Trump's Travel Ban and Embodied Activism

What can academic organizations do?
By Heather K. Olson Beal with Brent D. Beal and Paul J. P. Sandul

Barack Obama was president for my first eight years as an education professor. Although I was thrilled when he was elected, his administration’s education policies were ultimately disappointing. The Race to the Top program and the Department of Education under Arne Duncan contributed to the growth of charter schools and to the continued marketization of public education. Nevertheless, as long as Obama was at the helm, I felt comfortable speaking out for progressive causes affecting P–20 students. Obama advocated for the oppressed and marginalized, he moderately expanded LGBTQ rights, and he regularly spoke about issues that are important to me as an educator, like universal pre-K and the role of race, socioeconomic status, and language in educa­tional achievement.

Fast forward to my ninth year as a faculty member at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, in deep east Texas. Like many others, I was taken by surprise by the election of Donald Trump in November 2016—a reaction symptomatic of my white privilege, no doubt. Has the role that I should play as a professor changed now that Trump is in office? If so, how? Are we scholars first, then citizens? Or citizens first, then scholars? Should we be activists? I respect professors who have engaged in activism—John Dewey, Michel Foucault, Angela Davis—and, more recently, University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon (who has been a harsh and public critic of Governor Scott Walker). Professors and students protested Jim Crow and the Vietnam War together.

The transition from the forty-fourth to the forty-fifth president has radically changed my daily life. Since Trump’s inauguration, I have spent more time engaged in direct political activism than I have spent on it, cumulatively, in the past twenty-five years. I’ve worked ten to fifteen hours a week organizing people, organizing or attending rallies, starting and joining political groups, and calling and writing my state and federal legislators. I have tenure, so I don’t worry too much about how this newfound activism might affect my job security. It does give me some pause, though—particularly since I live in a deep-red section of the rural American South.

Academia has long been considered a liberal bastion. Professors are ridiculed for being isolated in our ivory towers, away from the “real world.” Conservative politicians routinely criticize both higher education in general and professors in particular. Rick Santorum, as a 2012 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, asserted that young people in college are subjected to “indoctrination.” Another Republican candidate, Ben Carson, said in 2016 that he wanted the Department of Education to police speech on college campuses and deny federal funding where “extreme liberal bias” is found. The Iowa legis­lature proposed a bill requiring “partisan balance” at public universities. Our current secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, recently claimed that First Amendment rights are being threatened by professors who “tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.” A new organization, the Professor Watchlist, was formed to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conserva­tive students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Now that Trump is in the White House, I find these views threatening. Before, I’d laughed at jokes about professors and our ivory towers. “They’re at least partially deserved,” I’d think to myself. Now it feels like our careers and professional identities are under attack. How should I respond? How do I navigate this new terrain?

Predictably, many academics have taken up their pens. As Sarah Rafael García, founder of Bar­rio Writers, a community-based writing program for underserved youth, says, “Your voice is your weapon.” A lot of what we write ends up buried in lifeless research articles, but we also write to defend ourselves, advocate for our principles, and agitate for change. It’s this last kind of writing that I’ve been most interested in lately.

I’ve watched as fellow academics have begun to write about Trump and his administration’s policies in Facebook posts, blog posts, letters to the editor, and newspaper columns. This groundswell of public dialogue and dissent has comforted me.

Travel Ban

On January 27, just one week after taking office, President Trump suspended the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, denying entry to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for ninety days. Protests erupted on street corners and in airports. An online petition denouncing Trump’s travel ban soon included the signatures of numerous university presidents and administrators; heads of leading scientific, engineering, and other academic organizations; Nobel laureates; and faculty members. A January 30 article on Inside Higher Ed observed, “The speed and volume of the response by the large number of colleges and academic groups—some without a tradition of quickly weighing in on political developments—was highly unusual.” By January 31, more than 150 different academic societies and organizations had signed a joint statement on the travel ban.

A few days later, while at a restaurant with my husband (Brent, a business professor) and a mutual friend (Paul, a history professor), conversation turned to how our respective professional organizations had reacted to the travel ban. “AERA’s statement uses the word ‘dismayed,’ if I remember right,” I said. AERA— the American Educational Research Association—is my professional association. It has more than twenty-five thousand members and is dedicated to “promoting the use of research to improve education and serve the public good.”

