Thoughts on last night’s presidential debate for higher education

I stayed up last night live-tweeting the American presidential debate, starting here, possibly for my sins.  I did that instead of finishing a post about academic cuts in June, which is still in the hopper.  I should probably spend more time with my cats… Today I’d like to share my thoughts about what that debate and its immediate responses might mean for academia’s future.

I’m not going to summarize the debate here, nor analyze it either as a debate nor for its overall political implications.  It’s easy to find plenty of examples of those around the web.  Instead, here I’m focused on the higher education implications.

This is not an exhaustive account.  I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts, as always.

Trump and Biden debate 2024 June_CNN

Short term, through January 2025

There is a great deal of discourse around the option of replacing Biden as the Democratic party’s presidential nominee. If that happens, it’s possible that competition between potential candidates and factions will involve higher education policy issues, such as who would take which approach to student debt or which person can best fix the FAFSA debacle.  It’s also conceivable that higher education policy will fall off the table, given the many other issues on tap.  Additionally, academic political scientists may come forward as public intellectuals to help us understand, and perhaps to influence, the complex candidate succession process.

Right now this process is taking place in summer, so there are few faculty and far fewer students actually present on campuses. But if the candidate replacement struggle continues into fall, as it might (the Democratic convention is August 19-22), we could see partisan activity rise in college and university communities.  This may engage students, faculty, and staff on different levels and in various ways, from racial justice to gender rights, not to mention Gaza.

On the other side of the debate, Trump clearly left open a path to oppose election results.  This could elicit political unrest, which may well take place on campuses – at least elite institutions, as the Gaza encampments demonstrated.  Political scientists and related faculty members may also play roles in on-campus education and public scholarship. Depending on how things play out at a given institution, we might see local or state police involved, or federal agencies.

A second Trump presidency

Going into the debate, Trump had an edge in most accounts (for example); it seems likely that last night’s performance might boost his chances.  This means we have to take the possibility of a second Trump term seriously.  Let’s see what his debate performance might tell us, starting with what either or both candidates said about postsecondary education.

During the debate both candidates praised funding HBCUs. Perhaps Trump will do more of this in a new administration, especially as he clearly wants to peel away black voters from Democrats.  Such support might be symbolic or perfunctory. It might also exist alongside Trumpian anti-black racism (which CNN didn’t ask about last night, weirdly).

In the context of helping black Americans, Biden cited his student debt relief efforts.  Trump didn’t respond to them, which is unusual, since he’s opposed them previously.  Perhaps this means he won’t take any actions on student debt, but I would expect him to end any Biden efforts along these lines.

Biden took care to praise jobs not needing a college degree (“Those fabs, they call them, to – to build these chips, those fabs pay over $100,000. You don’t need a college degree for them”; source) .  He celebrated such positions during this year’s State of the Union.  Trump didn’t respond to this, but I think he’d align with Biden on this, not being a fan of education.

Beyond what Trump and Biden said about higher education directly, much of the debate concerned America and the world as contexts within which our academic institutions exist.  We can derive some possibilities from that to see how they could impact colleges and universities.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the CNN staff raise climate change as a topic, and the difference between the two men’s reactions was clear.  Trump’s refusal to address global warming and instead praising clean air and water might become a rhetorical trick for some academics to use. If Trump wins and continues his practice of denying or ignoring climate change, he will energetically undo Biden’s policies. This will make academic climate action more difficult, starting with a reduction in federal funds for research, teaching, and campus operations. If Trump manages to tamp down electric vehicle deployment, it might be harder for schools to swap out their carbon burners and to incentivize visitors to drive EVs.   Will such actions depress academic climate action, or spur us on to greater efforts as part of #resistance 2.0?

Trump continually hit his points about reducing immigration.  If he resumes the anti-immigrant policies of his first term, we should expect international enrollment to drop. International collaboration of all kinds might become more difficult. On campuses, will he go after academics when he launches mass deportations?  As I asked in 2016 and 2020, will academics resist ICE when they request assistance in extracting students, faculty, or staff?

Trump spoke to economics mostly to praise his record and dun Biden’s, not revealing any changes from practice. We might therefore expect more of the same starting in 2025, including trade wars, tariffs, and tax cuts for the rich.  What this means for higher education may include: economic instability, which can impact state support, private giving, and endowment returns; side effects on international collaboration and enrollment.

