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The 2016 election came as a shock — even if it shouldn't have. I remember exactly where I was that night. Awake at 5 a.m. Spanish time, eagerly refreshing and cursing at the New York Times’s infamous needle. Four years and a pandemic later, the memory still haunts me.
Of course, 2020 is not 2016. Joseph R. Biden's lead is significantly larger than Hillary R. Clinton's ever was, and most pollsters agree that undecided voters (who decisively broke for Trump in 2016) are few and far between. But the outcome is still far from guaranteed. From concerns over lackluster Black and Latinx turnout to alarming Supreme Court rulings (including Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s assessment that late absentee ballots shouldn't be allowed to flip a state, as if that specific set of Democratic-leaning votes was somehow illegitimate), uncertainty has plagued the last few days of the campaign. And that doesn't even take into account the small but concerning possibility that the results will be outright rejected by a volatile president. Trump, despite the polls, could still be re-elected.
So what then? What if he wins? Or, for that matter, what if he refuses to lose?
Yale Philosophy Professor Jason Stanley sees tomorrow's contest as “a survival election” for American democracy. He thinks the Trump administration has been “performing fascism,” embracing its key elements.
“Fascist talking, fascist propaganda, a lot of white nationalism, we've seen a lot of fascist symbolism,” Stanley said in an interview.
Of course, a president performing fascism doesn't mean the country is dominated by a fascist regime. As Stanely is quick to note, he's not in prison for his vocal criticism. But it does signal a concerning trend. The United States is sprinting towards authoritarianism. Over the past four years, its status has fallen from that of a “full” to a “flawed” democracy, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's "Democracy Index" report; the Republican Party has morphed significantly and is now, by some measures, ideologically closer to Hungary's autocratic government than to any of its Western European peers.
Universities are likely to find themselves caught in this illiberal wave. Indeed, American colleges have already become a target of the president and his party. They have threatened our tax-exempt status over absurd accusations of “radical left indoctrination” and pushed to dismantle affirmative action and sexual assault guidelines. The moves might be politically savvy — after all, attacking the kind of elite education that Trump himself enjoyed is much in line with his particular brand of golden-toilet-faux-populism, particularly at a time when a majority of Republicans believe that universities have a negative effect on the nation.
According to Stanley, universities are too eager to dispel these concerns, too anxious to appear impartial in political struggles. “Harvard University is not a den of Marxist radicals,” he said. But University administrators often fail to counter the narrative, trying to prove their bipartisan character instead.
“What I see universities doing is going ‘No, no, don't worry! We don't have any radicals, not us!’” Stanley deems this “anticipatory obedience,” borrowing a Timothy Snyder term that alludes to the pre-emptive institutional adjustment to increasingly undemocratic regimes. So Harvard, instead of openly defending its right to foster Marxists and embrace intellectual exchange, finds itself in a bad faith argument over whether our disproportionately wealthy student body is, in fact, a neo-Trotskyist commune.
Stanley’s argument reminded me of a friend’s terribly optimistic prediction in the immediate aftermath of the David D. Kane controversy. He thought that Harvard would “disinvite [Charles A.] Murray, sack Kane, and become a nightly topic on Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Whether a pre-emptive concern over the kind of anti-“cancel culture” backlash shaped our institution's poor decision making is uncertain. Yet it offers a plausible explanation for our University’s lack of boldness on issues ranging from establishing a multi-cultural center to creating an ethnic studies program. It goes back to our deeply flawed core message — at times parroted by University officials — that we are fundamentally an apolitical institution. But academia is never apolitical — particularly not when it faces increasing governmental encroachment. Trump’s incoherent rants about the 1619 Project might seem harmless now, but they are eerily similar to similar lines of attack against progressive academia that led to the outright ban of gender studies in Hungarian colleges.
According to Stanley, we’re not above the partisan fray. “Don't try to be apolitical. A university is a political institution. That's why it's under siege in these moments.”
What openly embracing this political role looks like is harder to say. For some, it means direct action — highlighting the inconsistencies between your institution’s stated mission and the incongruencies it perpetuates. Early in Trump’s mandate, Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government came under fire after the resignation of Professor Bo A.M. Rothstein over the school’s ties to Leonard Blavatnik. Blavatnik (whose donation earned him the naming rights to the school) philanthropically supported Oxford’s research on better governance, yet simultaneously donated to President Trump’s Inaugural Committee. The committee and its donations have been broadly seen as an easy way to purchase access to the administration. (A spokesperson for the Blavatnik School of Government declined to comment beyond the School’s statement on the matter, reiterating that Blavatnik has never attempted to direct the school’s work; a spokesperson for Mr. Blavatnik declined to comment.)
This incongruence, the tension that Rothstein described as a “sharp conflict” between his work and the donations of the man who helped fund it, proved too much.
Rothstein believed that not resigning “would destroy [his] credibility as an intellectual and as a researcher.” He’d looked into Blavatnik when he was offered the position at the school, and analyzed the concerns brought up by human rights activists that highlighted Blavatnik’s alleged ties to the Russian Government, though Blavatnik’s lawyers at the time denied he was an "associate of Vladimir Putin" and said he had no ties to a "campaign of harassment" in Russia. Rothstein himself couldn’t find a smoking gun.
“I'm pretty sure you cannot make that enormous amount of money without stepping on some toes, but that is how capitalism works — I didn't invent it,” Rothstein said.
But when he learned of Blavatnik’s ties to the Trump administration — one he views as antithetical to his life’s work on good governance — he simply couldn’t continue in his position. Universities, he said, have “important normative philosophical values,” red lines on issues like democracy and freedom of speech that ought not to be crossed.
Mr. Blavatnik is also a prominent Harvard donor and a member of the Harvard University Global Advisory Council responsible for the naming of the Blavatnik Institute, Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator, and Blavatnik Fellowship. Reached for comment for this article, University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain described the GAC as a group of the University’s alumni and friends from around the world who meet annually with the President, senior leadership, and other members of the community regarding the University’s global footprint and agenda.
Our University’s politicization (or rather, its acceptance of its unavoidably political character) is crucial to the survival of academia in an increasingly hostile national environment. It might mean looking at our donations to make sure we don’t engage with, for example, authoritarian-leaning billionaires. It might include continuing our recent, more combative stance; or even making actual space for radicals within academia. As Stanley puts it, “if universities are supposed to be filled with Marxists, maybe hire a Marxist.”
Guillermo S. Hava '23, a Crimson Editorial comp director, lives in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Blavatnik did not immediately respond to a request for comment. To clarify, the request was sent to Blavatnik through his company, Access Industries, who declined to comment. This article has been updated accordingly.
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