There is a long tradition of political appointees moving into academia — former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice returned to Stanford University as a professor, ex-CIA director Robert Gates was a dean and then president at Texas A&M University, and former secretary of health and human services Sylvia Mathews Burwell is president of American University.
But in recent months, some students and faculty have argued colleges should apply more scrutiny to former Trump officials looking to make similar transitions.
The backlash was swift at Carnegie Mellon University in June when the school announced former Trump official Richard Grenellwas hired for a one-year fellowship. In an open letter to university administrators, critics said Grenell, who served as acting director of national intelligence and ambassador to Germany, “has a well-documented record of sexism and support for racist political movements.” Criticism grew in November when Grenell falsely claimedthat voter fraud had cost Donald Trump a second term.
Carnegie Mellon officials defended the hire but formed committees to study both Grenell’s appointment and the university’s hiring procedures. In one letter to the community, campus leaders acknowledged tension between the institution’s embrace of free expression and “diversity as a core value.”
Similar disputes are playing out at other universities. A petition circulating at Harvard University demands that the school vet Trump administration officials “for their role in undermining” democracy before they are invited to teach or speak on campus. Inthe District, an open letter from Georgetown University faculty asked the administration to develop standards for Trump appointees before extending invitations to campus. A George Washington University student argued in a column that the school should reject job applications from Trump officials.
Critics point to Trump’s appointees’ support of controversial policies — from the president’s “zero tolerance” immigration strategy that separated thousands of families to the administration’s restrictions on transgender troops. High-ranking officials have been criticized as complicit in a presidential term marked by allegations of racism or have drawn ire after making incendiary remarks of their own.
The backlash became even louder after the president incited thousands of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to overturn his election loss.
But others say efforts to keep Trump officials from campuses undermine universities and their responsibility to foster diverse perspectives, including viewpoints that make some students uncomfortable.
The debatewill prompt a public clash between these institutions’ mission to promote the exchange of ideas and a renewed focus on inclusion sparked by the racial justice movement that swept the country last summer.
“They’re going to have to do the hard job of figuring out, even if we disagree with this person’s politics, are our issues about politics, or are they about behavior?” said Jonathan Aldrich, a CMU professor and member of the committee examining hiring who is skeptical of Grenell’s appointment. “And maybe if there’s serious doubt, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the person.”
Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that seeks to protect free speech on college campuses, called attempts to keep some Trump officials from campuses “a well with no bottom.”
“I think it’s likely to lead for a tit-for-tat campaign that’s going to lead campuses basically scrambling to find somebody, anybody, who can talk interestingly about an issue without being subject to a de-platform campaign,” he said.
At Carnegie Mellon, one of the committees created to review Grenell’s hiring scrutinized the platform he was given. In a report released weeks after he received a fellowship at the university’s Institute for Politics and Strategy, committee members wrote that they had examined several of his Twitter posts that provoked outrage, including one in which he called the coronavirus “the Chinese flu” and another where he suggested that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow “take a breath and put on a necklace.”
While those tweets are “(at most) minor infractions,” the committee determined, many of Grenell’s statements were “dismissive and disrespectful of the opinions of others.” The report concludes that although the university acted appropriately in hiring Grenell, officials should have invited input from other community members before making the decision.
Then Trump lost the election, and Grenell began falsely alleging widespread voter fraud. Nearly three dozen CMU student organizations petitioned administrators to denounce Grenell’s statements and take “corrective action.” University President Farnam Jahanian responded with a detailed defense of Grenell’s freedom of expression and the importance of diverse viewpoints.
Darya Kharabi, who graduated from CMU in December, said they appreciate hearing from people with different ideologies — including conservative ones — but feel that Grenell fails to uphold the university’s value of inclusion. They’re also concerned about his promotion of election misinformation and what they see as his complicity in the Capitol attack.
“When you start to censor one side, what are you going to do when you start censoring the other?” Kharabi said, of the value of free expression. “And really, I think the line is drawn at hate speech, at racism and at blatant rudeness.”
A university spokesperson declined to make Jahanian available for comment and responded to an email sent to Grenell and his supervisor to say that they would not grant interviews.
But in an announcement of the committee to study hiring policy and academic freedom, Jahanian acknowledged an increasing tension between that freedom and the university’s commitment to promoting an inclusive environment.
“These are very nuanced issues and making sure we all understand the tenuous boundaries that exist within these spheres is not only valuable but critical to ensuring that short-term decisions do not compromise deep-rooted, foundational values,” Jahanian wrote.
