Of course Donald Trump was going to go after universities – despots hate them

The President is not angry that Berkeley does not allow free speech. He’s terrified because it does.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Fasten your seat belts and hold on to your hats, guys: there’s a new missive from Donald Trump. As dawn rose over Washington, the President took to Twitter to unleash a massive U-turn, in which he declared himself a defender of free speech, and swore to protect the innocent from violence.

Kind of. Here’s what actually happened. Milo Yiannopoulos, ex-Telegraph tech blogger and, under the name Milo Andreas Wagner, purveyor of truly God-awful poetry, had a talk cancelled at the University of California, Berkeley, which he had been invited to give by the Berkeley College Republicans.

Yiannopoulos is a senior editor of the far-right Breitbart News, of which Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon was formerly chairman. He has built up a cult following by, depending on who you ask, providing a much-needed voice to an alienated class of young white men, or being offensive for attention in a manner uncannily familiar to anyone who has helped raise a toddler through the “poo, bum, willy” stage (only, you know, with a terrifying amount at stake).

Although the University’s chancellor Nicholas Dirks had previously issued a statement supporting Yiannopoulos’ right to speak, campus police announced that the event was cancelled after around a dozen people, joining an until-then peaceful protest, began smashing windows and letting off firecrackers.

This was a golden opportunity for Trump, who responded not by condemning the protesters, but by issuing a tweet which implied that the university as a whole “does not allow free speech” and “practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view”:

It is not surprising that Trump has decided to go after a university by threatening its funding. Academics, like journalists, are an easy target for even the clumsiest authoritarian. Just as it is common to both be theoretically in favour of a free press and also believe journalists are egotistical bastards who could stand to be taken down a peg or two, there are plenty of people who like the idea of free enquiry into the nature of humanity but also think academics are antisocial, out-of-touch navel-gazers who sit on their arses, in their ivory towers, spending their days having “deep” thoughts with occasional breaks to swim in a pool of public money. (Which is only partially true.)

For all the people who think Trump is crackers, a certain number will also quietly be going: “Yes, but they do take the piss a bit, don’t they?”

But the reason so many people resent academics is the same reason that dictators loathe them. In his new book Speaking of Universities, Cambridge professor and critic Stefan Collini reminds us that universities haven’t always had the lofty goal of free thought, unfettered by the demands of society, in mind. Rather, they have always existed to produce a particular class of people for that society.

In England, and particularly in the Oxbridge system, this was about “character-building”; in Europe, university was often seen as a vehicle for instilling in young people civic identities. American universities combined these different ideas in various measures. Now, universities often advertise themselves as a place you can attend to improve your job prospects. It is an oversimplification, but perhaps a useful one, to say that whoever controls the universities has a good degree of control over the young professional classes.

But this is not the only reason authoritarian regimes fear, and seek to influence, universities. The university, Collini writes, remains one of the few places where independent thought is privileged over other priorities – a system that “would be madness” in other institutions. What a society seeks in setting up this space, however, is easily threatened by its actualities: “They ask them to serve various practical purposes, but if they are given the intellectual freedom necessary to serve those purposes properly, they will always tend to exceed or subvert those purposes”.

Herein lies the risk: if you allow the sort of free-thinking necessary to create smart, civic-minded, critical young people, you also allow them a space to critique the very ideals you hope to instil in them.

This is the reason that Trump wants to take down Berkeley. Not only is it a stellar research organisation, famed particularly for its humanities programmes – ie. for its success in teaching students how to critically analyse culture – but it also has a long history of left-wing activism. In the 1960s, Berkeley was heavily involved in opposing the Vietnam War, and in the Free Speech Movement, which championed academic freedom.

When you gather together young, time-rich people with lots of energy and teach them to think critically, protest is not a surprising result. Add to that the tradition of tenure, which can make it hard to be fired even if you tell your students to give daily tributes to a tiny statue of Hannah Arendt*, and universities are tricky things for the would-be autocrat.

It is not surprising, then, that the university is often early collateral in the rise of authoritarian governments. From Serbia in the 1990s and the brutal crackdown on academics and students during China’s cultural revolution, to Turkish President Erdoğan’s mass expulsion of academics, it is a story we have seen again and again. In some ways, I’m surprised it took Trump nearly two weeks to begin threatening them.

Of course, with all the things that Trump has already crammed into his short reign at the White House, it’s easy to become fatigued, or decide that threatening to take funds from a successful university is honestly the least of our worries right now. But attacks on universities should worry us just as attacks on the press do. A successful authoritarian needs not only to control people’s movements and actions, but their thoughts. If you seek to control, ulture cannot be allowed to go unchecked – whether it comes in the form of newsprint or the words of a seminar tutor. Mark my words: he'll be after the arts next.

*I do not advocate this as a pedagogical strategy.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.