Academic Middle Eastern Studies in the Trump Administration

By Lisa Anderson, Columbia University

*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.

For most US-based academics, the fifteen years since 9/11 have been disappointing but not noticeably uncomfortable. The erosion of rights at home and foreign policy blunders have had some impact on the Middle East studies community in shrinking access to research venues but the state of national emergency declared by President George W. Bush and regularly renewed by President Obama, which provides the legal basis for much of the war on terror, including the National Guard mobilizations and the detentions at Guantanamo,[1] had little direct effect on universities. Right wing attacks on Middle East studies academics during the Bush Administration receded under Obama and many liberal and progressive academics grew complacent, inured to a creeping erosion of rights here in the US. Now, however, they view the Trump administration’s manifest disdain for the established order with trepidation.

Perhaps ironically, Trump’s attitude is more welcome in much of the Middle East. Arab autocratic leaders are pleased by the promise of a U.S. policy focused almost entirely on confronting terrorism. For them and for much of the public in the region, the self-righteous incoherence of US policy has been easy to discern: US lip service to human rights and the rule of law, for example, is daily belied by support for illiberal, if not tyrannical, governments and by violations of the US Constitution itself in the breach of habeas corpus represented by Guantanamo. For many in the Middle East, who have already faced more than a decade of onerous and discriminatory visa processes and deadly US military force, Trump’s plans for “extreme vetting” of prospective Muslim visitors, and as he put it in discussing “radical Islam” to “bomb the s**t out of ‘em…there would be nothing left,” [2]simply remove a veil of self-delusion that fooled no-one so much as its authors.

There is an important difference in kind ,however, between the chagrined attrition of the rule of law we have experienced and the open disdain we anticipate. Waiving responsibilities and suspending rights in a “state of emergency” reflects an assessment of urgent danger or necessity. If, however, as Trump has asserted, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,”[3] we are entering a “state of exception,” in which the sovereign transcends the rule of law, not under the duress of an emergency, but as a reflection of the public will—in this instance, the rule of an elected government.[4] In other words, just as we prosecuted a war in Iraq not of necessity but of choice, we may now witness the suspension of rights not by necessity but by choice.

The consequences of such a voluntary state of emergency may not be subtle, even in the academy. The suspension of rights, for whatever reason, can have dramatic effects on universities. I was the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University on September 11, 2011. In the days after the attacks, all sorts of ordinary rights were lifted in New York: flights were halted, bridges and tunnels closed, traffic stopped, communication disrupted. As commerce resumed, we were told by the authorities to be wary of our neighbors (especially if they seemed “foreign,” as do many people on the average New York city subway car—and most students at SIPA); even today, if we “see something” we judge untoward we are urged to “say something.” In many ways, the universities in the US resisted the securitization of their premises and the politicization of their missions admirably. Faced with efforts to monitor faculty, intimidate students, dictate course content in the years that followed these attacks and the subsequent US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, universities retained their autonomy and independence as sites of debate and dissent. But it required vigilance.

I was then the president of the American University in Cairo (AUC) on January 25, 2011, as revolutionary protests rocked the country. AUC was shaken by upheavals that mirrored those across the country as the campus debated vital issues of authority, equity and access. The 2011 uprising and its aftermath saw a period of lawlessness that was as astonishing for its civility (where else would tens of millions of poor people liberated from the police surveillance refrain from looting the conspicuous wealth of their neighbors and instead establish community patrols?) as it was for its demand for human rights and accountable government. Other universities in Egypt, having been much earlier politicized by government mandate, failed to resist being transformed from sites of revolutionary contestation into its subjects and as a result they were made complicit in restrictions of rights on and off their campuses as the uprisings faltered.  Thanks to vigilance learned in the American experience, AUC, by contrast, while hardly perfect, retained a remarkable measure of autonomy and independence in the face of pressure to stifle dissent and prohibit protest.

My experience with SIPA and AUC suggests several lessons for universities facing a state of exception—particularly universities aspiring to sustain education and research on the Middle East.

  1. Resist “truthful hyperbole.” This is, of course, Donald Trump’s expression. “People,” he tells us in The Art of the Deal “want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”[5] But in fact it is not innocent when people rely on it. The United States has not really been promoting democracy in the Middle East, for example—nor is democracy even a particularly well-understood and important goal in much of the region—however much American scholars of the region might wish it had been, and a strong dose of self-critical candor—truth, one might call it—is overdue.

In that spirit academics also have a special responsibility to exercise the same critical thinking they expect of their students to defend and promote truth-telling everywhere, not only in the classroom but the public sphere as well.


  1. Expect trolls. Having been a target of Campus Watch on and off for fifteen years, having had unflattering pictures pasted across campus and uncomplimentary memes posted on Facebook, I can attest that such unwelcome attention is painful and demoralizing. And these outlets are exemplars of propriety by the standards of contemporary trolling—indeed, even by the standards of the name-calling in the recent Republican party primaries.   What is the appropriate, decent and moral response to inappropriate, indecent and immoral speech? I am not sure but it is certainly neither gagging speech nor responding in kind, tempting as they both may be.

Just as university faculty have special responsibility to discover and disseminate the truth, university leaders have a special responsibility to protect and promote those who endeavor to do so. This is not always easy—faculty are not always judicious, courteous or even correct—but the mission of the university to foster the search for truth and the spirit of inquiry demands that faculty be permitted, indeed rewarded, for undertaking that search and exhibiting that spirit.

  1. Stay true to the mission. There are a lot of purposes to which universities can be put but they are first and foremost sites of inquiry and reflection. Through research and education, universities produce and disseminate knowledge. They can only do that if they are open; hence we reopened at Columbia two days after September 11th and we reopened at AUC two days after Mubarak stepped down—both well ahead of our peers. And they can only do it if they tolerate, indeed encourage free speech and open debate. To that end, SIPA students and faculty organized seminars, outreach programs, and conferences during the fall of 2001; during the spring of 2011, AUC students and faculty developed a new campus expression policy, instituted new courses on the events of the day, invited public figures and established a speaker’s corner on campus. The temptation to avoid controversy, whether in an effort to shelter the vulnerable or to placate the powerful, will ultimately serve only to deaden the spirit of creativity and invention that is the purpose and lifeblood of the university.

In contemplating the future, I am constrained to repeat what I said, I am sorry to report, more than thirteen years ago in my presidential address at the Middle East Studies Association:

…we must be absolutely uncompromising in upholding the rights that permit us to fulfill [our] responsibility: the rights to freedom of information, expression and association, in the United States and around the world, for ourselves and our colleagues. We as an institution must devise ways to support and defend our members both individually and as a scholarly community… If we abdicate our responsibilities as citizens, we undermine our standing as scholars and teachers. We must not only advocate for our rights but we must also exercise them. [6]

Lisa Anderson is a Senior Lecturer and Dean Emerita of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and is Past-President of The American University in Cairo.

[1]Gregory Korte, “Obama extends post-9/11 state of national emergency for 16th year,” USA Today Sept. 9, 2016

[2] “Trump: I’d ‘Bomb the S**t’ Out of ISIS,”

[3] Donald Trump, Donald Trump’s New York Times Interview: Full Transcript Nov. 22, 2016

[4] The “state of exception” is concept conceived by political theorist Carl Schmitt and further developed by Giorgio Agamben;  see his State of Exception (2005)

[5] quoted in Jane Mayer, “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All, the new Yorker, July 25, 2016,

[6] No-one will miss the irony in the fact that the easiest place to find the text on line is at Campus Watch: