University’s messages opposing ban good start, needs consistency

On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The act sparked immediate chaos and protest across the country; even in the concourses of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Two days later, Chancellor Mark Wrighton, rarely one for political gestures, sent an email out to our community expressing his personal opposition to what is now being called the “Muslim ban” and clarified a Washington University statement of principles.

Six days after that, our Chancellor appeared on CNN, and again broke character to denounce the executive order. “The executive order issued by the president undermines our effort to strengthen our ties internationally and undermines our effort to build collaborations that are going to contribute to a stronger, more vibrant U.S. economy,” Wrighton told CNN’s Michael Smerconish.

Wash. U.’s student body often criticizes its administrators for sticking to the sidelines during political debate. For once, that isn’t the case.

Granted, Wrighton notably failed to mention that this executive order essentially targets Muslims. He also lacked the fiery rhetoric that most have found comforting in these divisive times. These are both valid complaints. However, it is a good start. Thank you, Chancellor Wrighton, for taking a stand. Now it’s time to do more.

When Wrighton appeared on CNN, he spoke on behalf of 48 colleges and universities who penned a joint letter to President Trump. The collection of institutions signed the bottom of this letter is, frankly, staggering. They include Duke University; Georgetown University; Princeton University; Harvard University; Williams College; University of California, Berkeley; Johns Hopkins University; Pomona College; Yale University; Brown University; University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College. The list is exhaustive, passing between public and private schools, encompassing the very best in higher education. Presenting as a united front, it’s possible that this coalition could wield considerable political and social might both at the federal and local level.

At this stage in Trump’s presidency, a coalition like this needs to continue to make itself visible on the national stage. One appearance on CNN is not enough to get its message out to the majority of the country, and official statements and letters will not suffice for inspiring real political action. Wrighton is one of 48 figureheads, and at that one who is less comfortable in the public eye than someone like University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann. If more heads appear on primetime television and emphasize their message, they will wield more public power than they currently can as elite educational institutions.

But speaking alone will not be enough: Wrighton’s message was, like his letter, one that searched for broad-based appeal within the educational realm. In an effort to remain didactic, he depoliticized the issue of immigration for universities. That kind of commitment, while still positive, will make the coalition seem more like an ally than a driver of political change. While it is hard to envision heads of universities making strong statements on the president’s political decisions, they will have to wield more of their national influence and show themselves to be more invested in the communities and nations affected by the “Muslim ban.” That will involve stronger rhetoric, more public appearances and certainly a good deal more risk for these institutions. Without their voice, the fight against Trump’s immigration policies may still very well win, especially given the recent federal block on his ban. However, their support could drastically shift public momentum away from an isolationist immigration agenda and change the tone of dialogue within our universities and higher education as a whole towards inclusion and acceptance.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.