Trump claimed to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but I think the reality is that he’ll weaken all three.  This may incentivize faculty and staff to work longer and/or to take on additional work in order to try making up the shortfall.  State governments may also choose to spent more to make up for federal losses, which could then pressure support for public higher education.

On abortion, Trump argued for leaving the matter to state governments.  If he adheres to this – and doesn’t support a federal abortion law – we might see a continued shift of some students, staff, and faculty away from strongly anti-abortion states.

To return to the possibility of domestic unrest, Trump claimed he would use National Guard or other federal forces on violent protestors, or would threaten to do so.  Again, to the extent such unrest occurs in academic spaces, it might encounter national forces.

Several academic topics didn’t appear, which surprised me, given their prominence in current political discourse.  Trump charged Biden with being a weak Palestinian (one of the more surreal moments of the night), but didn’t criticize campus protestors nor allege antisemitism. Critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) never appeared.  LGBTQ+ politics in general were missing. Title IX didn’t appear, despite the two administrations (three, if you include Obama’s with Biden as vice president) fighting over laws and directives.  Neither did higher education’s cost and reputation problems merit discussion.  Last night’s debate doesn’t give us insights into what Trump’s next term might reveal on these points.  (Here are more to consider.)

Let me pause here.  I think that’s a good amount of ideas to chew on for now.

I hope I succeeded in offering a relative calm and analytic reflection. That’s not how I feel.  Last night I was aghast, horrified, depressed, hollering.  This day my friends and family have been discussing what a disaster the debate was.  I’m scared for what the outcomes may mean for the nation and my family.

I, for one, would like to help academia deal with an increasingly likely Trump presidency.  More to come on that score.

Over to you all.  What did that debate indicate about higher education for you?


(photo by CNN, appropriately)

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6 Responses to Thoughts on last night’s presidential debate for higher education

  1. Steven Maher says:

    “Federal education policy should be limited and, ultimately, the federal Department of Education should be eliminated”
    “The next Administration should work with Congress to eliminate or
    move OPE programs to ETA at the Department of Labor.”
    “Work with Congress to amend Title IX to include due process
    requirements; define “sex” under Title IX to mean only biological
    sex recognized at birth; and strengthen protections for faith-based
    educational institutions, programs, and activities.”

    Decades of evidence show that nothing Mr. Trump says should be used to determine what he will or will not do. The Project 2025 document sets forth a clear agenda that attacks education on several levels. Please accept my apologies if you’ve already used your voice in the field to bring other’s attention to these plans or my plea that you do so if not.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Steven, thank you for bringing in Project 2025. Yes, that’s something I’m researching; no, I haven’t had the minutes needed to write it up.

      I’ve been talking with some people about what I can do to help academia in this crisis. Would an introduction to and analysis of 2025 be useful?

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate 2025 could be brutal if even a portion of it is realized.

  3. sibyledu says:

    I don’t think the debate shed any substantive light on policy positions, beyond what was previously known. President Biden reiterated the policy ideas he’s followed consistently; President Trump cited some of the positions that he has named in the past. (He’s said so many things that it’s possible to find claims to support, and oppose, different policies.)

    That is part of why the debate seemed to mean more from a style standpoint than a substance one. We didn’t learn about substance, only style. (But I appreciate you trying to avoid another style-centered analysis.)

    I agree with Dahn and with you that Mandate 2025 is much more important than anyone anticipates. In part that’s because it’s so thorough. Someone who winds up with a position in the Education Department, or Energy Department, or HUD, or any executive agency, doesn’t need a specific instruction from President Trump to decide what to do; they can just open up Mandate 2025 and start following the recipe. I hope you get the space to analyze the document.

    Finally, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s also tempting to say that President Trump avoided making any education policy statements because he expected the Chevron doctrine to be overturned. If he guessed, or was told, that Chevron would be ended, he would know that there’s no way to carry out education policy in a divided Congress, and that the competing policies of the last three administrations will be tied up in the courts. The result will be confusion, delay, and greater expense, and he wouldn’t have to come up with any education policy at all.

  4. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:
    This is Post-Chevron panic, over-the-top panic — but it doesn’t even mention the worst case scenario, what Lake refers to as “regulation of the cardiovascular systems of higher education. Accreditation is the foundation upon which federal monies flow to colleges. The current systems of accreditation— supervised by the Department of Education, which recognizes and empowers accreditors—are already under legal attack and are likely to become targets for further litigation and scrutiny following Loper Bright.”

    The more moderate view, and entertaining as well :
    The question is, what’s going to shake loose in higher education over the next decade?

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