There has always been a historic tension between America’s colleges and universities and the government, whether at the state or federal level. It’s unavoidable. Once the government began to fund students and institutions in the late 20th century, its leaders believed that they had a right and responsibility to oversee the use of those government funds.
Priorities: Protect Funding & Tax-Exempt Status, Fight Excessive Regulation
For most of the national trade associations representing higher education, three goals emerged. The first was to protect the level of state and federal support that higher education received from them. The second was to preserve and safeguard fundamental underpinnings like the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities. And finally, the third was to monitor and argue against excessive regulation.
As government discretionary spending decreased — with debt repayment levels rising and deficit financing the order of the day — state and federal spending became increasingly less stable. Today, America governs at the federal level by Continuing Resolution, careening from one deadline to the next. At the state level, annual budget deadlines are seldom met unless mandated by state law.
In a world of last-minute, lobbyist-infused backroom deals, it’s impossible to plan accurately and consistently on most college campuses. You never quite know how the cards will play out.
In recent years, most in the higher education leadership have worried that, in the absence of discretion, the federal government will turn increasingly to regulation. The Obama years provide numerous examples to justify such concern. Further, the government seems to be in a never-ending dance over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, further complicating higher education’s relationship with an important partner.
Trump Policies and Actions Heighten Higher Education’s Sense of Alarm
Since last year’s presidential election, many have slightly shifted their concern about the federal role in government. There seem to be a number of forces at work within the government that have heightened a sense of alarm.
The first is that higher education does not seem to have the champions that it used to in the federal executive and legislative branches.
To illustrate, the passage of the new tax bill was problematic. Two examples show why. Proponents suggested a tax on graduate scholarships that ultimately did not make it into the final draft of the bill. The effect would have been disastrous for graduate and professional education. Second, earlier tax bill drafts called for a tax on the country’s largest endowments, reportedly to encourage better use of endowment spending.
Let’s set aside the obvious question about why a government that cannot govern or budget effectively is a necessary and sufficient monitor of higher education spending. In the end, it is what it is.
Active Effort by Trump Administration to Diminish Higher Education
The second is that there appears to be an active effort – in rhetoric and action — by President Trump and his supporters to diminish the stature of American higher education. Leaders of America’s major research universities have agreed among themselves to take more active public positions in an effort to counter souring public perceptions of higher education. Without a coordinated plan – and the support of their trustees and campus communities – there is likely to be a limit on whether their efforts will work.
Immigration Actions Mean Fewer International Students
The third is that “America first” policies on immigration have a deleterious effect on many colleges and universities. America is the global leader in providing high quality education at any level. It attracts the best and brightest from around the world.
The impact of quota policies – and the impressions created of them and held by international students and their families – diminishes the talent pool within the American workforce. It also decreases foreign tuition payments, the ability to sustain a global campus, and the intellectual exchanges necessary to keep the next great ideas coming.
In an American workforce approaching full employment, the need for more workers – and the best educated among them graduating from American colleges and universities – will be a growing problem if a strong economy holds.
These shifting concerns suggest a growing need to be aware of shifting emphases in the relationship between higher education and the government. They raise legitimate questions:
- Will the government at the state and federal levels continue to be a steady, reliable and consistent funder of higher education?
- Does the government still see higher education as integral to its sense of commonwealth?
- Lacking discretion, will the government turn to a stringent regulatory environment to enforce its political goals, however inconsistent they appear to be?
Higher education would be well advised to have clear policy goals as we move forward. It must also look for ways to work with Congress and the Trump Administration to safeguard and advance its goals.
But the days of concerns over money, taxes, and regulation levels are gone. While we can hope for the best, the willingness of the president to use executive action to change the regulatory environment is something that we are free to ignore at our own peril.
In post-industrial America, the roles played by large nonprofits – especially its hospitals and universities – power the economic engines in many regional economies. What would cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Boston look like without their large educational and medical research complexes? Would other cities, such as Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, and Washington, DC, be as vibrant without the diversification made possible by these important economic drivers?
