The executive’s order? One culture war, medium rare. The Trump administration’s latest political stunt — an executive order mandating that universities promote “free and open debate on [their] campuses” in response to an “epidemic” of leftist “political indoctrination, censorship, coercion, intimidation, pressure and abuse” on college campuses — would be a great way to remind people of the First Amendment if it weren’t so blatantly pandering, misinformed and hypocritical.
While I will not deny the liberal-leaning nature of our campus and universities in general, the situation is hardly what the conservative media and the president, in their eternal quest for victimhood, want you to believe. The actual situation on college campuses isn’t what really matters here, of course. The media that surrounds it is. Despite the sensationalist coverage, a study by the right-leaning Niskanen Center found that disinvitations of speakers are rare and in decline, with less than 10 incidents in 2018. A plurality of those incidents surround a select few conservative speakers like white supremacist Richard Spencer and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who revel in and thrive on controversy. What about conservative students, those Trump claims to be fighting for? A Gallup-Knight survey of college students revealed that nearly 70 percent of college students believe that conservative students can express themselves freely, with a majority of conservatives believing the same.
Even so, the image of the “crying snowflake” has become a conservative talking point, painting the college campus as a childish, communist hellscape. And to “fix it,” in classic small-government style, the Trump administration has put forth even more regulations on what defines free speech. The executive order mandates that for public institutions to receive federal funding — and for private institutions to receive grants — they must follow “stated institutional policies” regarding freedom of speech. Keep in mind that public universities have always been required to adhere to the First Amendment and that that the prevalence of speech codes at private universities has dropped 50 percent in the last decade. In response to this manufactured crisis, President Trump wants to reinterpret the First Amendment to his partisan gain, and nothing makes this more obvious than his spectacle of a signing ceremony.
President Trump presented numerous conservative college students and recent graduates who were, as he put it, pressured and abused by their leftist institutions. Fifteen minutes of showboating with anecdotal evidence about leftist censorship, safe spaces and general godlessness ensued. It’s funny that one of our columnists, whose speech was met with hundreds of insults and threats of violence, was not invited. After all, the incident received coverage on Fox & Friends, which we know our president watches daily. Nor was there any mention of our country’s history of legal persecution against actual leftists during the McCarthy era. Instead, the President invokes McCarthyism when denouncing the numerous investigations into his legal, financial and political affairs. This is all while he simultaneously uses the bars on our nation’s flag as dye in his newest red scare against Democratic candidates with ad-Venezuelums that refuse to draw any distinction between climate change policy and banning children.
I wouldn’t be offended by the executive order’s claim to uphold “free inquiry [that] promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity” if the man and administration behind it weren’t built on complete intellectual dishonesty. During the signing ceremony, President Trump exclaimed that his administration “will not stand idly by and allow public institutions to deny their students’ constitutional rights.” Missing on that stage were the millions of students who attend charter and religious schools with publicly funded elements, institutions that, according to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, constitute “public schools.”
While Trump touts higher degrees of transparency in universities, his Department of Education has made repeated efforts to funnel public funds over to charter schools, which are privately administered — sometimes for profit — and are notoriously opaque and unregulated in their operations, denying students their right to a quality education. Moreover, religious schools, even those with public tax credits and accounts, can legally discriminate against LGBT students. This includes colleges like Spring Arbor University, which received $23 million in federal funding while discriminating against students on the basis of sexual orientation. DeVos is also perfectly okay with silencing sexual assault victims, allowing accused parties’ legal representatives to “cross-examine” accusers. This would essentially turn disciplinary hearings into courts, allowing accused parties to hire “legal pit bull[s] to grill another student” in hearings, as Terry Hartle, senior VP of the American Council on Education, put it. I am sure that President Trump will be there, hand-in-hand, to defend the First Amendment rights of LGBT students at Spring Arbor.
The Trump administration’s — and its party’s — total disregard for actually protecting free speech goes far beyond schools. Lest we forget, it is worth remembering the smothering effects of unfettered political contribution by corporations enabled by Citizens United. Or should we look to the Republican Party’s love affairs with voter suppression and gerrymandering? What about the president’s unceasing attacks on media, his insistence that Saturday Night Live should be investigated for poking fun at him, his unwillingness to allow reporters to speak and his administration’s lethargic attitude towards actually holding press conferences? What about the ceaseless stream of closed-door meetings with coal lobbyists in the EPA? I could go on, but the point is: Any promotion of free inquiry and institutional transparency by this administration is tinged with banal evil and hypocrisy.
The worst part of this executive order is that much of it is actually pretty good. The problem? It’s not the part that the administration cares about. Sections Four and Five of the order are all about student debt reform. The order seeks to shift student debt risk partly onto institutions, publicize information about program outcomes and largely reform the existing student loan system. “I’m going to work to fix it because it’s outrageous what’s happening,” the president remarked, and, for once, I agree. And while I don’t know the ins and outs of how (or if) it will be enforced, it all looks like a step in the right direction. Of course, this is coming from the Education Department that tried (and failed) to get rid of the Obama-era borrower protections, from a president that ran a lawsuit-ridden fake university which scammed thousands out of their money with the fake promise of Trump-like success, so take my approval with a grain of salt.
This executive order, in content and presentation, shows loudly and clearly where this administration’s priorities are — choosing to hide genuinely constructive policy behind partisan, culture-war-baiting showboating that is nothing more than red-hot air.
Eric Krebs is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .