Donald Trump is a threat to American higher education. Signs and wonders of harm abound. In addition to his abysmally unqualified secretary of education, who has made dismantling the public education system a goal, Trump has elevated Jerry Falwell Jr. to the position of higher education task force leader. The president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Falwell took over the reins from his father, the evangelical leader famous for proclaiming a Moral Majority in America. He also created the nucleus of Liberty in 1971.
Falwell Jr. inherited not only his father’s university, but his shrewd blending of Evangelical Christian leadership, the modern media, and conservative politics. He endorsed Trump for president on January 26, 2016, reassuring Christian voters who might have had qualms about whether the reality TV star was indeed suitable for the office. Falwell Jr. has remained loyal to Trump, who in fact demands that most of his appointees swear fealty to him. Even academic caps, at their most honorable a symbol of intellectual independence, must undergo a deep doffing. Not surprisingly, the Falwell-Trump relationship is redolent of patriarchy. Falwell Jr. was born in 1962 on Father’s Day. The son has told Trump that he reminds him of Falwell Sr. The two pat each other’s cheeks with the cheap lotions of manly sentiment.
Liberty University grew quickly and continues to grow. It became an accredited university in 1985. Today its website brands it as the largest Christian university in the world, with over 15,000 residential students, over 94,000 online students. The school benefits from the federal monies Falwell is now in a position to regulate—or deregulate. In 2015, Liberty took in $347 million from federal undergraduate grant and loan programs. In contrast, its neighbor the University of Virginia received $37 million. At Liberty University the government pays to train Champions for Christ.
American higher education has always been a hybrid of public and private. Just consider the differences between Liberty University and Arizona State University, for instance. Consequently, it would be hard for Trump, his chief strategist Steve Bannon, and their Falwellian enablers to act as unilaterally as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian president of Turkey. Erdoğan has criminalized professors, investigated and detained them, forced them into retirement or resignation, banned them from public service. He has appointed university rectors, positions that were once elected, rendering universities extensions of his rule.
Perforce, Trump/Bannon will be less crude. They will deregulate as much as they can. For-profit institutions can then return to their merry, money-making, often corrupt ways. In contrast, students and scholars on visas will be overly regulated, under the rubric of extreme vetting. “Dreamers” may be deported. Global academic talent will go elsewhere; local academic talent will be sent elsewhere. (Fortunately, a number of prestigious college and university presidents did publically protest that first presidential executive order on immigration, and Leon Botstein published a strong op-ed in the New York Times.) Money for research will be cut, especially if it is to be spent on climate change, the arts, or the humanities. If Trump/Bannon find a campus lawless and disorderly, they can threaten to take away federal money, as Trump did in a tweet after a protest gone awry at Berkeley.
Falwellian drum majors will use their batons to whack away at affirmative action, equity, and sexual security on campus. On February 22, Jeff Sessions, now attorney general, took away the federal legal support for transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. Title IX could become Title Nulla. The nominees to the Trump cabinet embody a grudging, even contemptuous response to a national expectation of some racial and gender diversity in its public affairs.
Still another line of attack will be to abhor, deplore, and doubt scientific methods and the rational thought that undergirds them. One tactic is to find intellectuals and academics—outside of the perimeters of a Liberty University—risible. The mockery will be rough enough to make the great Marx Brothers film Horsefeathers seem like a Valentine to Alma Mater. Haunting me is a moment in the Senate committee hearings about the nomination of Sessions for attorney general. A senatorial supporter noted that 1,400 law professors had opposed his confirmation. Then, he asked, to snickers, what would be the betting line in Las Vegas about professors carrying the day?
