Protesting Trump’s Discriminatory Actions: Resurgence of College Student Activism

We can all take heart from the temporary restraining order of Judge James L. Robart of the Western District of Washington that stops federal officials from enforcing a travel ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. This ban was enacted as an Executive Order by President Donald Trump on January 27, 2017, setting off a widening constitutional and political crisis as well as global demonstrations. Responding to Judge Robert’s temporary restraining order, Washington State Attorney Bob Ferguson declared: “Not even the president can violate our Constitution….”

Trump’s actions have reverberated around the world in a daily assault of injustices that threaten the very fiber of our democracy and the intellectual freedom that is the backbone of higher education. The speed and crescendo of this assault is unparalleled, designed intentionally to create chaos, and pursued relentlessly despite mass demonstrations and active resistance. And in the face of this assault, David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist, warns of the Faustian bargain that Republicans face in trying to get things done and acquiescing to Trump’s reckless maneuvers. As he writes:

The Republican Fausts are in an untenable position. The deal they’ve struck with the devil comes at too high a price. It really will cost them their soul.

What does all this mean for higher education? To confront the divisive Trump effect on college campuses, Yolanda Moses offers a number of solutions for how college professors, students, and administrators can sustain the values of diversity and inclusion:

1) equip students with historical context so that they can understand how our nation could be so politically divided; 2) support undocumented students; 3) protect protesters on both sides; 4) prevent sexual assault; and 4) reinforce global learning.

In implementing these recommendations, diversity and inclusion must take a front seat. Consider how W.E.B. DuBois described the purpose of higher education more than a century ago:

The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

DuBois sees the special responsibility of higher education not simply as custodians of knowledge, but as the instrument or channel that connects the creation of knowledge with social change.

There are recent heroic exemplars for how this activist connection between higher education and society has been made. Recall, for example, how Jonathan Butler at the University of Missouri at Columbia (UM), a graduate student, risked his life on a hunger strike to protest inequality and a lack of responsiveness by system administration led by Tim Wolfe, an ex-software executive, in the wake of the killing of an unarmed black person, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer.

Butler, an African American master’s degree student began a hunger strike on November 2, 2015 and signed a “Do not resuscitate” order. In a letter to the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators, Butler wrote:

I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.

Jonathan Butler’s action was one of the flash points along with the threat of a boycott by the UM football team that led to Wolfe’s resignation along with the resignation of UM’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, that occurred the same day. The pressures exerted by student activism have led to significant transformation at both the system and university levels. Leadership changes include the hiring of the first Asian American system president, Mun Choi, the former provost at the University of Connecticut, and creation of a system chief diversity officer position now held by Kevin McDonald. Ongoing initiatives include the pioneering work of the Faculty Council on Race Relations.

The recent peaceful student protest on the UC Berkeley campus against the scheduled speech of Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart News editor, was unfortunately undermined by violence by a few masked protesters who set fires and smashed windows. Reacting immediately and precipitously, Donald Trump then sent out a tweet threatening the withdrawal of federal funds from the university. Yet according to Ari Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, since the university itself had tried to meet its obligations, “the loss of federal funds…would be deeply inappropriate and most likely unlawful.”

Looking forward, peaceful, nonviolent protests and student activism are powerful countervailing forces in support of inclusion that connect real life and the knowledge of life that Du Bois saw as the critical function of higher education. In a forceful response to the travel ban, a coalition of 598 college and university presidents has signed a letter sent through the American Council on Education expressed their concerns to Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly. In the words of the letter,

America is the greatest magnet for talented people around the world and it must remain so.

The actions of courageous educators and students alike will help us sustain the values of inclusion, liberty and justice on college campuses in these troubled times.

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