Tilted Axis: Reflections from a Doctoral Student on Higher Education in the Era of Trump

By: Chaunté White , University of Houston

The Earth spins on an axis that tilts 23.5° in relation to the sun. This tilt is what gives us seasonal weather patterns and prevents temperature extremes from engulfing the planet. If the higher education landscape were its own planet, I would safely posture that on January 20, 2017, our axis tilted in a way that will force changes in our operational patterns and produce new extremities in our atmosphere. Things are different now. Many of us are off-kilter. Some of us more so than others, as there is privilege in remaining unaffected by the events that have transpired. Fully acknowledging that this field’s (and this nation’s) complex issues—social, political, economic, and otherwise—began long before this era, the inauguration of Donald J. Trump to the Office of President of the United States marked a pretty seismic change in the field of postsecondary education. Our world has shifted, and the future of higher education is no longer what many of us imagined…At the same time, it is everything that many of us always knew that it would be. To quote a tweet from Dr. Crystal Fleming, “there are lots of ugly, unchanged truths about our country that are becoming belatedly visible to some solely because Trump won.”

For higher education doctoral students—such as myself—who began graduate school in or before fall of 2016, there was little indication that by the time you enter the field, you would have experienced such a specific and historical shift in political climate. I mean, we knew of the possibility, but who could have dreamed of THIS reality?… If your experience was anything like mine, I would imagine that the day after the election your educational spaces were filled with noticeable clouds, varying sentiments, and waves of fluctuating emotions. Some elated, more concerned, and some, simply unsure…I was admittedly weary; however, I can also admit that I never fathomed what was to come. Even in the midst of the warning signs, I did not postulate that our field would be tilted on its axis in the way that it has been.

Things are different now. The Southern Poverty Law Center has statistics citing an increase in activity from white nationalist organizations. The events that transpired in Charlottesville spurred new, different and very emotionally charged debates on free speech on campuses across the country. For many, the subtle and overt stressors of graduate student life are compounded by intersectional forces of oppression, and this stress is exacerbated by the current climate. I never imagined that I would have to look at the cohort that I came in with, the colleagues that I have grown so close to, and even my professors, and wonder what side they were really, really on. Being a Black woman doctoral student in the era of Trump has led to interpersonal conflicts with classmates and colleagues that I never imagined having. Parsing through macro and microaggressions and debating whether or not we should hold space on our campuses for white supremacist ideals.

The change in national leadership obviously has deeply profound implications for our scholarship and practice efforts. The communities of students that we have previously identified as ‘vulnerable populations’ have become even more vulnerable. Justice Kennedy’s retirement (and the subsequent confirmation of Bret Cavanaugh), the dismantling of Obama era Affirmative Action guidelines, and other policy changes have put college access for underrepresented populations at even greater risk. The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education and her changes to Title IX have spurred even more cause for concern for the safety of many of our student populations. International student enrollment has steadily declined…Few pieces of federal legislation have as broad implications for underserved students as the Higher Education Act, and its fate hangs in the balance as I type this. There is much, much more to say here. The list is unfortunately too long and still growing. The LGBTQIA community, and even more specifically, Transgender individuals, have faced multiple attacks from this administration…The immigration debacles, of course, impact higher education as well. We have seen children put in cages…and, these children may very well engage with our postsecondary system one day. Just last week I saw a campus flyer that described Active Shooter Training as a ‘resume booster.’ Things are different now. And, all of these happenings have implications for our lives and our work. Again, some of us more so than others, as there is privilege in remaining unaffected by the events that have transpired.

In the midst of these challenging times, though our axis has tilted, we are still spinning. As much as this era has been marked by peril, good things have also happened. Dissertations have been defended, good and impactful work is being done, and I have seen quite a few boundary-pushing papers published in the past year or more. My first ASHE experience began with Dr. Shaun Harper as president inviting us to consider how our work may restore ‘Power to the People.’ My second ASHE experience was even better, as Dr. Lori Patton Davis made her mark as the first Black woman to serve as president. Dr. Patton Davis and her team executed not just a one-time conference event, but a year of incredibly enriching learning opportunities reflective of the possibilities of where we are headed. The Patton Administration created a space for us to envision a more critically conscious field, one where folks like me could be included and seen as knowledge creators. For that, I am grateful.

So, despite this axis tilt, these continually disorienting occurrences with no clear end in sight, our world will keep on spinning. Our field will take several, several more trips around the sun…However, it is up to us as future faculty researchers, scholar-practitioners, activists, policy influencers, etc. to resist and disrupt…to ask the right questions, generate new knowledge, and work hard to not only counteract harmful efforts but also to be on the right side of history. At the same time, outrage fatigue is common and many of us are tired. So I’ll end this blog post by offering my fellow #ASHEGRADS a few thoughts to consider as we charge forward: 1) “Progress isn’t made from fear” – Michelle Obama and 2) take care of yourselves.

Chaunté White is a PhD student in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Houston (UH). Chaunté’s research interests center on issues related to student success and equity among Black students in higher education. Her current work uses mixed methods to examine the relationship between state-level strategic plan goals for higher education and institution-level initiatives aimed at increasing degree attainment among Black adults. Chauntè is also a graduate research fellow and works with UH’s Graduate College of Social Work to examine the effectiveness of a federal grant funded program aimed at increasing graduate degree attainment among students underrepresented in the field of behavioral health. 

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