“Mine was pretty good, too,” Paul said, referring to the statement of the American Historical Association. The first line reads, “The American Historical Association strongly condemns the executive order issued by President Donald J. Trump on January 27 purportedly ‘protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States.’”

Brent responded, “Mine managed to issue a full-page single-space statement without saying much.” Brent’s association is the Academy of Management (AOM). “On a positive note,” Brent continued, with sarcasm, “they took a courageous stand in favor of providing video access to folks banned from our annual conference in Atlanta.” He pulled up AOM’s statement on his phone and passed it around the table.

“We should track down a bunch of these statements and compare them,” I said. The conversation had piqued my curiosity. What were faculty members saying about the travel ban? What were other academic organizations saying about it? And did these statements matter?

Fifty Professional Organizations

We started with the joint statement’s signatories and located other lists of academic associations and organizations, including the statement quickly released by the American Association of University Professors. After eliminating duplicates and those that weren’t primarily academic in nature, we had a list of approxi­mately 130 academic associations and organizations.

We Googled each organization (using the associa­tion’s name and phrases like “statement on travel ban”) and perused its website. When we found a state­ment, we recorded basic information in a spreadsheet. We started with the joint statement and kept going until we’d identified a total of fifty different state­ments. We combined them into one PDF, printed out three copies, and got to work.

After skimming our stack of fifty statements, Brent and Paul seemed to lose interest. I couldn’t let it go. I dug out a new yellow pad and a good pen, figuring I’d do an informal analysis, just to see where it led.

I asked myself these questions as I read each statement:

1. Is this statement in support of or against the ban (or somewhere in between)?

2. What kind of language is used?

3. What arguments are used?

The Statements

At first blush, I was pleased that none of the fifty state­ments supported the ban. It was smugly self-satisfying to read a stack of fifty official statements—all of which expressed opposition to the travel ban. It felt good to be part of a profession that was speaking out publicly in opposition to the policy.

I sorted statements into piles based on degree of expressed outrage (judged, primarily, by word choice). Fifteen of the fifty statements, in my opinion, voiced “very strong opposition” to Trump’s travel ban. I made up and bestowed my own awards: “And the winner of the ‘Strongest Language’ award goes to . . . the American Anthropological Association,” tabbing it for later reference with a yellow sticky note. I highlighted twenty different phrases in this statement: “immediately reverse”; “ill-informed”; “heavy-handed”; “hateful cultural ignorance”; “serves no useful purpose”; “reverses decades of precedent”; “violation of human rights”; “potentially dangerous consequences”; “highly charged xenophobic rhetoric of nationalism”; and more. The College Art Association’s statement came in a close second. Third place went to the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. There were twelve more honorable mentions in my “very strong opposition” stack.

I created a second pile of statements that express merely “strong opposition” (in contrast to “very strong opposition”). The difference between these two stacks was, admittedly, subtle and unavoidably subjective. It boiled down to linguistic register and evidence, however minimal or perfunctory, of an attempt to maintain some semblance of dispassion and objectivity. By the time I was done, I had thirteen statements in this stack. In addition to the first two stacks (“very strong opposition” and “strong opposition”), I had a stack of “for your information” statements, a stack of “just letting you know we signed a joint statement” statements, and a pile of “nonstatement” statements (that is, statements that were vaguely against the ban but didn’t explicitly mention either Trump or his executive orders).

I gave a “milquetoast” award to two statements that seemed particularly spineless, one from the Academy of Pediatrics, the other from Brent’s AOM. Although both criticized the ban, the former insisted on maintaining a faux position of nonpartisanship, while the latter hid behind a policy against taking stands on political issues. Organizations in the humanities and the social sciences were probably overrepresented in the “very strong opposition” category. Nearly all the organizations that issued “just letting you know we signed a joint statement” statements hailed from math or science disciplines.

The most frequent arguments were that the ban would negatively affect scientific or scholarly exchange and limit the ability of the United States to attract talent from abroad. It struck me that no one seemed concerned about the negative impact of the executive order on the individuals—fellow human beings—being banned; the arguments were articulated from the perspective of the United States, the specific organization involved, or an anthropomorphized notion of “science.”

This realization—that these statements largely ignored the direct human costs of Trump’s travel ban—gave me pause. Viewed this way, the statements seemed self-serving and predictable. Where was the outrage when the United States provided only minimal support to Syrian refugees? Did the situation become worthy of collective outrage only when Trump’s actions directly threatened revenues—when it appeared that attendance at annual meetings might decrease? I was still glad to see that something had been said, but I felt a growing unease.

