Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld fellow in sociology at Columbia University.
One year ago this month, President Trump declared that the campus free-speech crisis was “overblown.” Since then, the trends have actually moved in an even more positive direction: We’re seeing fewer disinvitations, shout-downs and blowups on campuses nationwide.
Nonetheless, Trump announced Saturday his intent to issue an executive order that would make federal research funding contingent on whether a given college adequately protects free speech.
Again, given that Trump himself believes that there is no crisis, and given that the trends over the past year have been positive, it is important to see this maneuver for what it is: an attempt to give red meat to a Republican base that increasingly views higher education as a culture war issue.
To be clear, this perception is not entirely unfair. Universities, especially elite schools, have grown increasingly ideologically homogenous over the past few decades. The causes are numerous, and only some of them are plausibly within the control of faculty or administrators. However, this growing divide does have important implications for the life prospects of those who find themselves excluded. It has important implications for colleges and universities, too: People tend to disinvest from institutions if they do not feel that they have a voice or stake in them. Hence the growing calls from the right to defund institutions of higher learning — and especially social research (fields that tend to be far less ideologically diverse than the academy overall).
Trump’s plan, however, is a betrayal of conservative values and interests. Let’s start with values:
Conservatives have long appreciated that many social problems are complex and fluid — that the success of government initiatives is typically dependent upon local knowledge and local buy-in. Absent these, well-intentioned efforts tend to fail and often cause great harm in the process. As a consequence, conservatives consistently assert that one-size-fits-all and top-down approaches to social problems are unlikely to yield the intended results.
This same logic holds with regard to increasing ideological perspectives in higher education.
One cannot legislate an institutional culture that encourages viewpoint diversity — let alone an environment where diversity is effectively leveraged to improve research or teaching. This must be willingly and willfully enacted by faculty, students and administrators in their day-to-day interactions. Agents must be convinced, not compelled, to learn and grow from diverse perspectives.
Trump’s proposed executive order is counterproductive to this end. To have a highly polarizing political leader announce such a ham-fisted initiative — at an overtly partisan event such as the Conservative Political Action Conference, no less — will only lend further credence to narratives that viewpoint diversity and open inquiry primarily serve the privileged, or that they are mere shibboleths for those on the right to push their political agenda and ideology on campus.
Under these circumstances, more free expression will probably just amount to deeper distrust, increased vitriol and more partisan conflict. Those on the left would resent any increased impositions and grow less likely to engage with the perspectives of conservatives with charity and in good faith. They would instead grow more likely to impute bad motives or pathologies to people on the right.
Put another way, universities can enforce rules that enhance conservatives’ abilities to speak on campus — but others may grow far less willing to listen. And there is little the White House, or Republican lawmakers, could plausibly do about that.
And of course, Republicans will not retain control of the White House forever. It is highly plausible that Trump’s tactic here would be turned against conservatives in a subsequent Democratic administration.
Consider: Many religious schools receive federal funding. Liberty University, for instance, gets nearly half a billion dollars per year. Yet Liberty University has also faced widespread criticism for its lack of viewpoint diversity and, at times, its outright censorship of those who contradict university president Jerry Falwell Jr.
People on the left have long sought to have the government divest from these schools, due to their non-secular orientation and for promoting and enforcing traditional views on gender and sexuality. These schools have been able to maintain federal funding up to now because the Obama and Trump administrations have elected to grant them Title IX exemptions.
However, a future Democratic administration, building on Trump’s precedent, could easily insist that continued Title IX exemptions be contingent on an environment of free speech. The government could allow religious schools to officially hold traditional positions and still receive Title IV funding, but only if they allow rigorous debate on “culture war” issues and freely permit demonstrations of dissent on campus. And as National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood put it, a school that refused, or was denied, Title IV funds would likely face bankruptcy “within a year or two.”
This is the likely outcome of Trump’s proposed executive order (assuming it survives the inevitable legal challenge): more Washington bureaucrats making increasingly politicized decisions about higher-ed funding. Conservatives, of all people, should understand how poorly that’s likely to turn out.