The true risks to higher education

What many people view as the surprising election of Donald Trump to the presidency offered few surprises on college campuses. Already seen as bastions of political correctness and dams on the flow of controversial ideas (especially those interpreted as too conservative), many campuses around the country experienced predictable tumult after Nov. 8.

Reports abounded of cancelled classes, postponed exams, special counseling and calls for safe havens for those offended by the prospects of a Trump administration. Students took to their campus quads with chants of "Not my president!" Not since the Vietnam era, perhaps, has any national event so galvanized undergraduate protest.

Responses to these cries seemed, for the most part, predictable.

Social media postings worried about an apocalyptic Trump administration, while producing other admonitions to students to grow up, accept the election and move on. The Washington Post reported Nov. 16 that an Iowa legislator intended to introduce a bill that "would take aim at state universities that offer election-related sit-ins and grief counseling beyond the resources normally available to students." Institutions deemed guilty of "coddling" their students could suffer budget cuts, The Post noted.

As to the likely consequences of the presidential election, many of my colleagues around the country agree that it's too early to tell what the future holds for higher education. I recently wrote in Inside Business that federal student aid, loan repayment and the increasing regulatory climate will be likely areas under discussion.

New and controversial federal regulations on overtime as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which were due to take effect this month, have been postponed by a preliminary court injunction. We college presidents are hearing suggestions that the Trump administration will fully gut the regulations after his inauguration.

In the meantime, I joined a number of my fellow college presidents in expressing concern about the incoming administration's views on the environment (specifically human-caused global warming) and also postelection rhetoric and violence. More than 100 college CEOs signed a joint letter to the president-elect, urging him to "condemn and work to prevent the harassment, hate and acts of violence that are being perpetrated across our nation, sometimes in your name, which is now synonymous with our nation's highest office."

Some postelection public statements by college and university presidents have drawn fire, however. The Nov. 30 edition of Inside Higher Ed notes the "unusually pointed" comments of "a sitting college president," Columbia University's Lee Bollinger, "who issued a statement the morning after the election calling for freedom of thought, tolerance and reason before later publicly denouncing Trump at an awards dinner."

The article suggests that campus presidents "remember the existence of different groups when they speak. Trustees may view a situation differently than faculty members, who may view it differently than students." Most of us who are veteran college presidents learned that lesson years ago.

Despite the postelection turmoil and the real uncertainty of a new administration's impact on higher education, however, it's important to remember that colleges and universities -- like our nation -- have weathered far worse disruption, controversy and anxiety. Amid the spread of campus political correctness, with which I have some longstanding issues, the disappointment of many in the election and nascent student activism, our institutions represent some of the best opportunities for the liberation of thought and informed, vigorous debate. We should welcome our students' concern, remind them that the long view of history may offer instruction and comfort, and encourage them not necessarily to "grow up" but to continue to grow intellectually.

Trump might be scary, but a far more frightening prospect is the loss of institutional viability through excessive government regulation, lack of affordability, the expensive amenities "arms race" among colleges for fewer available undergraduates and continued erosion of public confidence in the value of a college degree. These underlying issues, which have preceded Trump and are likely to succeed him, pose the greatest threats to American higher education.

I am hopeful that our nation will take these long-term threats seriously, regardless of who is in residency on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach. Previously, Dr. Miller served as President at Bethany College in West Virginia (2007-15), Wesley College in Delaware (1997-2007) and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee (1991-97).

He wrote this for the December 4 issue of The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)