Trump Wants to Create a National University?

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Written By Pinang Driod

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In his final annual address to Congress, George Washington was convinced that America needed new colleges. Two institutions in particular occupied his mind: a national university and a military academy. “The desirableness of both these institutions has so constantly increased with every new view I have taken of the subject that I can not omit the opportunity of once for all recalling your attention to them,” Washington said in his speech. He was among a minority of the Founders—including Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—who believed that such institutions were necessary to build national character. “The assembly to which I address myself,” Washington told members of Congress, “is too enlightened not to be fully sensible how much a flourishing state of the arts and sciences contributes to national prosperity and reputation.”

Earlier this month, in an announcement that surprised both liberal and conservative observers of federal education policy, former President Donald Trump proposed his own sort of national university: the American Academy—a free, online institution intended to compete directly with the nation’s existing colleges. “We spend more money on higher education than any other country—and yet, they’re turning our students into Communists and terrorists and sympathizers of many, many different dimensions,” Trump said in an announcement video on his social network, Truth Social. The university would be funded, he said, by “taxing, fining, and suing” private-university endowments, and would offer curricula covering “the full spectrum of human knowledge and skills.” Why is the former president, who is not in the middle of rolling out a serious list of new policy ideas, so interested in a national university?

American leaders have long considered national institutions of higher learning at moments of turmoil, in part to teach the sciences, arts, and literature, but also, crucially, to acculturate the population. “A primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important and what duty more pressing on its legislature than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?” Washington said. Early wars gave the nation West Point, and the Civil War assisted in the passage of the first Morrill Act, which gave states land to sell in order to fund colleges. But Trump’s plan takes this rather high-minded tradition and distorts it, draping his bombastic brand over those older ideas.

Trump’s proposal is in some ways the next step in a recent shift that has seen conservatives attempting to assert greater control over higher education. Efforts to water down tenure protections, change how board members are selected, and limit what can be taught have caused consternation among liberals and college presidents but have successfully been passed by legislatures in several states. Trump’s proposal to create a national online university—using money from established institutions—is in line with these efforts.

Trump’s pitch also comes at a time when Americans are watching closely what’s happening on college campuses in response to the Israel-Hamas war. Such a move—zeroing in on the topic that will generate a strong emotional reaction, and using it to provoke his audience to maximum effect—is very Trumpian. However, that political instinct makes the lack of traction the proposal has gained among his base since its introduction all the more interesting.

Perhaps the absence of enthusiasm for the plan stems from the fact that Trump’s idea has very little chance of producing a real institution of higher learning. In decades past, Congress would update the law that governs higher education—the Higher Education Act—every four to six years. But it has gone untouched since 2008, and despite marathon committee markups, there’s no indication that it will receive an update within the next several years. Moreover, Democrats, who no doubt have Trump’s previous foray into online education—the defunct real-estate course known as Trump University—top of mind, would likely reject the proposition outright. And although Republicans have routinely lined up to support other Trump policies, they have not had the same appetite for a major, national education push like the one Trump has suggested, even as they work to change the sector in other ways.

The fact that Republicans have not lined up behind the deal isn’t necessarily a surprise, Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, told me. “When I saw the proposal initially, my instinct was to wonder if anyone on the right is going to get behind this quickly,” Smarick said. And when they did not, he added, it was an indication that although conservatives want to radically change American higher education, they remain wary of a federal role in it. In fact, several prominent Republicans—including the former president—have backed the idea of eliminating the U.S. Department of Education altogether to decrease the federal footprint. “In the No Child Left Behind era, in the Common Core era, in the student-loan era, there’s just been a sense among those on the right that, if anything, we need to dial back the federal government’s role in a lot of areas and allow states to do more.”

Still, Trump’s proposal makes clear that he still sees higher education as an issue that can animate his base. A recent survey from Third Way showed that 85 percent of Republicans support higher-education reform, so it makes sense that the former president would steer into it. But the conservative cavalry has not come, and Trump’s university will likely end up as another in a long line of flashy policies the former president has floated, never to become anything more.


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