Penn State professor explains chilling effect Trump's 'Muslim ban' has on academia: 'It smells like fascism'
Donald Trump speaking at his inauguration (Screenshot)

For two months, my academic colleagues and I have been wondering: in the academic branch of the culture wars, where will the Trump regime strike first?

On the day after the election, the American Association of University Professors released a statement, “Higher Education after the 2016 Election,” which enumerated some of Donald Trump’s likely assaults on academic freedom. The statement mentions Trump’s odious, incendiary remarks about women, minorities, and immigrants, which “on some campuses had a chilling effect on the rights of students and faculty members to speak out.” It mentions Trump’s denial of climate change, and the likelihood of his appointing Supreme Court justices hostile to public employee unions. And it warns that “his call for an ‘ideological screening test’ for admission to the United States could make it difficult for universities to attract students and scholars from other countries and to engage in the international exchange of ideas so vital to academic freedom.”


We knew the attacks on tenure would not come directly from Washington; that’s not how American higher education works. It is largely administered by the states, so that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), would need support from wingnuts in state legislatures to follow the Wisconsin model and gut tenure. Dutiful wingnuts in Iowa and Missouri have already introduced such bills.

But after that, which way to go? The way of Arizona wingnuts, who wanted to eliminate all courses and events that promote “social justice toward a race, gender, religion, political affiliation, social class or other class of people”? The way of Virginia wingnuts, who hounded climate scientist Michael Mann in the belief that his emails contained the secret admission that he and his colleagues were making it all up? The way of Florida wingnuts, who simply forebade the use of the term “climate change”?

I was thinking they would come for the scientists first– that this oil-soaked administration and its enablers would shut down the EPA, close the NSF to all climate research, and forbid the NIH from tracking the health results of the ensuing environmental devastation. I have been arguing for a quarter-century now with my friends in the sciences, trying to persuade them that the bitter ideologues who cannot abide the term “multiculturalism” are just as anti-intellectual about the sciences as about the humanities, and that throwing a few provocative performance artists to the wolves will not lighten the sled enough to save them.

I was right about that, no doubt. But about the first frontal assault, I was wrong. How could I have known that when the Trump regime launched its first strike, it would fall not on the arts and humanities, not on the social sciences of social justice, and not on the environmental sciences, but on the Department of Architecture?

I am not kidding. For whatever reason, Penn State’s Department of Architecture has done a fine job of recruiting graduate students from Iran. In my capacity as the Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, I have relied on these students time and again: a few years ago, when our “Cities” program focused on Tehran and showcased presentations by some of those graduate students, and on an almost-daily basis with one of my two graduate assistants at IAH, Vina Rahimian, who is coordinating a conference on cities, energy, and information this Friday.

I emailed Vina this weekend, asking if Trump’s executive order would affect her (and knowing that it does). The news was worse than I had imagined: because she will be barred re-entry to the United States if she leaves, she has had to cancel two research trips, one to Canada, one to Brazil. Under ordinary circumstances, these would be part of her professional development as a graduate student in architecture. But we will not see “ordinary circumstances” for quite some time.

Vina cannot visit her family. Her family cannot visit her. And her story is the story of roughly 13,000 students in American universities: even if they are not traveling abroad this moment, they are under siege.

Need I add that this young woman poses no threat whatsoever to national security– or, more to the point, that she is infinitely less a danger to national security than Steve Bannon? Like every other international student and scholar in the US from the seven banned countries, she has no links to terrorism of any kind, save in the racist, paranoid imagination of the man who now sits, absurdly, on the National Security Council and fills Trump’s pickled brain with white nationalist fantasies. (Surely by the time you read this, Bannon will have been secretly appointed to the Supreme Court, to the Council of Economic Advisors, and to Managing Director of the Rockettes.)

I doubt very much that Trump, Bannon, or xenophobic provocateur Stephen Miller gave any thought to what their order would do to international students and faculty at American universities. They clearly didn’t think very long about the status of green-card holders or the optics of having untold numbers of innocent people detained at airports. But aside from a few relatively sane Republicans willing to point out that the order is ill-conceived and very likely a perfect ISIS recruiting tool, the gormless lickspittles in the GOP leadership, like Paul Ryan, chair of the Lickspittle Caucus, have already managed to forget ever having made any public statements opposing a religion-based immigration ban.

(Quick aside: anyone who tries to tell you the ban is not tied to religion is ... how shall I put this politely? Ah, I know: a lying sack of shit. The order exempts from its ban religious minorities in seven Muslim-majority nations. That means it targets Muslims in those nations. That makes it a religion-based immigration ban. See? It’s not hard to understand.)

But this ridiculously stupid and vicious order will put every American academic in a bind. Really, not just every American academic– every American in every American institution. Over the weekend, Swarthmore professor of African studies Timothy Burke took to Facebook with a disturbing suggestion:

I think the time has come for every American institution imaginable to consider advising with regret and pain that our many friends and loved ones outside the United States forego all but the most necessary travel to the United States of America. We are at present not a reliable partner in international collaborations, nor are we a safe destination for most forms of travel. International meetings that include American academics, scientists, businesspeople, professionals, performers and so on should no longer be held in the United States for the duration of this crisis.

This is disturbing only because Burke is entirely right.

I am hosting an international conference in April– one that I have spent two years planning, one for which my Iranian graduate assistant and my Canadian postdoctoral fellow were hired (both from international applicant pools), with funding from the Mellon Foundation. What do I do now? I cannot in good conscience ask my international invitees to come to the United States under these conditions; I know that if I were in their position, I would refuse to attend. And, indeed, one participant (of ten) has already pulled out– a Canadian citizen with an Iranian wife and in-laws.

It is of course still too early to say how much damage this order will do to American academe– not least because it is very likely only the first salvo of many to come. But it is not too early to wake up and smell the coffee. It smells like fascism.

Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and the Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State University. My most recent book is Life as Jamie Knows It: An Exceptional Child Grows Up (Beacon, 2016).