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Higher Education, Politicized: American Universities Respond to Trump’s Travel Ban

Prominently emblazoned on Yale’s coat of arms are the words Lux et Veritas; light and truth. These three words capture Yale’s commitment to educating the world’s very best and brightest young men and women, regardless of their national origins. This principle has long been unchallenged. Not anymore. With the stroke of President Trump’s pen, several Yale students and faculty members were either trapped abroad or prevented from seeing their family members. International students studying at America’s universities were under attack. No longer is Lux et Veritas safe from political debate.

America’s universities have long been regarded as above politics. While students and faculty members of universities have often taken very public stances on political issues, research institutions have rarely ever done the same, largely preferring to remain silent. However, in the last month universities have emerged as one of the most active sources of opposition to President Trump’s executive order, challenging it in the court of law and the court of public opinion. Despite the ongoing nature of this battle, one thing is clear. America’s universities can no longer be considered as non-political.

Signed on January 27, 2017, the executive order barred citizens from seven Middle Eastern nations from entering the United States for 90 days, barred all refugee entry for 120 days, and indefinitely barred entry by Syrian refugees. The ban immediately caused chaos on Yale’s campus. Despite the efforts of Yale’s Office of International Students and Scholars, some Yale faculty members studying in nations covered under the ban were suddenly trapped from returning home. Many more students and faculty members were left wondering about their immigration statuses. Newspapers and news stations immediately picked up on these stories. Similarly heartbreaking stories of students and faculty members cut off from their loved ones flooded out from university after university across the nation.

These tales proved to be a major reason why the ban was successfully challenged in court. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld an earlier stay of the executive order in State of Washington v Donald J. Trump. For the case to proceed, Washington had to show why it suffered harm from the executive order or in legal terms why it had standing. The State of Washington’s attorneys argued successfully executive order gravely damaged its universities because it stranded faculty and students outside of the country, blocked researchers from traveling, and restricted recruiting from affected nations.

This is not just a contrived legal argument. Protests against the ban immediately broke out at campuses across the country. In the aftermath of the announcement of the ban, hundreds of Yale students gathered at a candlelight vigil for refugees affected by the ban, chanting, “Say it loud and say it clear, refugees are welcome here.” It seems that Yale University heard the message. The day after the ban was announced, President Salovey sent an email to Yale students condemning the ban.

“Today, we at Yale join our voices with all those who are calling for a swift reversal of these measures that undermine our university’s—and our nation’s—core values.”

President Salovey’s statement is not unique. Presidents of universities across the nation spoke out openly against the ban, perhaps none more visibly than Bard College President Leon Botstein, who addressed the immigration ban in an editorial published in the New York Times.

“Universities are places of scholarship and teaching that transcend national boundaries,” he explained in an interview with The Politic. “Reversing the image of the United States as a hospitable place for immigrants cuts against the reality and ideals of the university community.”

Botstein told the Politic that universities thrive only when people and ideas are allowed to move freely. He does not view the executive order as merely a threat to Muslim Americans. Instead, as he wrote in an editorial published in the New York Times, it imperils universities’ “fundamental reason for being.” Universities succeed by attracting intelligent and highly motivated students from all over the globe. Now, according to Botstein, students from regions covered under the ban will question whether they will be welcome in the United States.

Other university presidents seem to agree about the graveness of the threat posed by the immigration ban. In emails sent to students, press releases, and letters sent to President Trump, universities across the nation condemned the ban with a singular voice. Nearly every statement stressed that the importance of international students and scholars to the missions of universities.

“We believe in terms of faculty, researchers, and scholars that the greatest folks coming from overseas have contributed enormously to our country’s global leadership in science and innovation,” said Barry Toiv of the Association of American Universities (AAU) in an interview with The Politic.

Universities are not simply disputing the effects of a single piece of legislation. Instead is clear that many institutions embrace a very different vision of America’s role in the world than President Trump. By defending the value of international students, universities are arguing America is best served by keeping its borders open to immigrants of all races and creeds. This sentiment was evident in a letter sent to President Trump and signed by President Salovey and 47 other university presidents, which read:  

“Throughout its history, America has been a land of opportunity and a beacon of freedom in the world. It has attracted talented people to our shores and inspired people around the globe. This executive order is dimming the lamp of liberty and staining the country’s reputation.”

Despite these statements, universities have several limits on their political power. Public universities and most private universities are nonprofit institutions exempt from federal taxes under section 501(c)3 of the IRS code. This tax regulation prevents universities from endorsing candidates or unduly influencing legislation. Universities might appear to be pushing these boundaries, but according to Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “Nonprofits are allowed to speak to things that are within their wheelhouse.” While universities have leeway in how they address legislation that directly affects them, like the immigration ban, there are clear limits on the potential political activity of America’s universities.   

Regardless, universities are well within their rights to challenge President Trump’s immigration ban because it impedes their educational mission. According to John Thelin, historian of higher education at the University of Kentucky, universities can yet go further in their protests.  

“I don’t think that university presidents have said all that much. Many times presidents send internal letters, but a lot of these are fairly safe things to say. They are not going to the maximum on it. It is fairly easily absorbed by the other side,” he said in an interview with The Politic.

While Thelin questions the impact that internal letters are having on the debate about the immigration ban, it is clear that universities are influencing public policy in less visible ways, including lobbying. There are several trade associations of universities, including the AAU, that are working to lobby against the immigration ban.

“We and our member universities are not shy about walking into Congressional offices and meeting members of the administration. We have allies in the business community as well who rely on the research that comes out of universities,” said Toiv.

Whether through internal letters, court proceedings, or lobbying, American universities have found ways to express their growing political power. Gone are the days when many universities submitted to McCarthyism or consciously avoided engaging in political debate. Instead, universities have begun to carve out an important role in American politics as defenders of the value of immigration, open borders, and internationalism. Yale’s Eileen O’Connor agrees that the University has a key role in defending its vision of America as an open society.

“If there is more questioning about the value of a plural society, we will need to be more vocal about why we see it as essential to our mission and why we believe that it is reflective of long-standing American values from the time of the Founding Fathers,” she said in an interview with The Politic.

Perhaps universities have been so willing to engage in this debate because it seems to transcend politics. As O’Connor pointed out, universities are defending what they view to be fundamental American values. The issue is not one political party against another, but rather about how to interpret American history and the intention of the Founding Fathers.

The issue is deeply personal for Bard College’s President Leon Botstein. He arrived in the United States along with his family as refugees from the Holocaust and believes that America’s greatness stems from accepting refugees. Although I pressed him about the challenges that he faced in writing an editorial as a university president, he never wavered in his belief that he was merely fulfilling his civic obligation to protect what he saw as deeply held American constitutional values.

“I think that in a free society people who are positions of prominence are citizens. With that prominence comes an obligation to enter public debate.”

Lux et Veritas certainly does not appear in the constitution. It is nowhere to be found in the executive order signed by President Trump. And yet, this principle of educational openness is very much at stake in the current debate. As immigration advocates search for ways to refute the efficacy of immigration restrictions, they should look no further than universities.   



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