Earlier this week, amid protests at UC Berkeley directed toward an appearance by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulous, President Trump tweeted, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Regardless of whether you view the protests at UC Berkeley as a free speech issue, the last part of Trump’s tweet is truly concerning. The suggestion that a president would withhold funds from an institution of higher learning on the basis of a political opinion threatens the very existence of American democracy.
The ability of our nation’s colleges and universities to exercise academic freedom is a fundamental element of our democracy. It ensures that American youths are exposed to a plethora of ideas and perspectives without government interference. Colleges and universities rely on government funding to operate. Thus, the government could potentially use such funding as leverage to push its own agenda. While Trump’s tweet may seem minimal and specific, it can open the door to broader government intervention. What would occur if certain Republicans next wanted to withhold funding from schools that teach evolution? Though this hypothetical may seem far-fetched, should President Trump go through with his threat, it could set a precedent for such government influence.
Some argue that UC Berkeley has strayed from its mission to welcome a variety of perspectives and Trump is simply holding the university accountable. This is an understandable argument, but it is the responsibility of the leadership at UC Berkeley, not the president, to resolve the issue. Federal intervention could set a destructive precedent. There has been talk throughout and since the election with regard to President Trump’s reputation as a demagogue with dictator-like ambitions. Many of these claims were exaggerated and lacked sufficient evidence.
However, there is something to be said for the historical trend of dictators intervening in education. A dictator’s first step to solidify power is often through the restriction of academic freedom in order to push an agenda with less resistance. I am not suggesting that this is President Trump’s first step toward becoming a dictator, but, if put into action, his threat would undoubtedly begin a slippery slope for the weakening of a key element of American democracy: academic freedom.
Ryan Steinberg is a freshman majoring in political science.