Lunch Détente

When I showed my highlighted, annotated, and sticky-note-tabbed stack of statements and my yellow pad with scribbled lists and tally marks to Brent, he was intrigued. He suggested I write something up and send it to him—and I did. He said he would get a revised draft back to me.

We decided to meet for a working lunch. It’s not like we didn’t talk at home—we had already had several dinner table and pillow talk conversations about these statements, and he had said a few things that had made me suspicious. He’s a business professor; when he starts talking about risk perception and probability neglect—his way of making sense of why people support (or oppose) the travel ban—I tune him out.

I had focused primarily on identifying and mapping differences. We both agreed that these differences, although interesting, shouldn’t distract us from the obvious: the remarkable agreement—an uninterrupted bulwark—of opposition to Trump’s ban across every academic discipline represented in our stack of statements. Plant biologists, seismologists, soil-science experts, chemists, geographers, statisticians, naturalists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists—in short, everyone—agreed that Trump’s travel ban was bad public policy (or at least their professional organizations did).

We agreed that it was interesting that all fifty organizations released statements in opposition to the travel ban. But beyond that, we didn’t agree on much. We spent the next half hour delineating, buttressing, and defending our respective positions. By the time we left, I had finished my tilapia; Brent had eaten only half his meatloaf. We agreed to disagree—and that I would get the last editorial word.

Oil and Water

For academics, the response to the travel ban—monosynaptic and visceral—was a collective stampede to keyboards and word-processing programs; within days, a phalanx of written statements emerged from hundreds of academic associations and organizations. This became an emphatic denunciation of what many academics perceived to be a stark manifestation of the self-reinforcing kinetics of ignorance, white racial grievance, and faux populism. “Trump has an oil-and-water problem with academics,” Brent had argued at lunch.

Trump doesn’t just play loose with facts; he blatantly disregards them. Listening to Trump speak is like reading hastily written, eleventh-hour student papers. We imagine ourselves scribbling comments in the margins: “Citations?” “Sweeping generaliza­tion.” “Data?” “This doesn’t make sense.” How many times have we told our students to avoid words and phrases like “very” and “a lot”? They’re imprecise. Trump throws out unrelated sentence clauses like it’s a game of fifty-two-card pickup; as Bob Cesca wrote for Salon, he “avoids details by rotating through his mental rotisserie of superlatives—‘very, very,’ or ‘tre­mendous’ or ‘terrific’ or whatever hyperbolic pitchman gibberish he’s trained himself to repeat.”

Becoming an expert requires dispassion and, counterintuitively, a kind of opening up—almost a surrender—to the phenomenon being studied. One of my doctoral advisers used to tell me to approach a research project with “an open mind, not an empty head.” In practice, this means burying the notion that one knows much of anything. Doing academic research is like building a pyramid; stacks of prior research need to be studied, databases pillaged, colleagues consulted, conferences attended, and so on. The pyramid’s point can’t be placed until the body has been constructed. It’s a process that minimizes ideological bias, even if it doesn’t eliminate it.

“And that’s why academics and Trump don’t mix; that’s why the travel ban produced such a visceral reaction,” Brent insisted at lunch. Academics don’t see any evidence that Trump approaches problems as we do. What we see is a privileging of instinct, affect, and ideology over reason and deliberation. Business Insider, for example, on the Tuesday after Trump announced his travel ban, published an article assess­ing the threat of refugee terrorists, concluding that a typical American is six times more likely to be killed by a shark, twenty-nine times more likely to be killed in a regional asteroid strike, and 260 times more likely to be struck by lightning. For academics, the problem isn’t just the travel ban. It’s a glaring example of a failure to accurately assess the costs and benefits of the free movement of people and ideas. It shows no evidence of careful deliberation, data-based decision-making, or a commitment to realpolitik. Academics look at Trump and all we see are cheap intellectual shortcuts and ideological pandering.

Heather Goes to a Conference

I resisted Brent’s attempts to explain—“but not justify”—why such a large percentage of the population supported the travel ban, but we both acknowledge the political gulf between academics and Trump. Neither of us knows what to do about it.

