September 27, 2020

UChicago Can and Should Lobby the Federal Government

The Maroon calls on the University to take its clout with the federal government more seriously, especially when it acts alongside other institutions.

International House houses Breckenridge Hall.

Courtesy of University of Chicago

When the University of Chicago acts in concert with other institutions of higher education to change policy, it gets results. The recent revision to the Trump administration’s move to prevent international students from studying in the U.S. via online instruction shows this much. The University can and must use this leverage to advocate for itself and smaller, less well-endowed institutions for whom COVID-19 is an existential threat.

Following the announcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that students on F-1 visas would not be allowed back in the country without certifying that at least one of their courses would take place in-person, the University of Chicago signed onto an amicus brief alongside lawsuits by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University arguing that the spring’s virtual learning exemptions for F-1 students should be extended through the fall. Shortly after, the University endorsed a lawsuit by the Illinois Attorney General against the order and signed onto a second amicus brief. ICE rescinded the initial order on July 14 after vocal opposition from myriad colleges and universities, including the University of Chicago. This case indicates that, when they want to, colleges and universities can collectively exert a great deal of pressure on the government.

It’s worth noting that UChicago’s actions in this case are broadly consistent with its previous responses to other moves by the Trump administration, especially regarding immigration. It’s signed onto amicus briefs opposing both the original travel ban executive order, its revised descendant, and one more iteration in February, April, and September of 2017. The University regularly liaises with the federal government, and has had a permanent D.C. outpost since 2008 in the Office of Federal Relations. If an updated ICE order comes out, as seems probable, higher education will likely raise a similar protest. And so they should: The ICE order would have disrupted many international students’ lives and put in jeopardy an important source of revenue for many institutions of higher education. 

When higher education wants to impact policy in Washington, it has the power to do so. In March, after the CARES Act pumped nearly $14 billion into higher education, Brown University President Christina Paxson noted in New York Times op-ed that “university administrators are tabulating the financial costs of the Covid-19 pandemic, which already exceed the CARES Act’s support for higher education.” The implication in Paxson’s argument, and in rhetoric from many University administrators, is that no further support will come from the federal government for higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, this view may be vindicated by the stalemate in Congress over further COVID stimulus. However, Paxson’s op-ed suggests that higher education leaders ruled out the possibility of federal support as early as March. The speedy, coordinated response to the ICE order shows that higher education can put the federal government in a headlock when it wants to. As it stands, it’s not clear that higher education leaders even tried to do so with regard to further federal support for institutions scrambling under the combined stresses of COVID-19 and a recession — but the events of the summer suggest that they could have. 

Initially, the idea that the federal government would involve itself in higher education’s plans to reopen beyond the initial relief funding seemed far-fetched. Now, higher education’s involvement in the contentious immigration policy debates has shaken that premise. COVID-19 poses an unprecedented threat to higher learning, and so far, the Trump administration has tried to exploit the pandemic’s financial hazards for political reasons. Rather than only reacting to the most egregious manipulation attempts by the federal government, the University can and should demand better as an industry standard-bearer.