The politicization of American universities

The politicization of American universities
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When Donald TrumpDonald TrumpChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report Kim says North Korea needs to be 'prepared' for 'confrontation' with US Ex-Colorado GOP chair accused of stealing more than 0K from pro-Trump PAC MORE campaigned for the U.S. Presidency by promising to "make America great again," too few journalists pressed him or his followers to define exactly what they considered to be the characteristics of greatness.

From the vantage point of political science and international relations, reasons for U.S. dominance on the world stage were obvious. They had to do with the realities of Empire: a mighty military, a strong economy, and a history throughout the twentieth century of taking a leadership role in global affairs, from involvement in both World Wars to prevailing throughout the cold war. 

Yet there is another facet of America's global power that has too often been overlooked. It is now being beset upon by Trump and his waning administration: the university.


His recent efforts using Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)  to ban international students suggests rallying his bigoted base is far more important than ensuring the welfare of students or schools. After several high-profile private and public universities and 18 Attorneys General collectively sued ICE for what they called a "cruel, abrupt, and unlawful" revocation of foreign student visas, ICE backtracked. But we don't know what he, or other dogmatists, will do next. 

At least since the Second World War, America's system of higher education stood like an intellectual beacon to people around the world. From the major capitals of Western Europe to Asia, Africa, and South America, students and scholars alike longed to avail themselves of America's illustrious campuses, where leading scholars in tenure-secure positions facilitated open intellectual exchange for the most part unencumbered by governmental restraints.

In the wake of WWII and with the rise of the comprehensive research university, scholars from around the world flocked to American campuses in hopes of getting access to intellectual, scientific, and technological advances then considered unparalleled.

Throughout the cold war, when America marshaled its founding ideals of democracy to stand up to the Soviet Union, the United States opened its arms to international students and scholars to study, teach, and conduct research in its midst, with a political understanding that the collective sharing of ideas and research could only strengthen an international resolve to uphold free and democratic norms. 

With increasing globalization also came a mounting sense of economic anxiety worldwide. Still, an ever-growing number of undergraduate and graduate students sought and were able to afford what they considered a prestigious American education. Apart from earning a degree in STEM fields and medicine, studying in the U.S. also enabled them to research in the humanities and social sciences, something often more challenging to do in many countries that prioritize careers in the so-called "hard sciences." In 1970, just 1.7 percent of undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. were from overseas; by 2015, they made up 4.8 percent of the total student population, according to the Institute of International Education Open Doors Report, 2015. As of the 2018-19 academic year, students from abroad made up 5.5 percent of the total U.S. student population, thus financially contributing $44.7 billion to the American economy in 2018.


Now, although most U.S. "research one" institutions remain devoted to the open exchange of ideas, the current federal administration, with a populist president at its head, has made clear that maintaining world-class institutions of higher learning is not part of the national "greatness" agenda.

To be sure, the diminishing of American institutions of higher learning has been underway since at least 2004, when conservative reformers began pressuring lawmakers to reduce state funding and raise tuition, arguing that public universities should operate like businesses and view students not as future civic participants but as "consumers," if not to say "customers." At the same time, creating a climate where it has become increasingly impossible to view the U.S. as a welcoming place for study and research has been demonstrated through various policies, of which the 2017 so-called "Muslim ban" is one iteration; this past July's (thankfully short-lived) announcement about banning students whose classes moved online was another

As filmmaker Steven Mims meticulously documented in his powerful 2016 documentary, "Starving the Beast," there's been nothing less than an ideological war for the heart and soul of America's public universities, playing out in terms of who foots the bill for their operation. To that, war needs to be added to the politicization of international students. 

Despite pushback from the academic community, state funding for public universities in the U.S. was reduced by a collective $9 billion between 2009 and 2019, according to a report from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. During the 2017 school year, for example, 44 states spent less per student than they had in 2008 after adjusting for inflation. And over the decade concluding in 2019, per-student funding in eight states — Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina — fell by a whopping 30 percent. 

As a result of the enormous cuts, tuition is on the rise, and student debt is ballooning. (As of last year, 66 percent of all borrowers who graduated from public colleges have student loan debt totaling an average of $25,550 — 25 percent higher than in 2008.) Like Peter applying his fingers to the holes of a flooding dike, universities have tried all sorts of things to make up the difference; international students, who typically pay full tuition, have become part of the survival strategy.  

For Trump, who routinely amplifies popularity over expertise, the value and importance of higher education and scholarly research is lost. 

For almost a century, American universities have been what you might consider a true "cosmopolitan" space, meaning a place where a diversity of ideas and backgrounds can come together and revel in shared learning, research, and teaching environment. For thousands of my educator colleagues and me, this is a foremost attribute of what has made the American university, for the lack of a better word, truly great. Let's hope it can stay that way.

Sofian Merabet teaches socio-cultural anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of "QueerBeirut," (University of Texas Press) the first ethnographic study of queer lives in the Arab Middle East.