The facts are clear. America may – or may not – regain some of its manufacturing capacity, although this re-growth is likely to be infused with a level of technology certain to assure that what develops is not likely to be your grandfather’s auto assembly line. America may develop energy policies that re-open coal mines even as newer, alternative sources of power move forward to increasingly dominate the energy landscape.
But the future of the American economy is to prepare and lead a global economy. The alternative is to be lost in a political quagmire that will lessen America’s impact and influence on the rest of the world.
Whether you like NAFTA or the Trans Pacific Partnership really doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is that the boat has long since sailed on whether we live and work in a global economy. The relevant questions are how will we be transformed by it? And, which countries will lead it?
Higher Education and Medical Research Are Economic Engines
The heart of the post-industrial economy arguably is the education and medical research complexes that fuel our regional economies. From these pulsing economic engines emerge spin-offs created by entrepreneurs who transform – and effectively recreate — the American economy. Together with small business, they shape the direction of American society, often from the ground up.
President Eisenhower once warned Americans about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. It was an important admonition that has continued relevance in a transforming America. Rules and protocols – matched by common sense and good will – must continue to shape the political, cultural, and economic relationships between politics and the economy.
Trump Administration Proposals’ Troubling Impact on Higher Ed
That’s why two of the Trump Administrations proposed policies, in particular, are deeply troubling. It doesn’t matter whether these policies are part of a first-year executive policy and budget request that is likely “dead on arrival.” They show a predisposition by the executive branch that speaks more to ideology than cost.
The first is the much discussed travel ban, part of a larger discussion about the role that immigrants have and will play in the history of the United States. The future of the travel ban will likely be settled by the courts, but there are some early trends that bear close scrutiny.
According to Inside Higher Education (IHE), “Four in ten colleges are seeing drops in applications from international students amid pervasive concerns that the political climate might keep them away.” For many years now, US colleges have benefited from steady increases in applications from international students. As students, they often pay full tuition and fees, providing a valuable revenue stream for these institutions.
Travel Ban Already Hurting International Applications
IHE’s Elizabeth Redden writes, “the highest reported declines involved applications from the Middle East. Thirty-nine percent of universities reported declines in undergraduate applications from the Middle East, while 31 percent reported declines in graduate applications. Fall enrollment numbers from the region will likely be hard hit by President Trump’s executive order.” Higher education officials find similar trends in China and India, which account for nearly half of the international students in the United States.
Do we really want international students to go elsewhere? Shouldn’t the next great innovations in America come from a global workforce educated here that stays here because Americans – whether native born or naturalized – create a climate that encourages and supports global innovation developed by the best and brightest from across the globe?
Trump Budget Proposal Will Stifle Innovation & Growth
The second problematic proposal, the Administration’s budget blueprint, compounds the first. In a statement on the proposed budget, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the American Association of Universities, was blunt: “This budget proposal would cripple American innovation and economic growth. The President’s FY18 budget proposes deep cuts to vital scientific research at the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, NASA, NOAA, and other critical scientific agencies.”
Coleman argues that the budget proposal “would lead to a U.S. innovation deficit, as it comes at a time when China and other economic competitors continue their investment surge in research and higher education. For decades, federal investments in these areas have paid enormous dividends in medical advancements, new technologies, and enhanced national security, and helped to produce high-wage American jobs and the most talented workforce in the world.”
If we accept the premise that America’s nonprofit education and medical centers power the economic engines that fuel the most promising contributors to American economic growth, does it make any sense to damage these global institutions, perhaps irreparably?
In the end, it’s not a “guns versus no butter” decision to favor military buildups over domestic discretionary spending. It’s about labor, capital, partnerships, and investment. At its most fundamental, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Let’s not muck it up.
News reports last week that President Trump’s first budget may eliminate support for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has alarmed many of humanities supporters and scholars. But the de-funding of the NEH – or the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) — should alarm every American who has used a library, visited a museum, attended a college or university, watched public television, or listened to a public radio station.
