate and most likely the Supreme Court. To the juniors, you are going to graduate within his first two years, and before any potentially ameliorating midterm elections. Thus, you are going to be graduating into a challenging time. A time when your science needs to be better, your arguments more convincing and your commitment to protecting our natural environment fiercer.”

Drew added, “We are holding class today because what I teach you is now even more important. You are going to have to up your game to operate in a culture that does not value the beliefs you hold dear. I am honored to teach you, to give you the tools and skills you will need to be a bulkhead against ignorance, and to help you find ways to intelligently speak from a position of authority.”

Benjamin Stevens, a visiting assistant professor of classics at Trinity University in San Antonio, also held classes and encouraged students to connect their studies of ancient Greece and Rome to the day’s news. He invited other students to participate, as well, even covering for a colleague who chose not to come to campus, and established ground rules that everyone express only personal views and not talk over others. The results were “affirming and inspiring,” he said.

Although the general tenor of conversations was fear and apprehension, the “very fact of being encouraged to engage in discussion -- not in lieu of our work in the humanities, but as an extension of it -- seemed to reassure many students and to encourage truly open dialogue,” Stevens said. He was most affected by students’ agreement that the moment was an opportunity to understand how liberal arts campuses “could have missed the fact that such large segments of the population are disconnected from this activity and feel disenfranchised.”

Drawing on historical parallels as well as their own personal reactions, Stevens added, “students generally wanted to understand what they acknowledge must be the very wide range of reasons for which voters elected Trump,” reasons that can’t all be malicious.

Stevens noted a "close link between Trump and what seems to be an anti-intellectualism," or what "really seems to be an active disinterest in thoughtfulness, learning, and conventionally educated use of language." In that context, he said, many American academics feel "real shock" from being confronted with the fact "that fully half of the electorate evidently feels disconnected from the institutions and maybe the values of higher education -- or even actively disenfranchised by them."
 
Saying he didn't wish to describe himself and his fellow academics as "out of touch," Stevens said  the election nevertheless emphasized that "regardless of field, our professional work as teachers and researchers largely means interacting with segments of the population that are historically, economically and culturally pre-selected for participation in higher education. Naturally that leaves whole segments out."
 
What Academics Missed
 
Is academe out of the touch with the electorate? James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, rejected the question as too reductionist. But while historians are probably no more or less surprised than the multitudes of Americans who watched the numbers roll in, he said, there seems to be some sense of surprise and alarm. Surprise “because we made the same miscalculations that other observers made,” he said, and alarm “because much of Trump's rhetoric invokes a past that never existed.”

The slogan Make American Great Again is a historical statement, and clearly refers to the 1950s, Grossman said, a decade that precedes “vast changes in the American demographic, cultural, economic and social landscape.” But historians who have studied the decline of American industry don’t generally agree with the Trump’s version of events, and are “apt to be skeptical of his proposed pathways to their resuscitation.” Historians also have documented the era’s inequalities that made it “less than great for large portions of our population,” Grossman added.

Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, who studies families and social inequality, said he surveyed his students in one course this semester and just one of 38 planned to vote for Trump. The sample was obviously biased, but he also used polling data on Election Day to explain how polling works and told students with some confidence that Clinton would likely win.

“Of course, we missed it,” he said. “But the way our electoral system works, a pretty small error in the prediction -- a couple of percentage points -- can mean missing the biggest political event in modern U.S. history. That’s the way social science goes, and we learn from our mistakes.”

That doesn’t change Cohen’s personal reaction to the win -- something he called “shocking and upsetting.” Cohen was harassed on Twitter by Trump followers posting anti-Semitic memes during a conversation that started over a post about police cameras, which he said exposed him to "a level of hated and vitriol that I have never before encountered in my work.”

Beyond that, “as a sociologist, I am well aware of some of the factors that went into the movement for Trump,” such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, the widening class divide and "social dislocation that we have witnessed as a result of deindustrialization and policies that exacerbated inequality and economic insecurity," Cohen said. This year’s election brought those simmering issues to the surface, as “Trump tapped a deep vein of anger and resentment among whites, with consequences that we already knew were nasty.”

The Cost of College

Cohen said he worried that the implications of a Trump victory for students and campus life are “potentially extreme,” in that the president-elect would be the likely target of disciplinary sanctions for his words and actions on many campuses these days. “His words are the stuff of trigger warnings and hostile educational environments,” Cohen said. “This puts us in something of a bind.”

Safety was something of a concern for Devorah Lieberman, president of the University of La Verne, a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution near Los Angeles. She started the day Wednesday with a note to students, faculty and staff, saying that the “election process has been divisive and, many times, in contradiction to the core values of the University of La Verne.” Yet as an institution of higher education, she said, “it is important that we see this as a call to action, to remember our values of lifelong learning, ethical reasoning, civic and community engagement, and diversity and inclusivity. … Let us not lose sight of these virtues as we lead by example.”

Lieberman invited members of the campus to a community gathering that evening to reflect on the election. In an interview, she said that it’s important for leaders on her campus and others to communicate to students that “we’re committed to your success and safety and access.”

