Why Higher Ed Is Scared of a Second Trump Term

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College leaders, their lobbyists, and their donors have been nursing for months a low-simmering anxiety about what a second Donald Trump term would mean for their institutions. Academia had already been worried about Trump’s vows to replace the accreditation system to favor more “pro-American” footing and to install a punitive regime of taxes and fines against schools he sees as “too woke.” Then, Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Israel responded with overwhelming force, and the landscape of the American political dynamics over college campuses heading toward November’s election were sharpened.

As much as state, local, and campus leaders want to believe they are autonomous from Washington’s reach, that’s merely a myth. While colleges and universities tend to be liberal enclaves positioned as safe spaces away from Trumpism and welcoming to edicts from Democratic administrations, that has long made them a favorite target of the MAGA movement even before it had a name. Now, with Trump the presumptive Republican Party nominee for the White House, college leaders have to pay attention to what he’s threatening. 

The tape from Trump’s first term is there for all to see. Trump’s Education Department issued rules that established quasi-judicial systems for those accused of sexual assault on campus, giving the alleged violator rights for the first time and narrowing the definition of sexual assault. He banned universities that engaged in DEI programming from receiving federal dollars, made it more difficult for international students to attend U.S. campuses, and tied conservatives’ free speech rights to research dollars. His Department of Justice joined efforts to eliminate affirmative action programs, his Education Department made it easier for for-profit and online colleges to be treated as full-fledged institutions, and poorly performing career-focused programs were folded back into the funding mix after being called scams by the Obama-era regulators. On top of that, he openly threatened colleges’ tax-exempt status and told the Treasury Department to look into “indoctrination” efforts on campuses.

Put plainly: mainstream academic institutions have seen how Trump’s agenda has run counter to theirs, and they’re watching Trump on the 2024 campaign trail promising an even more aggressive posture against the basic tenets of academia and even their survival. An open war with Trumpism is one academia cannot win, but the potential of his looming return to the Oval Office is also not to be ignored.

“If you’re a college president, you’re holding onto your desk very tightly,” says Michael Itzkowitz, a deputy chief of staff for higher educations’ office in the Obama-era Department of Education and now the founder and president of the HEA Group, a consulting firm. “A second Trump term could mean a disaster for those who care about student success. A second Trump term opens the door to a lot of bad actors, bad policies, and subpar institutions.”

If Trump were to win the presidency again, he’d regain enormous power over the country’s universities for another four years and put his imprint on its graduates for far longer. The pot of federal dollars available to universities—especially after 2013’s student loan refurb shrunk private lenders’ share of the higher-ed market to only about 13% and leaves the bulk of student debt on the federal ledger—is already distributed with strings attached, giving the U.S. Department of Education an unrivaled flex often under the premises of equity. The department’s Office for Civil Rights is often considered the second-largest such sub-agency in all of government, with a to-do list touching everything from lesson plans, school sports, bathrooms, bullying, and fair spending from pre-K to graduate studies. If colleges and their students want cash, they have to comply with some government edicts. On top of that, federal research dollars flow to college labs and institutes. More than half of the annual $90 billion in total academic spending on R&D in the country comes from the federal budget, according to a report published last year. That pipeline is the lifeblood of major universities and boutique liberal arts colleges alike. Plus, money authorized in pandemic-era and -aftermath spending packages are still getting shipped to bursars’ offices. 

Trump’s second-term agenda includes a host of ideas that higher-ed execs are already bracing against. 

“The time has come to reclaim our once great educational institutions from the radical Left, and we will do that,” Trump said last year. “Our secret weapon will be the college accreditation system.”

Accreditation councils are one of most widely respected safeguards against fly-by-night organizations to scam students and taxpayers. (Trump University, for instance—which under a settlement that admitted no wrongdoing but had to repay $21 million to attendees who claimed fraud and $4 million to the New York Attorney General’s office—was never accredited and thus ineligible for federal student aid or funding.) Trump has vowed to fire existing accreditors and direct his Education Department to only consider the verdicts of his favored reviewers, presumably punishing elite universities and rewarding rightwing degree mills.

On top of that, Trump has demanded universities purge DEI administrators, offer discounted just-the-highlights degree options, and teach a curriculum that boosts “the American tradition and Western civilization.” He has vowed to purge “radical zealots and Marxists” from the Education Department. On the campaign trail, he made a far-fetched pledge to scrap the Education Department entirely.

Trump’s boldest idea is a national American Academy, a free, full degree-awarding, online university that would be a ballast against universities that he deems “too woke.”  Such an effort would be cost-prohibitive even in a Republican-controlled Congress; there’s simply no way the project could be funded by “taxing, fining, and suing” existing rivals. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board flagged this as a bad idea. A single national curriculum is anathema to most conservatives, and Democrats wouldn’t have to spend more than 10 minutes on a Zoom brainstorming session to figure out how to brand this a MAGA indoctrination agenda.

