On Jan. 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States. His controversial nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, secured Senate confirmation, with vice-president Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie. This was the first time in American history that a vice-president interceded in such a way for a cabinet secretary. The Bulletin talked with Julie Schmid, executive director of the American Association of University Professors, about what’s at stake.
Were you surprised by Trump’s election?
Unfortunately, not really. Students of American politics have observed the warning signs of a Republican wave at the state level for some time, so I’m not surprised to now see it at the federal level. We didn’t know per se that Trump would be elected, but had the sense that support for unions, the role of public education, both K–12 and higher, the role of other public services, etc., were all really up for grabs. These things that we had understood as foundational in this country are no longer so.
What effects are you observing in the higher education sector?
Both during the campaign and post-election we’ve seen an uptick in death threats, threats of violence to faculty and the rise of blacklists like Professor Watchlist, with a professed mission to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” It’s geared toward faculty teaching in fields like gender studies, who are finding themselves in the crosshairs for trolling and threats. A certain class of student is now emboldened to record lectures and post them online, usually out of context. Much like during the McCarthy era, we may find faculty self-censoring.
Betsy DeVos is a billionaire who has no personal or professional experience in public education. Critics charge that she’s not qualified to lead the education department. What are AAUP’s concerns?
We have a lot of concerns about her appointment. She recently commented on higher education with words to the effect that faculty are the enemy, from adjuncts up to deans. They tell you what to do and think. They silence you if you voted for Donald Trump, and try to deny your First Amendment rights. She uses the same words that Trump has used to describe the media — enemy of the people. This is not just an attack on the professoriate and higher education. We see this as a larger attack on the free flow and sharing of ideas, on truth and scientific fact, and as a serious generational threat to higher education for the common good.
What action is AAUP taking to address concerns?
We’ve organized a digital campaign around Professor Watchlist, where we invited faculty and supporters to ask that their names be added to the list as a way to protect those targeted. About 200 faculty were placed on the list, but we’ve had more than 12,000 volunteer to sign up as a way to stand up for their colleagues. Also, when the first travel ban was introduced, we launched a campaign asking people to share stories of how they and their campus community were affected. So we’re gathering information and targeting where the AAUP can intervene most effectively.
What related issues are you observing at the state level?
We are seeing attacks in state legislatures regarding the curtailment of agency fees or attempts to curtail unions from representing their members and speak freely on issues. A number of states have introduced anti-tenure bills and while none has prevailed yet, we are also seeing introduction in
state legislatures dominated by Republicans, such as in North Carolina and Iowa, of a “political litmus test” for faculty whereby universities would have to know the political party and voting history of applicants before hiring so as to ensure there isn’t too liberal a faculty.
What’s the next step for AAUP?
We will continue to work with our chapters at the state and campus levels. One success story arose in New Hampshire where both right-to-work legislation and a separate bill to ban union dues being deducted from payroll were rejected. Our members worked with organized labour and other opponents in lobbying efforts to defeat the measures. They showed up in the state legislature during a snowstorm, conducted letter writing and phone campaigns and managed to peel off some Republicans who joined the vote against, defeating the proposals.