Asked whether references to student safety played into concerns held by some -- including some Trump supporters -- that campus culture is too committed to students’ emotional comfort, Lieberman said that “everyone deserves an education where they can learn, graduate and be successful citizens, and it’s our responsibility to provide that education.”

Beyond campaign rhetoric, Lieberman said a “big concern is that we really do not know much about what the president-elect’s education policies will be. It’s hard to say what impact this election will have on important issues such as student loans and college affordability, for example." Of course, she added, "we’d like to have a president who’s an advocate for the humanities and the sciences, and a believer in education.”

Cohen said that as academics, teachers and researchers, he and his colleagues “have to be distressed at the anti-intellectual wave that Trump rode, the proud flaunting of facts and big-lie political tactics. These are threats not just to our intellectual climate, but to our political system, as well.”

He tries to teach his students to gather data, think critically, evaluate evidence and use the result of studies to reflect on values and political views, and while the process is "messy and imperfect," he said, it must be "anchored in a commitment to honest discourse and open-minded consideration of the facts.”

While Trump appealed to non-college-educated voters, early exit poll data suggest that the education divide isn’t as stark as predicted. CBS News reported that Trump won among white, noncollege women 62 to 34 percent and white college-educated men, 54 to 39 percent. Among white voters, Clinton only won among women with a college degree by a 51 to 45 percent margin. There’s no evidence to suggest that among white voters income affected support for Trump, either.

Yet some academics still think education was a major factor in the outcome. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education at Temple and a proponent of former Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’s plan to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities, said Wednesday that when college prices are out of reach, “individuals blame not only the financial aid system, but also colleges and universities -- and the government.” High college prices are not the main reason for Trump’s win, she added, but “they don’t help. They make hardworking people feel stupid, and that makes them angry.”

Goldrick-Rab said that her recent book on the issue, Paying the Price, is really a “story of betrayal and anger, and I warn of a backlash. Well, here it is.” But being right doesn’t feel good, she added, since it’s unlikely that Trump will address the economic challenges that have sparked such anger -- complicated issues that require deep study.

“I have respect for people who haven’t pursued college and those who have tried and not succeeded to complete degrees, because I know that noncompletion doesn’t mean a lack of intellect or hard work anymore,” just a lack a money, Goldrick-Rab said. “If I were in the classroom today, I’d be talking with students about how policies can lead people to feel disenfranchised and angry, and ask them to think about the best ways to address that anger.”

Academic Freedom Under Threat

Rudy Fichtenbaum, a professor of economics at Wright State University in Ohio and president of the American Association of University Professors, said he agreed there was widespread shock among academics about Trump’s win. But echoing Goldrick-Rab’s comments, Fichtenbaum said the electorate clearly wanted decisive change and -- in the absence of a transformational progressive figure -- it chose Trump.

Still, Fichtenbaum said a Trump presidency worried him greatly. He said he feared academic freedom, especially at public institutions, would be increasingly under threat, given Trump’s attacks on the First Amendment with respect to freedom of religion (he’s also expressed interest in limiting freedom of the press). Trump’s eventual Supreme Court nominees would likely vote to limit union rights, he added.

Fichtenbaum also rejected the notion that academe was too out of touch with other Americans to have foreseen Trumpism, because more than half of all professors are now off the tenure track. So many deal with bread-and-butter issues that are of concern to other voters, he said.

The AAUP released a statement Wednesday saying many "no doubt fear that [Trump's] election threatens some of the core institutions of our democracy and may be the greatest threat to academic freedom since the McCarthy period." The association urged the president-elect and his supporters in Congress “to listen to the voices of all faculty members and other educational leaders and endorse policies aimed at restoring our great higher education system as a common good for all Americans, while protecting the academic freedom and shared governance that made our colleges and universities the envy of the world.” (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version, which misquoted the AAUP.)

Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor and current academic career consultant who runs the blog The Professor Is In, wore a pantsuit on Election Day, in a sign of solidarity with Clinton and her signature look. On Wednesday she also expressed concern about academic freedom with Trump in the White House, saying that “with guns on campus, the threats to political debate and climate for free speech will wither further.” She said adjunctification of higher education was likely to increase through more defunding, and any economic uncertainties that arise.

“This election is catastrophic,” she said. “Its impact cannot be overstated. In hindsight, nobody grasped the level of rage among the least-educated white population. But all white people are complicit in this. Many highly educated, wealthy white people also voted for him.”

Still, not all academics are concerned by Trump. Mitchell Langbert, a Libertarian associate professor of business at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, said that while Trump has “pandered to the worst elements in American history, nativism and racism” and is of poor “character,” Clinton and President Obama “are more authoritarian than Trump is.” Democrats have applied Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in education, “to micromanage students’ speech and to discriminate against male athletes,” he said, and “universities’ authoritarian political correctness is directly linked to the financial support they receive from Democrats at the state and federal levels.”

With the financial support of Democratic “regimes,” Langbert said, “universities’ social science departments have drummed out Republicans and all others who do not agree with left or social democratic social theories.”

Thomas Jefferson suggested that a revolution every 20 years is needed, Langbert said. “Trump may be the best we can do to clear the air of Democratic authoritarianism.”

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