In Trump’s America, Where is the Moral Leadership We Need From Our Public Flagship Universities?


March 2, 2017

“The University of Arizona community has serious concerns about provisions of the Executive Order…This approach violates the principles on which international university communities of thought, learning, and research are based…We oppose the Executive Order and believe that lawsuits challenging it will be successful.”
– President Ann Weaver Hart, University of Arizona

By Mary Nguyen Barry

The general acquiescence displayed by presidents of our nation’s public flagship universities over the past month has been, in a word, astounding.

Only a week into office, the President released an executive order that banned citizens from seven seemingly irrationally-chosen Muslim-majority countries as well as all refugees – save an exception for religious minorities – from entering the United States. The courts have since frozen that order as the country awaits a revised order that has now been delayed three times. The outcry from the larger community was immediate. Immediate everywhere but for our public flagship colleges.

Even when executive actions threaten the very core values and business models of universities, most of the presidents of our public flagships – generally each state’s best-known institution, the first to be established, the largest and most selective, and the most research-intensive – only barely managed to pay lip service to their commitment to diversity while steering clear of any actual criticism of the Trump immigration actions. Some college “leaders” have made no statements at all, relegating the task to the University’s International Education office or deferring to or quoting from a system-wide or association-wide statements (see here and here). Thankfully some, like the president at the University of Arizona, made strong statements, as illustrated by the quote above.



The rationale that University of Virginia (UVa) president Teresa Sullivan offered up to students for the University’s lack of public stance was particularly galling. According to reports by the student newspaper, when a student representative asked Sullivan at a Student Council meeting whether the University would be taking a public stance on Trump’s executive order, Sullivan responded that it was unlikely for a variety of reasons. She said it would likely be ineffective, as many universities are written off as liberal institutions. And she also emphasized the importance of students – rather than large institutions – reaching out to lawmakers: “When they hear from constituents, they pay attention.”

As an alumna of the university, that response floored me. As the flagship college for the Commonwealth of Virginia, UVa IS the state’s biggest constituent, not to mention its biggest employer. And whether colleges like it or not, they’re political actors whose words and deeds – or lack thereof – on public policy issues are critically important. That’s even more so the case after the President double-downed on his harsh immigration policies Tuesday night in his first joint address to Congress. (We remain skeptical of whatever overture he may have made in a private press event regarding a compromise immigration bill.)

Here’s a look at what “leading” college presidents have or have not said about Trump’s recent crackdown on immigrants.


But let’s give credit where credit is due. Kudos to the 10 flagship college presidents who used the opportunity to make a strong statement both to reaffirm their values and to criticize Trump’s immigration ban. Two statements in particular stood out:

“My administration and I remain committed to the welfare and success of all members of our community…The university has joined in a lawsuit with the ACLU and Commonwealth of Massachusetts challenging the constitutionality of the president’s executive order…We will establish an ‘Angel Fund,’ supported in part by charitable contributions, to help meet the legal, academic, housing, living, and counseling needs of individuals prevented from re-entering the U.S.”
– President Kumble Subbaswamy, UMass-Amherst

“As a public institution, the University does not normally take stands on political issues. However, we have an obligation to speak out when government actions are fundamentally antithetical to the core values and missions of the institution, especially when they adversely impact many members of our community…This executive order poses human, moral, and constitutional dilemmas…We must remain true to our bedrock values of diversity and inclusion, tolerance and intellectual freedom…I reaffirm support for Maryland dreamers and DACA students.”
– President Wallace Loh, University of Maryland – College Park


Likewise, kudos to the 6 flagship presidents who with 42 of their public and private university colleagues signed on to a letter directly addressed to President Trump calling on him “to rectify or rescind” the executive order. That shows the moral courage and fortitude we need to see from our nation’s biggest public universities.

As well-known research-intensive universities receiving ample state and federal support, public flagships have the obligation to speak truth to power in their respective states and the nation at large. In the words of the president of the National Council of La Raza, we need them to stand up and say: “NOT IN MY SCHOOL.”



Many thanks to USA Today and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) for thoroughly compiling many of the statements related to the immigration ban.