When it comes to criticizing the nation’s most elite universities, the Trump administration has had a busy year.
In recent months, it has threatened to deport international students at places like Harvard who were taking their classes online because of the pandemic. It has accused Yale of discriminating against white and Asian-American applicants and opposed Harvard’s affirmative action policy. Last week, it launched a civil rights investigation of Princeton, based on a letter from the university’s president that expressed concern about systemic racism at the school, and vowed to combat it.
To anyone who has listened closely to President Trump, himself an Ivy League graduate, the actions might not have seemed surprising. Over the years, he has depicted many American colleges as engines of “radical left indoctrination” and “propaganda,” questioned their patriotism and called for a review of their tax-exempt status.
But to many university leaders, the attacks represent something more ominous: the election-year weaponization of federal agencies — principally the Education Department and the Justice Department — to energize conservative voters who have long viewed the nation’s elite universities as liberal bastions.
“It’s seven weeks until the election, and this is a political attempt by the Trump administration to play to his base by going after an elite educational institution,” Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law scholar and dean of the University of California, Berkeley, law school said of the investigation of alleged racism at Princeton. “If you look at the demographics, college educated voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and his base is overwhelmingly white.”
Trump administration officials do not deny that they have confronted top universities on issues ranging from admissions to free speech to sexual assault. But they deny that it is all about election-year politics, saying the administration is mainly concerned with protecting the rights of students.
The Justice Department, for instance, has said that it is questioning affirmative action admission policies at Harvard because “unconstitutionally partitioning Americans into racial and ethnic blocs harms all involved by fostering stereotypes, bitterness, and division among the American people.”
“President Trump shares the concerns of the American public that many colleges and universities are failing in their public mission to expand economic opportunity and provide students a relevant, timely, and affordable education,” Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said in an email.
“The president believes these failures have gone unchecked for far too long and only gotten progressively worse at the expense of the next generation.”
Mr. Trump’s criticism of elite universities follows in a Republican tradition that dates back at least to Richard Nixon. Mr. Nixon, who was offered a scholarship to Harvard but stayed closer to home to attend Whittier College in California, accused elite universities of fostering anti-Americanism among their professors and students.
“Richard Nixon made a concerted effort to penalize institutions of higher learning, especially the elite institutions he considered to be tolerant of the antiwar movement,” said Timothy Naftali, director of the undergraduate public policy major at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif.
“He instructed the Office of Management and Budget to find a way to cut federal funding to those schools. He focused on M.I.T., but he didn’t like the Ivies, and he wasn’t happy with the University of California.”
But the difference, Mr. Naftali said, was that Mr. Nixon’s own appointees and good-government Republicans stepped in and stopped him. “Nixon believed in government; Trump doesn’t,” Mr. Naftali said.
For most of his presidency, Mr. Trump — who has often bragged of his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School — did not focus as much on education as on more signature issues like curbing immigration or cutting federal regulations. But he has taken on education issues when they fit with his broader agenda.
For example, the president’s antagonism toward China has spilled over into the academic world, with many college presidents fearing an exodus of Chinese students, who often pay full, nonresident tuition.
“We opened our arms to Chinese citizens, only to see the Chinese Communist Party exploit our free and open society,” Michael R. Pompeo, the secretary of state, said in July in a speech at the Nixon library. “China sent propagandists into our press conferences, our research centers, our high-schools, our colleges, and even into our P.T.A. meetings.”
In February, the Education Department notified Yale and Harvard that it was investigating whether the two universities had failed to report at least $375 million from countries including China, Iran, Russia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Education Department sought records related to two Chinese telecommunications companies, Huawei and ZTE, that the Trump administration has labeled security risks or sanctions violators. Republican lawmakers have also raised alarms over U.S. schools’ relationships with China, in particular its government influence in American academia.
In April, Mr. Trump demanded that Harvard pay back $8.6 million in relief money from a coronavirus stimulus package that the president himself had signed the month before, saying that with a $41 billion endowment, Harvard did not need taxpayer relief. Harvard turned down the money, despite financial challenges created by the pandemic, as did Princeton, Stanford and Yale. Mr. Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, did not criticize the $15 million allocated to Liberty University, whose former leader, Jerry Falwell Jr., is a key Trump ally and boasted in February that its $1.6 billion endowment was ballooning and “outpacing Ivy League schools.”
Mr. Trump’s attacks on what he criticizes as left-wing ideology in American education have also strayed into secondary school curriculum. On Thursday, the president denounced what he called “left-wing indoctrination” in the country’s classrooms, and schools that teach “America is a wicked and racist nation.”
Mr. Trump said he would create a new “1776 Commission” to help “restore patriotic education to our schools.” It is unclear what this commission will do because the federal government does not control curriculum in local school systems.
The administration also threatened at one point this summer to cut federal funds to public schools that did not open during the pandemic. And this is not the first time Mr. Trump has attacked Princeton. In June, after Princeton removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school, citing his segregationist policies, Mr. Trump tweeted: “Can anyone believe that Princeton just dropped the name of Woodrow Wilson from their highly respected policy center.”
Mr. Chemerinsky said that Mr. Trump’s use of the Justice Department for political gain was exceptional. “I cannot think of any president who has ever used the Justice Department as an extension of his political effort as much as Trump has done,” he said. “Even Nixon, with his Justice Department, wasn’t to this extent.”
That said, the Trump administration is not alone in using executive power to shape the behavior of higher education institutions. The Obama administration’s Department of Education issued “guidance” that forced schools to be more attentive to allegations of sexual assault on campus, and that many schools considered heavy-handed.
The Trump administration changed course, writing a new rule to give more protection to the accused in such cases. “Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” said Ms. DeVos as she announced new regulation in May.
It was speech that triggered the investigation of Princeton last week, specifically, a letter from Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, to the university community, acknowledging “systemic racism” at Princeton and in society, and outlining some steps to correct it. Mr. Eisgruber’s aides later described the letter as an attempt at “grappling honestly” with the nation’s legacy of systemic racism.
Many universities had issued similar letters over the summer, addressing concerns about racism raised in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police.
Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for the American Association of Universities, which represents the nation’s 65 leading research universities, called the investigation a “stunt” that could hardly be taken seriously, although Princeton was compelled to respond and to spend time and money on legal work and producing documents sought by the government.
Mr. Eisgruber did venture a little further than most into the vein of mea culpa, to his peril. ”Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself,” he wrote.
Such language caught the attention of Robert King, the assistant secretary of education, who signed the letter requesting records that would document discrimination at Princeton.
“While we can’t comment on an open investigation, we would point you to the (Princeton) President’s letter that clearly states that there are current racist practices at Princeton,” an education department spokesperson said in an email on Friday. “The department is clearly under obligation to investigate.”
Susan Beachy contributed research. Erica L. Green contributed reporting.