As I write this, President Trump is poised to issue (or perhaps has just issued) an executive order directing federal agencies to tie research and education grants for colleges and universities to more aggressive enforcement of the First Amendment. Trump had announced his intention to issue such an order at the CPAC conference last month.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the order instructs agencies, including the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Defense, to ensure that public educational institutions comply with the First Amendment, and that private institutions live up to their own stated free-speech standards. However, again according to the WSJ, “it doesn’t prescribe any specific penalty that would result in schools losing research or other education grants as a result of specific policies.”
Suzanne Nossel, president of Pen America, a left-leaning group that advocates for greater free expression on college campuses, describes the executive order as “kind of a shot across the bow to universities that’s meant to put them on notice that they’re being watched and scrutinized.” I think this is the correct way to view the order.
The executive order also requires the government to seek more detailed data from colleges and universities on the debt and earnings of their graduates, broken down by their major or program of study. This will enable prospective students to compare not just schools, but programs within the schools, before going into debt for a degree.
College administrators oppose this approach, claiming that it will lead to misleading comparisons between the value of a liberal arts degree and a vocational course of study, which is often shorter. I believe what they really fear is transparency.
We may have more to say about this executive order once we’ve had the chance to examine its specifics.