Much of the blueprint for elimination seems to be coming from the conservative Heritage Foundation. These cuts are largely symbolic budget-cutting efforts since last year’s combined funding for the NEH, NEA, and CPB totaled 0.02 percent of the federal budget.
The Washington Post put the amount in context noting, “Put another way, if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10.”
The NEH funds programs in areas that include education for school teachers and college faculty, preservation to maintain critical collections of our common American heritage, and public programs that reach large audiences, often through the media. Additionally, the agency funds research of literary and historical significance, challenge grants to improve humanities funding nationally, and work in the digital humanities to link new technology to the humanities.
The core argument to continue support for the NEH is, of course, that humanities enrich personal and civic life. They are the “keepers of the flame” that allow us to remember and celebrate who we are and imagine where we are heading as a nation. It’s a good argument – likely the best argument – but it won’t save the NEH from elimination in the current political climate.
STATE HUMANITIES COUNCILS HAVE BROAD, GRASSROOTS IMPACT
In the upcoming battle, if there is one, perhaps the most important counterpunch will be the role played by federal and state partnerships, represented by the 56 state humanities councils across America.
State humanities councils’ programs impact and change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Added into the mix are the large regional and national audiences reached by public programs, including impressive national efforts to promote scholarship and learning. The NEH – in the most practical terms – touches all of us through its programs.
I had the privilege of serving as a program officer for the state humanities programs in the Midwest and Western U.S in the 1980s. Thousands of Americans – overwhelmingly rural in my service region – benefited from innumerable, high quality programs, made possible through NEH support. The most dramatic, in some respects, was Chautauqua.
Organizers modeled the Chautauqua program to replicate an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day. Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua was “the most American thing in America.”
I came to Brookings and Pierre in South Dakota unsure and a bit skeptical of what I would find. But what happened during these visits forever changed my perspective of what the humanities does for America.
Our Chautauqua events began with raising a big tent, a distinctly new experience for this Eastern-bred, city-raised, not-especially-handy-with-tools guy. The whole town pitched in to ready the Chautauqua site for a week-long reading and discussion of the works of Thomas Jefferson.
The NEH and its local affiliate provided the books, organized discussion sessions, and rounded up the entertainment. A young Rhodes Scholar, Clay Jenkinson, performing as Jefferson, responded to audience questions as the Founding Father and American icon would have.
Who were the people that jammed into the Chautauqua event each night? They were local residents and farmers who had driven their families 60 miles in some cases to learn more about Thomas Jefferson. It was a transformative moment for them – and for me – defining how I would think, write, and talk about the humanities over the next 30 years.
The Chautauqua movement was a serious, thoughtful, and insightful analysis about our country’s founders. It provides an example of the context for how best to support the NEH.
MAKING THE CASE TO SUPPORT THE HUMANITIES
Constituents in every state – voters, in the eyes of politicians – must make the case for the NEH – and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — directly. Politicians attempting to eliminate these agencies cannot be allowed to do so because of ideology or as a rounding error correction in an attempt to achieve deficit reduction.
Just as all politics is local, so too is the NEH. The NEH must be argued as a local issue because it supports the quality of life for American voters at home, regionally, and nationally. Its programs, largely mainstream, cannot be passed off as urban, bicoastal, and elitist.
NEH IMPACT IS PERSONAL AND LOCAL
The NEH’s programs impact people locally and personally. Those who support the humanities must not allow our fellow Americans to believe that the issue is just political dickering that doesn’t touch their lives.
For over 50 years, the NEH has encouraged Americans to think more deeply about American society – how it has developed and where it has headed. The NEH isn’t a bureaucratic chit but a statement of who we are as a nation.
Now is the time for library groups, Chautauqua participants, and cowboy poets across America to step forward as benefactors and voters to make the case for what they have learned and, thanks to the NEH, how their lives have been enriched through the humanities.