Key to the upcoming Republican tax plan is more than obvious: Both the congressional and the Senate versions passed so far benefit the wealthy, period. Both versions benefit large corporations, period. But here’s what is easy to miss in all the talk of class politics: As Ben Miller recently discussed in Democracy, the congressional version of the tax plan, as written, constitutes a war on the institution of higher education in this country.
Consider Jeff Schuhrke’s recent article in In These Times, “The House GOP’s Tax Bill Would Make Graduate School Too Expensive For All But the Rich.” In this piece, Schuhrke documents exactly how the plan would “dramatically increase the tax burden for graduate student workers by counting their tuition waivers—which they receive in exchange for their labor as teaching and research assistants—as taxable income.” Plus, Schuhrke continues,“by eliminating student loan interest rate deductions and the Lifetime Learning Credit, the House bill effectively makes graduate school financially out of reach for all but the wealthy.”
That’s right: A majority of the members of the House want to use the tax bill to attack graduate students, the same students that, particularly since the 1990s, have been hungry to organize themselves into collective bargaining units, and to press for better wages for their work as teaching and research assistants. Schurhrke further elucidates the fact that graduate students are being conceived of more and more as laborers rather than future members of the euphemistic “white collar” and intellectual or professional communities. In other words, very few graduate students are acquiring full-time, tenure-track positions after completing their degrees. Lest we forget, it was only back in 2016 that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) classified graduate students who are “teaching and research assistants at private universities” as “employees” with “collective bargaining rights.” Unfortunately, as Schuhrke notes, “Republican control” of the NLRB will very likely reverse that decision in the near future.
To illustrate his point, Schurhrke interviewed numerous graduate students, many of whom, upon learning of the congressional tax plan, confessed that they would likely drop out of their programs should it become law. It is worth noting that these eventualities, should they come to be, will have been a long time coming.
Ever since the publication of William Buckley’s infamous God and Man at Yale in 1951, conservatives have had their guns aimed at the ivory tower. In his conservative ur-text, Buckley argued that wealthy alumni especially should be concerned with an overly liberal and atheist professoriate. He appealed to “trustees” and “alumni” who “are committed to the desirability of fostering both a belief in God, and a recognition of the merits of our economic system.” Academic freedom—the idea that professional competence should translate into faculty being able to teach as they saw fit—be damned. Professors, for Buckley, were merely the “intermediaries” of the university president, who represented the interest of the trustees and alums. All professors who didn’t get with the religious and economic program “should be discharged,” Buckley concluded. Long before the rise of the alt-right, many conservatives—drawing knowingly or not upon Buckley—had come to view higher education as a cesspool of political correctness, as a place where overpaid, tenured, elitist professors indoctrinated their students into liberal dogmas.
Seen in this context, Trump’s animus toward education can be seen as part of a proud tradition of conservative disdain for higher education. It is unsurprising, therefore, that his Secretary of Education endorses and promotes for-profit, online universities (just like the Trump University scam, which lasted from 2005 to 2010). These initiatives tend to center around job-training (Trump’s own university promised to provide students with real estate knowledge rather than the humanities or more open-ended social science disciplines like political science or sociology.) More importantly, they’re stocked with what we call “adjunct faculty,” that is, contingent hires who have no tenure (or possibility of obtaining tenure) and thus worry about their long-term prospects and are under the iron will of the administration. These professors have to play by the rules of the gig economy and watch what they say, in order to get good consumer reviews (i.e., student evaluations) and stay in the good graces of trustees, funders, and university presidents. Just as Buckley would have wanted.
One recent example is particularly telling of this in the Trump era. Soon after the tragic shooting in Las Vegas, a professor at the University of Nevada was caught on camera in “an upper-level class” suggesting that Trump should accept some of the blame for local incidents of violence because “so far all [Trump’s] done is to encourage violence.” Seemingly a valid point, even if contestable.
As you can imagine, the White House was not slow to respond. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s beleaguered press secretary, said the professor in question “should be ashamed of herself, and the university should look into it.” What it would mean for the university to “look into it” is anyone’s guess. But it certainly suggests that the White House doesn’t give one whit of concern about academic freedom. Unfortunately, the University of Nevada’s administration issued a statement that was disconcerting at best. It read: “While we respect academic freedom in the classroom and the right to free speech, we believe the comments were insensitive, especially given the series of events this week and the healing process that has begun in the community.”
This is what’s so troubling about the Republican attack on graduate students in their tax plan. Be it sensitive students or hungry Republicans, neither side seems to understand why defending the rights of professors to teach and research without fear of repercussions is so important. That’s what those graduate students Schurke interviewed most likely hope to be able to do some day: research and teach as they see fit—to put into practice the ideal of academic freedom. It bears reminding the central purpose of a liberal arts education. It’s not about forcing students to become liberal, as conservatives fear, but rather about learning the art of liberty itself—the ability to read and think for yourself, free from political pressures or from economic dire straits. In today’s culture we must cherish that idea more than ever. Yet in Trump’s America, we’re forgetting these principles fast, and the consequences may be more far-reaching than we yet realize.