Not since the era of witch hunts and “red baiting” has the American university faced so great a threat from government. How is the university to function when a president’s administration blurs the distinction between fact and fiction by asserting the existence of “alternative facts”? How can the university turn a blind eye to what every historian knows to be a key instrument of modern authoritarian regimes: the capacity to dress falsehood up as truth and reject the fruits of reasoned argument, evidence and rigorous verification?
The atmosphere of suspicion and insecurity created by the undermining of truth provides the perfect environment for President Trump’s recent actions on immigration. The American university’s future, indeed its most fundamental reason for being, is imperiled by a government that constructs walls on the Mexican border, restricts Muslim immigrants and denigrates the idea of America as a destination for refugees.
Although American universities did not always welcome the huge influx of refugees after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, that intellectual migration transformed a provincial and second-rate higher education system into the finest in the world. Manufacturing may have fled our borders, but American higher education remains a powerful and competitive force, a destination for students and scholars everywhere and a vital engine of employment and economic health. An astonishingly large percentage of graduate students and professors in science today are foreigners and immigrants.
I am a Jewish immigrant who came here as part of a family that was stateless, and my deep patriotism is rooted in that experience. I benefited from American humanitarianism, and I have worked my entire life to give back to this country. An America inhospitable to immigrants and foreigners, a place of fear and danger instead of refuge, is unthinkable in the context of the nation’s history and founding principles. If a more practical argument is required, think of the consequences for the quality and future of our colleges and universities, and their highly prized superiority in science and engineering.
Moreover, what will become of the major government agencies of scientific research, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation? Will their research agendas be manipulated to fit Mr. Trump’s view of reality? Will there be a continuing erosion of support for basic research as opposed to research that contributes to some commercial product? The greatest advances in medicine were a result of research conducted after World War II, motivated exclusively to enable humankind to better understand nature, not to come up with a new drug.
What, then, are we, the leaders of our institutions of higher education, to do when faced with a president who denies facts, who denies science? Is it best to stand by when he repudiates climate science and revives the credibility of discredited theories about autism? Facts and photographs did not stop him from rejecting the evidence regarding the election results or the size of crowds at his inauguration. He has undermined public confidence in the electoral system. In the face of this, standing up for the truth — which is, after all, higher education’s business — might appear to be an act of political partisanship. But this is not about political parties. It is about the proper role of the academy in a troubling time.