In brief, Trump/Bannon would hustle a variegated America into a monochromatic clump of scaredy-cats lapping up their master’s curdled milk in “the homeland” and yearning to be “safe.” Real men would patrol and rule this clump, except for a handful of favored women executives and daughters. My act of faith, or wager, is to believe that diversity in higher education will remain an honored goal—as it now is for such powerful institutions as business and the military. To be sure, any cheerful declaration before the accession of Trump/Bannon that this goal had been achieved would have been delusional. Racists and sexual bullies were not yet tamped down in the catacombs of history. Legal efforts to erode the 1978 Supreme Court Bakke decision persisted. There the Court had permitted institutions of higher education to use race as a basis for admissions—if it increased “diversity.”1 Yet, progress toward diversity, a patch that hope and courage fertilize, was palpable.
Three books now test my mingled anxiety about Trump/Bannon and my belief that diversity will retain its status as an “American value.” First, Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation is a magisterial history about the admission of women to the most prestigious and sheltered of men’s colleges in the United States and Great Britain. Second, set a few years after that struggle about gender had exhausted itself, Natasha K. Warikoo’s The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities is a tightly argued account of contemporary student attitudes about race in the same network of schools. Finally, Danielle Allen’s Education and Equality is a subtle, engrossing vision for reconciling education and equity in the future. All are reticent about the powers of eros and aggression in our relations with The Other, but all are welcome testimony to the power of serious thought about them.
For some time before 2017, the language of diversity had been in flux. In 1947, Higher Education for American Democracy, a report from a commission created by President Harry S. Truman, recommended greater access for more students, in part through a growing network of community colleges. Subsequent demographic changes, political action, culture, and the law gave such recommendations bite and muscle. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act protected classes based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. “Diversity” was interpreted to refer to these “facts” of birth. In India, they would include caste. In the US, these “facts” of birth condemned a child to the brutalities and difficulties of discrimination. The birthright of justice was instead a birthwrong of the denial of justice.
As a result, to struggle FOR diversity was to struggle AGAINST discrimination; to respect difference was to remove the obstacles to respect. As older patterns of overt discrimination became legally and socially far less permissible, newer groups sought protection as well. In the 1980s, they included sexual minorities. In 1990, President H. W. Bush signed the American Disabilities Act, building on 1975 legislation. Such groups now include transgender people, and, in a viciously manipulated Trump/Bannon irony, white males, said to be in need of protection because they are born white males, and probably Christian to boot.
As “diversity” became a more potent and acceptable imperative, elements in higher education began to behave as if people could constitute “diversity” in a wider array of ways. Warikoo is aware of this evolution, but focuses on race as the American dilemma in the quest for the just accommodation of difference. Since the 1960s, she writes, affirmative action has been “the most controversial domain of discussion about race in higher education in the United States.”
One way to be considered a source of diversity was to be poor. If slowly, higher education has begun to find it a shameful indifference to youthful promise that 87 percent of students in the “top colleges” in the United States come from families richer than average. Another way was to exhibit a learned talent or skill—in sports, music, leadership, technology. Still another was to be a conservative scholar or student, like Neil Gorsuch, the Trump/Bannon candidate for the Supreme Court, who was an assertive thinker as an undergraduate at Columbia. Such voices fused claims of suffering from intellectual discrimination, here inflicted by closed-minded liberals, with claims of being able to contribute to intellectual diversity if liberals would but permit them to do so. They were the proud legatees of William F. Buckley and his brilliant 1951 gripe about the grip of liberal secularism on the college curriculum, God and Man at Yale.
As the spectrum of diverse identities grew, the ideal of being a “diverse” community gave way to the ideal of being an “inclusive” one. A recent report by PEN America about higher education and free speech retained the old and added the new: And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities. Simultaneously, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges deployed the new alone, proclaiming as central the establishment of a “respectful and inclusive learning environment for all students.”2
In part, “inclusiveness” permits institutions to operate under a rubric that seemingly embraces everyone, in all their differences, on campus. In part, “inclusiveness” responds to the legitimate grievances of students, primarily but not exclusively students of color. The latter group feel that once they had been admitted, even recruited, to a self-described diverse community, they were left dangling, marginalized, stereotyped, subjected to microaggressions, and, adding insult to injury, expected to tutor their white fellow students about the rigors of being a member of a minority. In a spirit of remediation, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust has written of inclusiveness in terms of an act of “fundamental justice that guarantees every member of this community an honored seat at the welcome table.”3
For Warikoo, belief in an “an ostensibly fair and inclusive admissions system” enables students to become blind to structural injustices.