When American University’s Sine Institute of Policy and Politics named retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster a fellow in November, some faculty members pushed back. McMaster and Trump chafed against each other, sometimes publicly, during his year of service as the president’s national security adviser.
Since leaving the Trump administration, McMaster has taught graduate business classes at Stanford University, and he holds fellowship positions in the university’s Hoover Institute and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
“It’s troubling that AU would give him that honor,” said Sharon Weiner, an international service professor at AU. “The Trump administration has promoted ideas and policies that are racist, sexist, xenophobic and problematic. To my knowledge, [McMaster] has not spoken out against the Trump administration’s authoritarian policies.”
But others in the community welcomed McMaster. Katy Selinger, president of AU’s College Republicans chapter, said students expect faculty to “respect the range of political persuasions that exists within American University’s student body.”
Amy Dacey, the Sine Institute’s executive director, defended McMaster’s appointment and said the institute recruits experts from diverse backgrounds and industries “with the hope of building effective, bi-partisan policy solutions.”
“As a military and national security expert and the author of numerous books, including most recently a book on the most pressing national security threats facing the United States, McMaster will discuss strategic competence and elements of elective leadership,” Dacey said in a statement. “We believe Lt. General McMaster and our other five fellows are uniquely situated to offer valuable and varied insight on crucial policy issues.”
Through an AU spokesperson, McMaster declined a request for comment.
As similar conversations unfold on campuses throughout the country, Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has argued that each person who leaves the Trump administration should be assessed differently.
“You may disagree with his policy proposals, but they are within the normal range of disagreement,” Musgrave said of McMaster.
But, he added, “If someone used their position to promote policies that did harm to people and our democracy, those people should not be granted positions at universities.”
These issues are not unique to the Trump administration: Former attorney general Alberto Gonzales was protested at Texas Tech University after being hired to teach political science in 2009. Students and faculty criticized his role in some of the Bush administration’s most controversial decisions, including the treatment of terror suspects and the use of interrogation techniques that human rights groups consider to be torture.
Gonzales, who is now a professor and law school dean at Belmont University in Nashville, said he understands why he was not immediately embraced by everyone at Texas Tech. But he thinks campuses looking to hire ex-government officials should try to understand the circumstances around controversial decisions.
“You don’t get it right all the time. I think most people don’t appreciate how hard these decisions are that are made at the White House,” he said. “I can live with the decisions that I made because of the fact that I know I acted in good faith based on what I understood to be lawful.”
Gonzales also said it can be counterproductive to ban certain perspectives from campus and, in many cases, students are “willing to listen and give you an opportunity to prove yourself.”
Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama who became president of the University of California system, also defended the importance of universities hiring ideologically diverse faculty members. But she said administrators have to consider whether a job candidate will contribute to the campus discourse.
“You have to evaluate, what’s the basis for what they’re saying?” Napolitano said. “Is it grounded in anything other than, say, racial bias?”
Napolitano recalled that some UC students were upset when she was hired because she presided over a record number of deportations of undocumented immigrants while serving as DHS secretary. She said she met with those students to talk about why she made certain decisions.
“I’m not sure I persuaded all of them, … but at least we had that discussion,” said Napolitano, who stepped down as UC system president last year. “I think they learned something.”
Far from a wholesale ban on Trump appointees working or speaking on campus, Harvard graduate student Diego Garcia Blum said he and others who signed that school’s petition want the university to publicly release the criteria it will use to evaluate who can come.
When conservative students protested a visiting fellowship awarded in 2017 to Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked classified intelligence materials to anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, Harvard administrators withdrew the honorary title but allowed her to speak. And after Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) objected to Congress’s certification of the presidential election results this month, Harvard administrators removed her from the senior advisory committee of the university’s Institute of Politics.
Administrators have not responded to the petition about Trump officials, Blum said. A Harvard spokesperson declined to make university officials available for comment, and the Harvard Republican Club did not respond to an interview request.
Hans-Joerg Tiede, director of research at the nonprofit American Association of University Professors, recommended that universities find ways to include students and faculty in decisions about potentially controversial hires. A person’s political affiliation is “almost never professionally relevant,” he said, while allegations of misconduct in previous work would be.
Blum said Harvard students want transparency, not to silence anyone.
“We’re not trying to ‘cancel’ anybody,” he said. ”If you’re going to bring them, bring them to campus. But they should be challenged fully and completely for what is happening and not let anything be swept under the rug.”