That brings us full circle. What is the best way for academics to advocate for the kind of society in which we want to live? Do we keep to our ivory towers, doubling down on academic research? Maybe aim for publishing more research or publishing our research in more prestigious journals? Do we focus more on our students? Do we spend more time encouraging them to engage in political activism, to think clearly, to reject “alternative facts”?

In April 2017, two colleagues and I drove to San Antonio to attend the annual AERA meeting. It was a long five days. As I talked about my own research or listened to others talk about theirs, I did loose mental calculations of how much money we (and our institutions) were spending to talk to ourselves.

Would any of our research or our conversations affect public education?

The contrast between our world in the conference hotel and what I saw in the mornings when I went running started bothering me. I felt uncomfortable eating at restaurants on the San Antonio River Walk, paying thirty dollars for grilled chicken while knowing that two or three blocks away teachers and students in the San Antonio public schools were suffering under the weight of an unjust school funding system. Were we in danger of becoming the mirror image— on the political left—of what Trumpism has become on the political right?

As the conference progressed, I couldn’t help thinking that we were closing ourselves off from the outside—literally, in the glistening and newly reno­vated convention center, and metaphorically, in our jargon-filled and mostly unread research conversations and academic journals.

On the last night I was there, I attended a hastily scheduled event called, “A Town Hall Meeting on the Role of AERA as a Research Organization in Socially Challenging Times.” Feeling unmoored, I thought this event might help me push past my skepticism.

Attendees made suggestions about how AERA could help disseminate information about different legislative proposals—perhaps including lists of pros and cons based on research—and other informa­tion about how to communicate to state and federal lawmakers. Someone reminded us that not everyone in our organization was unhappy about Trump’s election. Someone else commented that making public state­ments is not enough. My heart was racing. My palms were sweating. I stood.

I shared some of my feelings about the disconnection between our experience at the conference and the real lives of educators and students in San Antonio. I asked whether AERA had ever set up local work projects in conference cities. If it hadn’t, would it be willing to do so in the future? For example, at our annual meeting in New York City in 2018, in addition to focusing on our research, could we—as an academic organization—help public schools in a direct and tangible way? And by that, I said, I didn’t mean, write papers.

I love the notion that the pen is mightier than the sword. I teach my children and my students to use language to advocate for what’s important to them. They can write to their elected representatives, they can write letters to the editor, they can write about their experiences and their research in different academic outlets. The act of writing—and the reflection and clear thinking that good writing demands—can be a powerful antidote to apathy, bigotry, misogyny, authoritarianism, and xenophobia.

But it’s not enough. We spend too much time and money talking among ourselves, convincing one another of our mutual expertise, constructing our own artificial intellectual playgrounds. We need to make sure that our knowledge and expertise are actively tested against reality on the ground, in people’s lives. We need to become more adept at fixing the prob­lems—not just at identifying them.

As writers, how can we use language to persuade, but keep ourselves grounded enough to avoid turn­ing our scholarly communities into disconnected echo chambers? How do we avoid retreating into our proverbial ivory towers?

I don’t have all the answers, but I came home convinced that one answer, or at least part of the solu­tion, is to put our bodies where our words are, so to speak: embodied activism. We need to put ourselves in uncomfortable spaces outside of the shiny convention centers where academic conferences are generally held. We should be painting, organizing, shelving books, planting gardens, and reading to schoolchildren.

Those of us in tenured or tenure-track faculty posi­tions are a privileged lot. We should see ourselves, I’m convinced, as academic citizens committed to social action and improving society, with both our words and our actions.

Trump is a walking cautionary tale of the need to avoid the self-reinforcing feedback loops of political echo chambers. He is a constant reminder of the dangers of unreflective prepackaged ideology. We need to build our pyramids of expertise and then go out and make sure that expertise is deployed in a way that improves peoples’ lives.

We need to get to work.

Heather K. Olson Beal is an associ­ate professor of secondary education at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her scholarship examines the issues of school choice, second language education, and the preparation of teachers to meet the needs of English language learners. Brent D. Beal is an associate professor of manage­ment at the University of Texas at Tyler. He teaches strategic management and writes about corporate social responsibility and income inequality. Paul J. P. Sandul is associate professor of history at Stephen F. Austin State University, where he teaches courses in American history, urban history, public history, oral history, and cultural mem­ory. He is the author of California Dreaming: Boosterism, Memory, and Rural Suburbs in the Golden State (2014).