RWU President Farish on Decision 2016

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Invited to comment on the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States, RWU President Donald J. Farish penned an essay November 15 for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he looked at what proposals might emerge from a Trump administration and called for a united front in the face of potential threats to higher education.

"It was a complete surprise," said Farish, echoing not just the prevailing feelings in the academic community, but national expectations supported by a media which, in hindsight, did not consider Trump a serious candidate. "Now we have to take him seriously—he won.

"Trump campaigned as a personality. We did not get a lot of policy pieces from him, but he said things during the course of his campaign that present concerns for those of us in higher education," Farish says. "Are they first order priorities for the Trump administration? No. But he said them, and we can assume that his cabinet will reflect that agenda."

In his article “The Specific Threats Now Facing Higher Education,” Farish lists the following items of concern:

• Pressure on colleges to reduce their costs or risk having their endowments taxed.

• Greater emphasis on career education, at the expense of study in the liberal arts.

• Re-enfranchisement of for-profit institutions.

• Additional pressure on regional accreditors, and a push for even more educational credentialing by corporate America rather than by traditional colleges and universities.

• A reduction of federal support for higher education, including the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Pell Grant program, and greater reliance on student loans through private banks.

• Institutional risk-sharing, if a sizable percentage of students default on their loans.

• Raising the bar for unionization.

• A weakening of Title IX, possibly including the elimination of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, or perhaps the department itself.

• A rollback of pending changes in overtime eligibility.

• Significantly fewer new international students.

• Direct threats to the status of undocumented students.

• As a result of one or more Supreme Court appointments, negative changes affecting the rights of members of the LGBTQ community and women.

• Defunding of climate-change research, weakening of environmental regulations, and expanding the use of fossil fuels.

Farish emphasizes that these points are just a laundry list of issues that have been discussed in consultation with other leaders in higher education. "I'm not trying to conjure up boogymen—we just don't know what to expect." But it is important for leadership in higher education to be aware of potential impacts and be prepared to respond accordingly.

"If we wait for issues to pop up, we will just be playing a game of whack-a-mole. We need to develop a pro-active position; we need to articulate our core values—no need to even name Trump." Farish sees the next 6 months or so as critical to presenting a united front as academic institutions. "We need to reaffirm the rights of all members of our community."

Despite the fact that Trump has not yet taken office, the RWU community is already feeling some impact from the results of the election. "There are some students that are very concerned, they are feeling this on a personal level," he says. Particularly international students who are afraid that their visa status could be in jeopardy under a Trump administration."

Farish admits that he recently had a conversation with an international student who was considering striking a couple of graduate schools in Canada off his list—but Farish advised the student to reconsider. "We just don't know how the rhetoric will play out for our international students; they should leave themselves options."

The University's LGBT community is also watching developments with some trepidation. "These students are anxious right now. Their community has only enjoyed the right to marry on a national level for 15 or 16 months; so many of them have just come out as they moved from high school to college. Suddenly the mood has shifted. Trump himself has not said anything in particular, but he will be stocking the Supreme Court," Farish says. "And obviously (Vice President-elect) Pence is not fine with it."

Farish also acknowledges the role academia has played in the sense that there are two Americas with vastly different views about how this election should have played out. "There is a disconnect that has developed in the past 20 years, jobs that went away have not come back, and higher education has become less affordable to more people than ever before." Despite the fact that RWU offers more financial aid than ever before and has held the line on tuition for several years running, it's just not enough.

"I'm pretty critical of our industry," he says. "Where do we get off raising our costs so much faster than the cost of living? When I was in school I paid my tuition with the money I earned unloading boxcars for 6 weeks in the summer. That's unheard of today.

"We need to rethink the educational model. At the beginning of his administration, Obama noted that although only 32 percent of Americans had a 4 year college degree, 60 percent of the jobs of the future would need a degree. That needle hadn't moved in 8 years."

It's mostly a matter of wealth. Colleges are overwhelmingly stocked with the children of people who went to college. For the poor, or those who lack stability at home, there's no easy pathway to higher education. Roger Williams has enacted a number of initiatives, from providing career programs for former inmates and people on public assistance out of their Providence campus, to offering practical combined degree programs to their students on their Bristol campus. Dance majors, for example, learn arts management, so when the door to performance opportunities closes, they can still parlay their passion into a satisfying career.

Despite stereotypes about academics and the fallout from this election, when he wears his University President hat, Farish is a centrist. "Nobody gets it right or wrong every time," he says. "And it is best when there is a healthy tension between the public and private sectors. The opportunity to see different parties in control provides the checks and balances that knocks off the rough edges and, over time, drives an evolution toward the center."

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