Last month, the presidents of nearly fifty leading universities, including Duke, signed a letter condemning President Trump’s “travel ban” executive order as a threat to both “American higher education and the defining principles of our country.” For Duke and other participating universities to take the extraordinary step of official condemnation, and in such strong and categorical language, it is right to expect commensurately strong arguments in support of their position. Disappointingly, no such arguments exist in the university presidents’ letter, which indulges instead in the toxic blend of dogmatic rigidity and sloppy emotivism that increasingly passes for discourse on this controversial subject.
Let us first consider the claim that President Trump’s executive order (EO) is a threat to higher education. To be clear, there are talented, law-abiding students and scholars who have been negatively affected by the temporary suspension of travel from Somalia, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Yemen, and indefinite suspension of travel from war-torn Syria. It is entirely appropriate that Duke should intervene on behalf of these directly-affected community members. Far more questionable, however, is the university’s implication that such unfortunate cases collectively amount to a unique threat to higher education. After all, it is difficult to imagine any major matter of policy not having some negative impact on some group’s ability to access or contribute to scholarship or to the university community generally.
It is quite likely that many of Duke’s own policies, such as its (in my view, admirable) restriction of need-blind admission to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, have a far greater limiting effect on the potential of international students to contribute to the university community than President Trump's EO. To take a more personal example, I wonder whether a campus climate in which only one faculty member in the entire university openly supported Trump's candidacy—namely, me—reflects a more significant threat to higher education than a temporary restriction of travel from the nations in question—that is, if we take the value of national diversity as a proxy for the more fundamental value of ideological diversity in higher education.
Setting aside the question of higher education, the university presidents’ letter is most objectionable in its claim that Trump’s executive order “dampens the light of liberty” and threatens the “defining principles of our country.” The letter itself provides no reasons to support this remarkable assertion. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber, co-organizer of the letter campaign and author of its original draft, nonetheless affords some insight in noting that his own mother was a refugee from war-torn Europe nearly seventy years ago. To be sure, the United States has a noble history of taking in refugees, as is the case with Eisgruber’s family. Far more suspect is the implication that such cases of generosity either establish or reflect a principled obligation to admit all refugees under any circumstances, irrespective of risk. Eisgruber himself seems to demure from this radical suggestion in his insistence—again, without any support—that the EO is unnecessary because sufficient travel vetting procedures already exist in relation to the seven countries in question. Even if this unsupported assertion were true, it in any case appears to shift the argument from one of principle to one of risk assessment, about which people might presumably disagree without violating the “defining principles” of the nation.
Despite its many flaws, the university presidents’ letter reflects an admirable concern for religious liberty. It is all the more disappointing, then, that the letter would fail to acknowledge the EO’s stated interest in preventing those who reject basic principles of religious tolerance from entering the United States, to say nothing of the EO’s special consideration for “persecuted religious minorities” as potential case-by-case exceptions to the travel ban.
For that matter, nothing in the language of the EO supports the university letter’s accusation of an unfair targeting of Muslims. Although it is true that the seven affected nations are majority Muslim, they also happen to be either geopolitical adversaries (Iran) or chaotic, war-torn states severely compromised by extremism and terrorism (Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Iraq). It is simply disingenuous and unfair to suggest that religious bigotry would be the only reason one might support a travel restriction from such places.
One might note that American foreign policy blunders have contributed significantly to the sorry conditions in these affected countries. Our spectacularly foolish policy of regime changes in Libya, for instance—a policy promoted vigorously by Eisgruber’s Princeton colleague Anne-Marie Slaughter— has undeniably worsened the region’s refugee crisis. It is all the more curious then that the foreign policy blunders of previous administrations failed to elicit the sort of official condemnation now directed against President Trump’s EO. Dare I wonder at the reigning hierarchy of taboos according to which it is evidently less objectionable to bomb a given "Muslim-majority" nation than it is to restrict travel from it?
To conclude, the university presidents’ letter is a lazy document that fails to do justice to a complicated and contentious issue. Duke was wrong to lend its institutional support to this document, and would do well to think more carefully before taking an official position on policy matters in the future.
Darren Beattie is a visiting professor in the political science department.
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