In effect, inclusiveness is diversity that succeeds by tying and binding the members of an institution together without bondage. They share a moral equivalency. Moreover, inclusiveness models and encourages an honest enough, warm enough, empathetic enough mutual regard among the members of a community. No institution can legislate the pious affections of one for all and all for one, but it can issue credible promissory notes that the inclusive place will be a cheerfully secure place. Students will grow cognitively, morally, and psychologically. They will experience the enhancements of the giving and getting of respect. They will also prep for the contemporary global world. They will be both cosmopolitan and grounded. All this is in their self-interest.
However, realistically speaking, the inclusive community must have its hierarchies. One will be a hierarchy of skills, talents, and achievements. I learned in college that I would never be as brilliant as the young woman who graduated first in our class—no matter how hard I worked. A prodigy, she excelled in all subjects, sang, directed plays, and was likeable as well as admirable. Allen writes that ideal institutions will “lift the educational level of the entire population as high as possible while also making it possible for those with special gifts to achieve the highest heights of intellectual and creative excellence.” Still another hierarchy will be the hard-won faculty control over the curriculum. Finally, the demands of administering the inclusive community breed a third hierarchy. Some offices simply have more authority and obligations than others. Democratic processes can choose the officeholders, but once chosen, a man or woman has a hard job to do. He or she must articulate an institution’s mission, exercise power responsibly, make and defend tangled decisions, broker the needs of many constituencies, handle emergencies both grave and ludicrous. I once heard one of the most brilliant young college presidents in the United States say that students usually called her by her first name, but in times of stress and trial, she was President X.
On campus after campus, even with good leadership, diversity has been searingly difficult to speak about, let alone achieve. For the rats of history gnaw at and scuttle about the present. Not only do people hear them, subliminally or openly. We are very often strangers to each other, although the powerless and marginal gaze more accurately at the powerful than the powerful do at them. Small wonder that conversations about diversity are often promoted as “difficult dialogues.”
“Inclusiveness” brings a new set of trials. Older patterns and habits must dissipate—in faculty hiring, the curriculum, assumptions about academic capabilities, and the architecture of living spaces and bathrooms. The reasonable gamble is that time, and new generations of students, will accept new patterns and habits. In 1968, the sociologist Suzanne Keller became the first tenured female professor at Princeton. She was to assert, correctly, that the inclusion (or integration) of women would entail consequential change. “Gender integration is not in the main a matter of admission or entry for the individual only. … It is a matter of a change in the culture of the place—the beliefs, assumptions, standards, and patterns of being and doing that have prevailed heretofore.”4 The pioneers of women’s studies knew this. You can’t, they warned, just “add women and stir.” Such domestic metaphors, like that of President Faust, reveal how much residential colleges and universities promise to become beloved second homes to their students and graduates.
Both Malkiel and Warikoo are studying the iconic communities of elite private residential colleges in the United States and Great Britain. Undergraduates here tend to be of the “traditional” college age, still amenable to the historic function of education as character formation. Malkiel and Warikoo argue that elite institutions matter because they train leaders, set educational patterns, and have immense symbolic capital accrued over centuries. Both books study Harvard and Oxford, but Warikoo adds Brown; Malkiel adds Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth from the Ivy League; Cambridge from the UK; and Smith, Wellesley, Radcliffe, and Vassar from the group originally known as the Seven Sisters and which I now call the Seven Hermaphrodites.
Malkiel is a lifelong citizen of elite institutions. Her bachelor’s degree is from Smith, her doctorate from Harvard. Now an emeritus professor at Princeton, she was the longest-serving dean of its College. However, she has been a clear-eyed reformer as well as a lucid, excellent scholar. Her books, written as Nancy J. Weiss, were about black history. She was one of the first women to teach at Princeton, and, significantly, she chaired the ad hoc committee that successfully recommended that the college offer a program in the then-radical women’s studies.
