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Donald Trump’s Attack on Academic Freedom
Forcing political orthodoxy onto U.S. colleges and universities is a dangerous infringement of civil liberties
By John K. Wilson
hat will happen to higher education and intellectual freedom if Donald Trump is elected president again in 2024? Trump offered some answers in a May 2, 2023, campaign video, in which he outlined some of the most radical changes ever proposed for how colleges are regulated and controlled. He aims to use the federal government to totally transform higher education into a tool for the conservative movement. One suspects these radical government attacks on higher education are inspired by the work of Republican competitors in the states, most notably Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida. Regardless, no president has ever suggested a more widespread attack on academic freedom than what Trump is advocating.
In his campaign video, Trump declared, “Our secret weapon will be the college accreditation system.” He said, “When I return to the White House, I will fire the radical left accreditors that have allowed our colleges to become dominated by Marxist maniacs and lunatics.” The purpose of accreditation is to ensure that colleges meet the minimum quality standards necessary to provide an adequate education to students. But no accreditor should ever demand ideological purity tests or compel colleges to ban teachers of any political stripe, including Marxists. And no government should ever get to “fire” independent organizations, such as accrediting agencies, because they fail to control the ideas allowed on college campuses.
Not only did Trump announce that he would fire the current accreditors, but he promised to use the “weapon” of new accreditors to impose his own preferred views: “We will then accept applications for new accreditors who will impose real standards on colleges.”
One new Trump standard to be imposed on all colleges would be “defending the American tradition and Western civilization.” But universities should be places of open inquiry where all traditions and civilizations are scrutinized and critiqued. Government-imposed rules to “defend” certain views are anathema to academic freedom. Should college professors be forced to defend American traditions such as slavery and racism? Or does defending America require the denial of this history?
Another new rule for colleges planned by Trump is “removing all Marxist diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucrats.” Some people may hate DEI administrators, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to impose government bans on them. It would be an extraordinary act of micromanagement for accreditors to compel all colleges—public and private—to fire all people working in a particular field. A ban on all DEI bureaucrats would also have to include firing anyone who deals with harassment and discrimination complaints, presenting problems for colleges that are legally and morally obligated to deal with these issues.
Trump also called for “implementing college entrance and exit exams to prove that students are actually learning.” Mandatory government exams for college students are a difficult, expensive and dubious approach.
High-stakes standardized tests incentivize teaching to the test rather than a broad range of knowledge. While some standardized tests (such as Advanced Placement exams, which are not mandated by the government) can encourage student learning in high school, the college environment is different. Having these kinds of fixed standards could easily reduce viewpoint diversity among the millions of classes taught at thousands of colleges in America, since it would discourage teaching any ideas apart from the testing topics demanded by the government.
For the high-level skills that colleges are supposed to be teaching, standardized testing is more of an impediment than an improvement. Having the government order colleges to become more like high schools would be a threat to real learning. As Peter Wood of the conservative National Association of Scholars once noted, “[G]enuine liberal arts education cannot easily be fit to a regime of incessant outcomes assessment.”
Back in 2019, the Trump administration’s Department of Education pushed for deregulation of the accreditation process, loosening the rules on accreditors. Now, Trump has gone to the opposite extreme, calling for the most repressive and heavy-handed government regulations on accreditation ever proposed in the U.S. Trump wants to abuse the accreditation process to impose his own political agenda on all colleges, public or private, across America.
Eroding Our Freedoms
Some who are frustrated with the left-leaning bent of academia might be inclined to support Trump’s actions as a way of making room for conservative views in higher education. But if Trump succeeded in turning accreditation into a tool of total government control over colleges, it would be a disaster for academic freedom and limited government.
Instead of state control over public universities, the federal government would be able to dictate college curricula, determine which employees can be hired and demand that universities suppress ideas that deviate from political orthodoxy. Instead of letting private colleges make their own decisions, the accreditors would impose government ideological priorities on every college, and these priorities could change with every election. Tearing up the entire accreditation process could also encourage fraudulent accreditors and colleges to use the federal system to exploit students for their government loan dollars.
This is not Trump’s first plan to use the power of government to attack academic freedom. As president in 2020, Trump tweeted his hatred of “Radical Left Indoctrination” by colleges and decreed, “I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status and/or Funding, which will be taken away if this Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy continues.”
The idea that the president would order the IRS to investigate all colleges accused of “Left Indoctrination” (and have the Treasury Department rescind all federal funding) was a horrifying abuse of power and a direct violation of the First Amendment. Universities are nonprofit organizations, with the same First Amendment rights of free speech and association that other nonprofits enjoy, and the government cannot discriminate against them.
Following the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to prohibit racial preferences in college admissions, Trump plans to hammer home the ban against any private college that tries to maintain any form of affirmative action. Not only will colleges face action from the Department of Justice, but Trump promised in his video, “I will advance a measure to have them fined up to the entire amount of their endowment.”
In the case of Harvard, that would be a $53 billion fine for the crime of admitting a Black student that the government deems underqualified. What would Trump do with all this money seized from private universities by the government? His answer is reparations—for white people. Trump declared, “A portion of the seized funds will then be used as restitution for victims of these illegal and unjust policies.”
Back in 2020, the distractions of running for reelection and the presence of professional staffers who largely ignored Trump’s illicit orders prevented the president from inflicting more serious damage to First Amendment rights. But if Trump is elected president again, he will have fewer restraints, and Trump-appointed judges will be more likely to allow his restrictions on higher education to rescind long-established civil liberties. Trump has learned from his mistakes to appoint only officials who will follow his orders.
In recent years, conservatives have become much more willing to use government force to take control of higher education. Adam Kissel, whom Trump appointed as his top higher-education official, was once director of the Individual Rights Defense Program for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (now Expression). But after leaving the Trump administration, Kissel has endorsed much more government control over colleges, not just supporting a legislative ban on critical race theory but calling upon politicians “to close unserious departments, end lower-priority programs, and stop teaching frivolous courses across the board.”
A more radical Trump, with a more radical executive branch and a more radical judiciary, could try to remake higher education and attack academic freedom.
When the Wind Shifts
Some critics of academia might be tempted to applaud anything that challenges the progressive bias they perceive in higher education. But government-imposed solutions are often worse than the problem, especially when their goal is to silence opposing views. Changing the ideology of institutions requires persuasion and open debate rather than more government control.
If Trump succeeds in seizing all the assets of colleges that continue to use race-conscious admissions policies after the recent Supreme Court decision, what would stop a liberal president from seizing the assets of private corporations that violate environmental or labor regulations? If Trump can force accreditors to impose right-wing demands on colleges, what would stop a liberal president from forcing left-wing demands on colleges and banning the expression of discriminatory religious views by Christian schools?
Supporting Trump’s authoritarian approach to higher education may be tempting for those who agree with him and are willing to sacrifice principle in order to defeat the college practices they dislike, but what happens when political tides turn and government overreach can be employed by the left to ban conservative ideas at college campuses?
Colleges need to be held accountable when they fail to protect free speech. But a culture of inquiry is never aided by government repression. Higher education escaped the first Trump presidency without serious threats to academic freedom. But Trump’s announcement in May indicates that, if he is reelected in 2024, he plans to target American colleges with unprecedented attacks on intellectual liberty.