News Analysis: In the Age of Trump, Faust Treads Cautiously

As Faust has taken a more active approach to national politics, her position as president of one of the most renowned universities in the world has both limited and enabled her ability to push for change.
By Claire E. Parker and Leah S. Yared

With the advent of Donald Trump's presidency, Faust has had to balance advocacy with non-partisanship.
With the advent of Donald Trump's presidency, Faust has had to balance advocacy with non-partisanship. By Derek G. Xiao

Since President Donald Trump’s election in November, University President Drew G. Faust has faced mounting pressure to take a stand.

Students have rallied in Harvard Yard, urging the University to protect its undocumented students. International affiliates have asked for support after Trump signed an executive order barring immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. And professors have voiced concerns about cuts in research funding.

At the helm of an institution that has much to lose under some of Trump’s proposed policies, Faust has had to respond.

“Whatever our personal political views, emotions run high and feelings deep in what for many is a challenging and uncertain time,” she wrote soon after the election. “Violence, hatred, and divisiveness put all of us at risk; they put our society at risk; they put the very idea and purpose of universities at risk.”

But as Faust has taken a more active approach to national politics, her position as president of one of the most renowned universities in the world has both limited and enabled her ability to push for change.

Harvard is designated a 501(c)3 organization—a tax-exempt status that prohibits universities from endorsing or opposing political candidates. According to Internal Revenue Service guidelines, “leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”

Harvard relies on this tax designation to maintain its endowment, as Faust explained in a letter to members of Congress in April.

“Universities are meant to be nonpartisan; we are nonprofit institutions and that is an aspect of that privilege that comes with that privilege,” Faust said in an interview. “And we want to focus on issues that matter to us and the resolution of issues that are central to higher education, not on taking sides in partisan disputes.”

Amid widespread fear and uncertainty, Faust has toed a line between taking action on behalf of the University and maintaining the nonpartisanship she is bound to as the leader of a tax-exempt institution. But as some of Trump’s policies have continued to affect the University’s work, that line has become increasingly blurred, and Faust finds herself regularly responding to political developments when she used to do so more sparingly.

“Whether it’s a political issue or a faculty member has done something outrageous and people are saying ‘won’t you denounce this person?’—I just don’t see myself as denouncer-in-chief,” she said in an interview Friday. “I see myself as upholding values and upholding principles and advancing agendas. And I think that’s the role I should be playing.”

'Ramping Up'

Harvard has long operated a federal relations office in Washington, D.C., and many other universities maintain similar offices. Since 2011, Harvard’s lobbying arm has spent roughly half a million dollars on advocacy efforts each year—a number that held steady for 2016.

But after Trump’s election, Faust said in a December interview that she will be “ramping up” her own lobbying efforts this year, and Harvard’s Associate Vice President for Public Affairs and Communication Kevin Casey said the amount of money Harvard spends on lobbying will likely increase in 2017.

On Faust’s agenda when she meets with lawmakers are three priorities: federal research funding, financial support for education—including financial aid and avoiding an endowment tax—and the University’s ability to “attract talent from all over the world.” During the campaign and in the early days of his administration, Trump has proposed or enacted policies that affect all three areas.

In January, Faust met with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and minority leader Charles Schumer. She plans to visit Washington again in April.

“When I said I was ‘ramping up’ I was thinking of my personal involvement, and how much time I’m spending in Washington as part of my overall schedule and what outreach I personally want to do and be engaged in,” Faust said.

Faust has been a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act, which offers a legal path to residence for some undocumented immigrants, for many years. She signed a letter in December with university presidents across the country defending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an executive order signed by former President Barack Obama in 2012 that offers legal protections undocumented young adults. During his campaign, Trump pledged to end the program.

Faust has also spoken to Senators Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham about advocating for the Bridge Act, bipartisan legislation that would provide legal protections to undocumented students if Trump eliminates DACA.

While most of her political advocacy has centered on Capitol Hill, Faust joined other university presidents in sending a letter to Trump condemning his Jan. 26 executive order, which bars immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—from entering the United States for 90 days. While a temporary stay suspended the order, its future remains uncertain.

Not a 'Denouncer-In-Chief'

Some students, however, feel that Faust should go further. In a letter to Faust in January, student activists urged Faust to take a more active stance on specific campus issues they argue are increasingly relevant with Trump’s political agenda.

Calling on administrators “to embark on a course of action that upholds our community values in the face of a new political reality,” student activists outlined a series of demands for change on campus, including divesting the endowment from fossil fuels, supporting undocumented students, hiring a Muslim chaplain, and creating an Ethnic Studies department.

After Trump’s immigration order, Faust announced in a University-wide message that Harvard would hire its first Muslim chaplain. But she declined to label Harvard a “sanctuary campus,” and maintained in an interview Friday that the University would not divest from fossil fuels.

“It’s heartening to see students engaged with such a wide range of issues and the passionate way they feel about them and the energy they put into promoting them, and so I very much appreciate that,” Faust said in an interview. “There are a lot of good ideas that they’re espousing. There are other ideas that we’re not going to accept.”

Although some recent University actions take a stand on political issues—such as calling for ending Trump’s immigration ban—Faust herself has never referred to Trump by name in her official communications.

“I think if you look at anything I’ve written and said, you will never find a person named in any of it,” Faust said in an interview. “People want me to denounce this or that or another person over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever done it. Ever.”

Instead, Faust frames her statements in terms of higher education’s priorities. This focus formed the basis of two amicus briefs Harvard filed with other universities challenging Trump’s immigration order. Both briefs—one submitted to a Boston federal court on Feb. 4 and the other filed Monday in a federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y.—structure their arguments around the importance of maintaining American universities’ global networks.

The executive order, the Boston brief argues, “undermines the values and contributions of open academic exchange and collaboration.”

In a letter to the Harvard community about the order, Faust wrote, “Amid this widespread doubt and unease, we will continue to insist that policymakers take full account of how fundamentally our universities depend on the ability of people to travel across borders without undue constraint.”

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @LeahYared.

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