Marc Lynch, George Washington University and POMEPS
*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 24: New Challenges to Public and Policy Engagement. Click here to download the entire publication as a free, open access PDF and to see each of the individual memos.
Universities played an important role in the unexpectedly widespread mobilization against Donald Trump’s January 27, 2017 Executive Order suspending entry to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. The protests themselves came from many different directions, as civil liberties organizations played a key role, while lawyers and activists flocked to airports to provide free assistance to arriving international travelers. While implementation of the order ended following injunctions by multiple courts, the Trump administration has indicated that it plans to issue a new order as soon as this week.
Academic institutions took an unusually active role in speaking out against the order. Nearly every college and university in the country released a statement in response to the executive order. Seventeen universities joined an amicus brief against the order, while forty nine leaders of top universities signed a widely noted open letter. Many schools referred to statements issued by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. A wide range of academic professional associations issued statements, ranging from brief statements of concern to lengthy briefs (full disclosure: I helped draft this Middle East Studies Association Task Force statement.)
These academic institutions certainly responded to a clear threat to their interests. The travel ban threatened the visa status and ability to travel of students and faculty from the affected countries, disrupted regular research exchanges and threatened international conferences. But almost every academic institution went well beyond such direct institutional interests. The Executive Order became a moment for academia collectively to assert a collective identity through a remarkably clear statement of the shared values which define American higher education.
What values, specifically, did the American higher education system believe were threatened by Trump’s Executive Order? To find out, I compiled a dataset of statements issued by the leaders of American universities and colleges in the week following Trump’s Executive Order. I began with a list compiled by David Comp for the International Higher Education Consulting blog, and supplemented it with targeted searches of other universities and colleges. The dataset includes statements by the leaders of 264 individual institutions of higher education, both public and private, and including at least one from every state. The data set included 125 institutions based in states which voted for Donald Trump (77 of them public institutions, 28 private) and 139 from states which voted for Hilary Clinton (52 of them public, 87 private). While it’s not comprehensive, it’s a pretty good cross-section of American higher education.
Not a single university or college in this dataset endorsed the immigration order. A very small number, especially public universities facing conservative legislatures and public opinion, limited themselves to assurances of support to students and faculty affected by the disruptive impact of the Executive Order. But all but a very small number of institutions went on to articulate the institutional mission and the core values which the immigration order violated.
This is not to say that these academic institutions took a political lead or adopted partisan views. Almost all universities, public or private, avoid any direct partisan commentary. The word “condemn” appears only 6 times and “resist” only 4 times. Public universities were generally more likely to release short, businesslike statements primarily focused on the services available to students facing disruption: 74% of the statements with fewer than 200 words came from public universities. Elite private schools were more likely to wax eloquent. But virtually all statements included some reference, however curt, to deeply held values and institutional missions.
The Trump administration’s framing of the Order as an appropriate response to the threat of terrorism receives little traction with the nation’s higher educational institutions. While a number of schools acknowledged the demands of national security, virtually all went on to call for balancing those concerns with the needs of international students and with enduring values. of the logistical problems for students against a recognition of the demands of national security. The word “security” (used in this context) appears 46 times, while the words “terror” and “terrorism” appear only 23 times in the 264 statements. By contrast, “values” and “mission” appear 498 times. Not a single statement expressed the belief that the order aligned with their values.
Those values were not liberal in a partisan Democratic sense but in the tradition of the liberal arts. The statements collectively asserted the open exchange of ideas and the values of a diverse community as the core of their identity. The word “community” appears 960 times. That community is typically described as diverse (244 mentions), welcoming (204) and inclusive (139). There are frequent references to the free exchange of ideas (111). The safety of students is a recurrent theme, with variations of “safe” or “protect” appearing 299 times, but the assertively positive values articulated give very little sense of students as vulnerable snowflakes. In short, these statements present their universities as a distinctive type of community with powerful shared values violated by the immigration ban.
That community is also understood to be a global and internationalist one. “Global” appears 190 times. International students are presented as enriching the educational and research environment. These global connections offer a back door for some public institutions which otherwise shied away from explicit value statements which might be taken as political. A number of statements instead highlighted the number and diversity of international students on campus as a way of asserting nonpartisan values. That may be why the word “Muslim” appears 86 times, but “Islam” only 6 times. Institutions could focus on individual Muslim students as members of this diverse community rather than engaging the broader question of religion.
Was there a blue state/red state divide? Less than you would expect. 52 red state institutions issued statements of fewer than 300 words, compared with only 30 blue state institutions. 55 blue state institutions issued statements of more than 500 words, compared with only 20 red state institutions. But the values articulated in the statements were remarkably similar across the partisan divide. Red state institutions tended to emphasize the same kinds of diverse and inclusive communities, and to highlight the same contributions by international scholars, as those in blue states.
These results are striking in part because of what they say about the contemporary discourse on the academy. For many on the left, today’s universities are dominated by a soulless neoliberalism, bereft of values or conscience. For many on the right, they are the domain of postmodernist dogma and leftist indoctrination. The response to the Executive Order shows instead that, at least by the rhetoric of leaders, liberal values remain the essence of the modern academy. Most leaders of institutions of higher education seem willing to fight not only to protect their students and faculty, but to speak out in defense of inclusion, toleration, diversity and community.
Marc Lynch is a professor of political science at the George Washington University and is the director of the Project on Middle East Political Science.