“I don't think many people are making serious plans for the federal government to start a university. There are plenty of other things to do,” says Michael Brickman, a top adviser to the Undersecretary of Education during the Trump years. 

Brickman, now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, points instead to the accreditation changes as a more serious effort that could force new approaches. “Is there a problem in higher education accountability, and is part of that problem accreditation? Yeah. You’d better believe it,” he says. “For the first time in many decades, there are new colleges and universities. There are new accreditation agencies. I think everybody, regardless of their political views, would like to see some more innovation and some new things attempted in higher education to better serve learners. But the reality is that brand new ideas don’t generally come from incumbent players.”

For Trump and his quest to keep his base engaged, pitchforks on the campus quad is a good visual, even if the slice of white voters who didn’t go to college shrinks with each passing election. In 2016, Trump carried all non-college educated voters by seven points, but in 2020, he carried them by just two points. Trump’s team needs the people he once famously called “the very poorly educated” to show up again, and railing against colleges might be one viable route. 

The Hamas attack and Israeli response refocused and ramped-up Trump’s ire on institutions of higher education. On that bloody day that killed 1,163 Israelis and the ensuing six months that have left almost 33,500 Palestinians dead, the latest war in the Middle East became a political issue for this election year—especially on college campuses, where justification of Hamas’ shocking strike, criticism of Israel’s response, and the overall environment could often slide into antisemitism.

It gave Trump and some of his most powerful campaign messages yet in what was already fertile territory. 

In three of the last five reports that the Anti-Defamation League released detailing its annual audit of domestic antisemitic harassment, vandalism, and assault, the sum set records. And the nation’s most significant civil rights group focused on combating antisemitism, extremism, and bigotry has not yet tallied the numbers for 2023. On college campuses, students of all backgrounds acknowledge the climate has not improved for members of the Jewish faith. Since the start of the current academic year, ADL’s survey of Jewish college students found 73% have seen firsthand some form of antisemitism. And since Oct. 7, the share of Jewish students who reported being comfortable with others on campus knowing their faith dropped by a dramatic half.

“In recent weeks, Americans have been horrified to see students and faculty at Harvard and other once-respected universities expressing support for the savages and jihadists who attacked Israel,” Trump wrote in November on social media.

His allies saw it happening in real time. They made serious bank by getting in on the action; Rep. Elise Stefanik’s grilling of college presidents about antisemitism on campuses resulted in two Ivy League leaders’ resignations—including at Harvard—and helped her raise more than $5 million in the last three months of 2023. In the first quarter of this year, that number reached $7 million.

Trump’s base was already primed. According to Gallup polling, confidence in higher education has withered from 56% among Republicans in 2015 to just 19% last year. Among those without a college degree, that number has dropped from 54% to 29% during the same period. 

Universities are scrambling to push back against Trump and figure out what happens next. Take Harvard, the go-to example of higher education and often the target of conservatives’ ire. Their president, Claudine Gay, was one of three campus leaders hauled before Congress to address antisemitism on campus—and she resigned in the aftermath. Now, as The Crimson reports, the selection of her permanent successor is being driven in no small measure by worries on its board about Trump’s return to power. If Trump returns, defending the flagship U.S. institution is a far different job than one working in tandem with a friendly Biden team. 

Harvard isn’t alone. Scores of colleges are hiring K Street lobbyists, messaging mavens, and lawyers to help them navigate the fraught political landscape. The K Street spinners are helping colleges review their policies and leadership statements for potential problems to fix before they are used to justify objectionable behavior or alienate donors. “The audience isn’t the faculty lounge any more. You have to assume a bad-faith reading of everything that is put on paper,” says one progressive consultant who is versed in higher-ed politics and pitching existing colleges’ federal-relations officials. “Everything is political right now. And the other side knows it.”

On the trail, Trump seems eager to pick these fights, aware that colleges have always been a perfect proxy for his broader culture war. Colleges are a convenient and tangible stand-in for what his allies have smeared as wokeism. They’re also a place where progressive policies addressing race and gender are common. In fact, Trump’s team is openly telegraphing that a second-term agenda would turn the Department of Justice’s civil rights office on its head—to defend the rights of white Americans left out by plans meant to increase inclusion for groups that have historically been discriminated against.

Still, Trump may have diagnosed a serious problem by aiming his ire at college campuses in buckshot. Such a widespread crumbling confidence in higher education across the country is no accident. Colleges have been slow to respond, and the Israel-Hamas war has made campus climates more than a CPAC applause line and now a mainstream worry for voters. 

Education policy is never going to break the list of top issues determining the election in 2024, but it could give a whole lot of voters pause—particularly as one candidate capitalizes on the growing suspicion of colleges and long-standing frustration with their perceived elitism. Trump is keeping that discontent at the fore, and college leaders are having to reckon with the real possibility of a second Trump term and plot their politics accordingly.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com