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All of US academia must fight Trump’s open-or-expel order

The Trump administration has ordered the expulsion of any international students who do not or cannot take in-person classes in fall 2020. It is the White House’s latest move in its ongoing campaign to drastically reduce all manner of immigration. The Trump administration is simultaneously playing hardball and chess, and we in the academy are being exploited as pawns in their game.

It is crucial that American higher education institutions at all levels, from individual departments to national associations of colleges and universities, not accommodate themselves to this nefarious order. More than that, we must utilize every tool at our disposal to actively resist and reverse it.

The order is deliberately intended to pose an ideologically and politically motivated Hobson’s choice to all American higher education institutions: either keep campuses open, which provides a data point in the administration’s minimization of COVID-19’s safety threat, or keep them closed, which provides an opportunity to remove more foreigners from the U.S. Both are red-meat issues for Trump’s white nationalist base, and hence the order is a no-lose proposition.

Moreover, either choice has the effect of systemically weakening American higher education. One way is that it will stoke divisions between the wealthiest colleges and universities that are most able to weather the financial storm and keep their physical campuses fully or preponderantly closed, and less well-off institutions like New Mexico State University that are already being buffeted by the current precipitous economic downturn.

Another and related way is that it eliminates a lucrative and in many cases indispensable source of revenue for all colleges and universities that continue to choose the path of online course delivery.

Most fiendishly, if there are campus COVID-19 outbreaks, it both poses the threat of a slew of lawsuits from sickened employees and students and promises to be a public relations disaster for colleges and universities.

So what are we to do to thwart this diabolically clever move? Here is a seven-part strategic plan for NMSU, the state’s other colleges and universities, and for all of America’s higher education institutions:

• First, and most fundamental to the effort, we must come together at every academic level and speak with one voice in opposition to the Trump administration’s order.

• Second, we must vigorously lobby Congress, and specifically the Democratic-controlled House, to do all in its power to legislatively neutralize the order.

• Third, we must lobby state governments to use their executive and legislative powers in a similar manner.

• Fourth, we must make common cause with the U.S. tech industry with all its political and financial muscle, as this sector will be every bit as hostile to the order as academia is.

• Fifth, we must partner with immigration advocacy organizations, especially but not exclusively those that focus on international students.

• Sixth, and this is above the pay grade of individual departments and most intra-university colleges and schools, we must use every legal tool at our disposal to utilize the courts to pose implementation roadblocks. My alma mater, Harvard University, is leading the way, in partnership with MIT, with its July 8 lawsuit filing against the Trump administration over the order’s legality. NMSU and all other colleges and universities should join this lawsuit as co-complainants while continuing to explore additional legal remedies.

• Seventh, we at every academic level from the departmental to the national must be prepared, only if absolutely necessary, to engage in active resistance – that is, civil disobedience – by refusing to comply with the executive order. This “nuclear option” would dare the Trump administration to crack down on the American higher education system, with all its attendant grave political risks beyond Trump’s hard core of supporters in a presidential election year. Of course, it would be irresponsible to minimize the very real risks to the academy in going this route, but we collectively hold a far stronger hand than meets the eye.

The critical question now is whether we have the boldness and resolve to undertake this action plan. Are NMSU and American academia at large going to use every means at our disposal to thwart the Trump administration’s insidious strategy, or will we meekly submit and gravely wound ourselves, and thereby serve the White House’s malign purposes, by accepting the Hobson’s choice they have set before us? On this decision hangs the health, and even the survival, of the American higher education system as we know it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.

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