Malkiel homes in on the processes through which single-sex colleges decided to change or remain the same, linking broad cultural shifts to institutional decision-making. Increasingly, young men wanted to live and study as undergraduates with young women. A strong motive for the men’s colleges to admit women was to avoid losing the competition for capable male students to their peers. At the same time, a still-lively male chauvinist piggery reigned, probably nowhere more than at Dartmouth of the colleges Malkiel studies. There, the toxic mash of hysteria, cruelty, insecurity, sexual braggadocio, and fear of women rendered gender diversity and equality tantamount to castration.
Dartmouth was the most overtly boorish and obscene in its treatment of women, because of its isolated location, the strength of its fraternity culture in that landscape, and the older boosters of its drunken, vulgar revels. Dartmouth was also a center of student conservatism. That influential figure Dinesh D’Souza graduated with a degree in English in 1983. He was to publish his screed Illiberal Education in 1991. Letting the pigs oink for themselves, Malkiel takes her title from a letter from an irate Dartmouth alumnus: “For God’s sake, for Dartmouth’s sake, and for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.”
Coeducation came about quickly and, despite Dartmouth, with general civility. It began in the 1960s and then became a lemming-like rush over the cliffs of tradition. Given the lure of familial pride and self-interest, the resistance of male alumni often evaporated when they realized that their daughters as well as their sons might follow them to “their” college.
Like every movement toward diversity, coeducation has been valuable. Women have more choices about their education and professions. Men have friends and companions across the gender spectrum. Colleges have become more democratic and transparent. Faculty hiring practices depend much, much less on cronyism.
However, as Malkiel shows, the deep structures of institutions did not shatter and realign themselves. Princeton “Tigers” did not begin to wear saffron robes and beg on the streets of New Jersey towns. Coeducation may have improved social relations among students, but it has not solved such embedded gender problems as sexual assault or the balance between work and family life. Or, I might add, the fear of women with commanding powers. We are still on the far side of paradise.
Yet, for the students at Brown, Harvard, and Oxford whom Warikoo studies, diversity and inclusiveness are simply there, part of an institution’s climate and identity; they have become part of the culture at today’s elite universities.5
As Warikoo shows, of her three sites, Harvard places greater emphasis on integration and the positive impacts of diversity—on inclusion. Brown has a sharper focus on minority students and the exposure of inequalities. Oxford has a comparative absence of race-based social movements and the concomitant conviction that elite universities should be socially responsive and responsible. In all, admissions is the gatekeeper to academic success, networks of potentially influential friends, rousing activities and games, glittering prizes, and gilt-edged futures.
Despite the variations among American institutions of higher education, they have family resemblances. Elite schools now have comparable admissions processes. The university and a phalanx of admissions officers are responsive to the need for diversity and recruit for it. However, they assess a wide range of personal qualities, in addition to national test scores and high school grades, to decide which students might be a “fit” for their school and together form a “cohort” that has “collective merit.” I have heard a number of admissions (or “management enrollment”) officers talk about “the class.” Some students bring racial diversity, some international backgrounds, some a LGBTQ identity, some a resilient defiance of hardship, some unusual athletic prowess, some artistic talents, some a family legacy, and so on.
In contrast, in Britain, programs for fair access exist, but the paramount criteria are national exams and a campus interview between a faculty member and a candidate who wishes to study in his or her field (e.g., mathematics). Fortunately, the faculty member becomes invested in a student’s academic success. Less fortunately, the faculty member may reject a candidate because of the desire for self-replication, or because of implicit biases, or because “The Other” makes him or her uncomfortable.
Despite these national differences, admission is interpreted both as proof of individual merit and of the existence of an equal opportunity society that permits the meritorious to rise up and shine. Warikoo suggests that the use of “merit” in the design of an elite system of rewards will become more global. Not surprisingly, students generally approve of the processes that hand them a keycard to the campus gates. To Warikoo, such a belief in an “an ostensibly fair and inclusive admissions system” enables students to become blind to, or at least myopic about, structural injustices and to the “vast inequalities in society—by both race and class—and in particular to the way higher education is complicit in reproducing that inequality.”
