President Trump Issues Executive Order on Campus Free Speech
March 22, 2019

President Trump Thursday signed an Executive Order on campus free speech that links federal research funding to institutions agreeing to promote free inquiry. He first vowed to give the order during a speech March 2 at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Politico noted that the order “essentially just reinforces what schools are already supposed to be doing.” 

The order directs 12 federal agencies, including the Departments of Education and Defense and the National Science Foundation, that fund college and university research and education grants to add language to the agreements institutions sign to receive the money.

“The heads of covered agencies shall, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the First Amendment, to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies,” the order states. 

While the order refers to “education grants,” that would not include federal student aid that goes directly to students to pay college expenses. The types of “education grants” seemingly referred to in the order might, however, include institutional capacity-building grants, such as those made to minority-serving institutions. 

ACE President Ted Mitchell said in a statement that the Executive Order is “unnecessary and unwelcome, a solution in search of a problem.”

As The Washington Post reported, Mitchell also said in his statement that, “No matter how this order is implemented, it is neither needed nor desirable, and could lead to unwanted federal micromanagement of the cutting-edge research that is critical to our nation’s continued vitality and global leadership.”

In addition, it is unclear how the order will be implemented. 

“Executive Orders are not self-implementing,” Mitchell said. “What remains to be seen is the process the administration develops to flesh out these requirements and the extent to which it is willing to consult with the communities most affected—especially research universities.”

The Wall Street Journal reported warnings by critics that the action could effectively impose federal curbs on free speech and further politicize how administrators handle the delicate balance between students’ expression and their safety, such as when controversial speakers come to campus. 

The Journal interviewed Jonathan R. Alger, president of James Madison University (VA) and a member of the ACE Board of Directors, who noted that institutions already take issues of free speech very seriously. 

“I am not quite sure what problem we’re trying to solve. Tying grants to something completely different—in this case, tying science to free speech—it seems like mixing apples and oranges,” Alger said.

The order also directed the Department of Education (ED) to expand the College Scorecard, including by adding program level data in areas such as student debt, repayment and default rates, and earnings. 

It also orders ED to issue a report “identifying and analyzing policy options for sharing the risk associated with federal student loan debt among the federal Government, institutions, and other entities.” Various risk-sharing proposals already are being weighed as part of efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act and as part of the current ED negotiated rulemaking effort.