Dull-eyed though they might be, students must still cope with race. To organize their experiences of it, Warikoo argues, they have developed four “race frames,” which conflict with each other. First, they can be “color-blind,” believing race neither can nor should matter in our postracial world. Next, they can praise “diversity,” where race is a “cultural identity that shapes individuals’ worldviews and cultural practices in positive ways.” Next, students can adapt a “power analysis,” where race is inseparable from inequities. Fewer whites than blacks and Latinos use this. Fourth and finally, if less commonly, students deploy a “culture of poverty” frame. Here “minority disadvantage stems from cultural characteristics such as a lack of a strong work ethic or a disregard for marriage.”
So, convinced of their merit (despite inevitable individual anxieties), and deploying “race frames,” white students strike a “diversity bargain” with their school, another of Warikoo’s generative concepts. The British bargain is that no unworthy “affirmative action babies” stroll in the courtyards here. Everyone deserves their college room and tutors. The American bargain is that whites should accept affirmative action because it benefits them, the white students. It provides a diverse learning environment, different perspectives, an enhancement of the “cultural fabric” of the institution. I have also heard colleges assure students that diversity prepares them for a global economy. Yet, for many whites the diversity bargain does not quell all worries about the possible presence of a “reverse discrimination script.”
Listen to Thomas, a white Harvard student who admits to feeling “personally disadvantaged at times,” and goes on to explain, “If you’re Latino or if you’re black you could have a lower GPA and lower test scores and get in and then I could have the same test scores and maybe not get in.” As for students of color, once admitted, they are to integrate wholesomely if racial diversity is to help white students. Understandably, while students of color also “extol the benefits of campus diversity,” they “do not feel obligated by a diversity bargain to integrate.”
Under Trump and Bannon, Falwellian drum majors will use their batons to whack away at affirmative action, equity, and sexual security on campus.
The toils and coils of the “diversity bargains” appear in student humor. To their credit, the white American students do not want to be perceived as racist in speech and behavior; generally speaking, “they see not being racist as a moral imperative.” Trump/Bannon may accuse them of being “politically correct” and their campuses of stifling free speech. However, their moral concerns, public sensitivity, and carefulness are an advance over careless racism. Far more disgusting, in a Trump/Bannon America the joke has become a way of making hostility acceptable; the inability to laugh at a racist, or sexist, joke a sign of a thin-skinned inability to “have fun.” If telling a joke once displayed courage, now it is a coward’s way of being a scumbag and a lout and then evading responsibility for it.6
In contrast, to Warikoo’s surprise, the British students—of all races and ethnicities—cheerfully tell racist jokes. They claim that the butt of the joke is not a racially maligned group, but the racist him- or herself. Tortuous sign of false consciousness though it might seem, Warikoo’s British subjects, using a color-blind racial frame, believe that racial jokes “signal an understanding that some people in society continue to hold racist beliefs, but that one is unlike these people and finds those beliefs absurd.” Yet, as the diversity protocols in the United States tend to suggest, the judge of whether a joke is racist should be neither the teller of the joke nor its audience, but the object of the joke. Is a joke offensive? Ask the person who might be offended by it. Only half-ironically, I would like to organize a “Prudes’ Liberation Front,” which would display no qualms about calling a mean joke a mean joke and then take pride in being labeled a prude who can’t take a joke.
Warikoo has recommendations about how to reform the diversity bargain and nurture the inclusive community. Combining programs from Harvard and Brown, her recommendations are academic in nature. That is, they ask us to teach and learn. The universities can be more intentional about teaching race, structural inequality, and how to design the future. Warikoo offers as delightfully instructive the Harvard Kuumba singers, an interracial singing group that performs music of a black heritage. Yet, as Malkiel shows, university reforms—no matter how momentous they might seem internally, no matter how socially conscious they might be—may at best model and nudge the reform of external injustices. Even the most inclusive university will not usher in a wholesale social equality. So, Warikoo urges, support those who do not rise to the top. Dare to imagine a welfare state. In the Trump/Bannon America, one must dream.
The polymathic Danielle Allen, now a professor of government and education at Harvard and director of the Safra Center for Ethics, is a pragmatic visionary. The design of Education and Equality ratifies the popular theory that productive public discourse should take the form of a conversation or a symposium. It begins with Allen’s 2014 Tanner Lectures at Stanford, followed by four illuminating comments, and then ends with Allen’s response, which deepens and clarifies her argument. Like Warikoo, but more fully, Allen offers an adaptable theory of education, the “development of a concept of democratic eudaemonism.” The implicit argument is that being democratic and being happy, possessed of well-being, is in our self-interest. An explicit argument, refreshing to read, is that the humanities are essential to such happiness.
Drawing on the classics, John Rawls, Hannah Arendt, and Amartya Sen, Allen proposes that the purpose of education is to understand human potential, develop human capacities, and nurture human flourishing. A disease that now crimps and confines our flourishing is our “political pathology, the intertwining problems of political and economic inequality.” To confront it, we must first avoid that habitual trap of binary thinking, which defines education either as utilitarian (Join that global economy!) or as liberal artsy (Awaken your soul!). Education is both. Then we must realize our potentials. Of course, we differ among ourselves. Indeed, democratic politics is the negotiation of differences. However, we share not only the biochemistry of DNA but these potentials.
Education prepares us for the expansion of potentials into capacities. Our curriculum provides “preparatory readiness” for breadwinning work; for civic and political engagement and participation as equals; for creative self-expression and world-making; and for rewarding relationships in spaces of intimacy. Among the tools we will gain is “verbal empowerment,” the ability to use and understand language in a media-rich age. Another is “democratic knowledge,” the ability to learn the “bonding skills” that enable us to cluster in affinity groups and the “bridging skills” that enable us to “surmount social difference.” Allen convinces me that the inclusive campus can do all this—if it has a sophisticated curriculum and a communal life too aware of human frailties to lapse unthinkingly into the rousing sentiments of the Boy Scouts marching song—even if transgendered people are now allowed to sing it.
I take heart from these books. Malkiel and Warikoo document some progress toward greater equity, despite the often brutal and self-serving myopias of the powerful and common human foolishness. Allen and her commentators imagine the contours of a just future. However, higher education needs courage in order to push back hard against Trump/Bannon and its Falwellian enablers. The congested heart lacks daring. I found that courage in Liberty University itself. Like Trump, Falwell Jr. apparently delights in retaliation against his enemies, real and imagined. Nevertheless, a member of the board spoke out against Falwell’s endorsement of Trump, though he lost his seat for his impertinence. Thousands of students signed an anti-Trump letter. In 2016, the sports editor of the school’s official newspaper, The Liberty Champion, went public with Falwell’s censorship of one of his columns that was critical of Trump and his mouthing-off about his phallic powers.
Here are signs and wonders of a brave resistance and opposition to Trump/Bannon. Higher education can take no fewer risks and do no less.
- The plaintiff was Allan Bakke, a white man seeking admission to the University of California–Davis Medical School. ↩
- See PEN America, “And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities,” October 17, 2016; Julianne Basinger, “Campus Unrest,” Trusteeship, vol. 24, no. 6 (November/December 2016). ↩
- Faust was responding to a student independent study project in spring 2014 that created an “I, Too, Am Harvard” site on Tumblr. The site, posting pictures of black Harvard students with placards that showed racially offensive comments made on campus, went viral. It also stimulated an equivalent movement at Oxford. ↩
- Only the year before, 1967, did Harvard begin to admit women to Lamont, its undergraduate library. ↩
- She interviewed 76 students in the United States, 67 in the United Kingdom. ↩
- Emily Nussbaum, “How Jokes Won the Election,” New Yorker, January 23, 2017, brilliantly analyses the contemporary joke. ↩