‘Sanctuary’ status puts U.S. universities at peril

Students paying subsidized tuition and faculty receiving regular paycheques may soon discover breaking the law comes with a price

sanctuary status

NEW YORK, Dec. 11, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Universities in the U.S. are considering designating themselves “sanctuary campuses” as a pre-emptive strike against President-elect Donald Trump. This is taking them far beyond their normal bailiwick of obsessing over political correctness within their institutions.

Portland State University, Reed College and Wesleyan University – to name but a few – have decided to adopt the term. In declaring themselves above and beyond the law, they are engaging in a dangerous game of chicken with both federal and state governments.

It is one they are destined to lose and one that could have serious consequences to their financial well-being.

It’s hard to fathom that level-headed administrators would even entertain taking the step to block potential federal action regarding illegal immigrants on their campuses. Yet, that is what many students and faculty are demanding of their universities across the United States.

Harvard history professor Walter Johnson raised the issue at a recent Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting. Johnson demanded to know what steps Harvard would take to protect “undocumented students” from proposed policies of a Trump administration.

During the presidential election campaign, Trump vowed to rescind an executive order from Barack Obama granting temporary status to students in the country illegally. According to a report in the Harvard Crimson, Johnson cites the university’s “global prominence” and insists that makes it uniquely placed to demonstrate “moral leadership” by adopting the sanctuary campus label.

At least in Harvard’s case, administrators are finally realizing that there are real-world consequences to taking actions that go far beyond the symbolic. University President Drew G. Faust announced at the meeting that Harvard would, in fact, not designate itself a “sanctuary campus” as “that status has no legal significance or even clear definition. It offers no actual protection to our students. I worry that in fact it offers false and misleading assurance.”

It seems there may be some vestige of sanity in academia after all – at least when considering the administration side of things. Princeton University and Brown University have likewise decided not to adopt the label. As far as the Ivy League goes, only the University of Pennsylvania has designated itself a sanctuary campus.

But across the country, other universities both large and small are grappling with the decision as they come under pressure from within. University of Nevada, Las Vegas students and faculty delivered a petition with almost 1,000 signatures to university president Len Jessup demanding the sanctuary designation. Similar movements and calls to action are commonplace.

It may be that sanctuary declarations may not work out well for the university itself. In response to Texas State University considering the label, Governor Greg Abbott took to Twitter to warn that, “Texas will not tolerate sanctuary campuses or cities. I will cut funding for any state campus if it establishes sanctuary status.”

In Georgia, the chair of the higher education appropriations subcommittee in the state House of Representatives, Earl Ehrhart, is attempting to pass legislation to eliminate state funding for any institution not following the law – in this case, Emory University. “It’ll be a real clear consequence. If they go ahead and declare themselves a sanctuary, they’ll lose their state funding,” warned Ehrhart.

Universities have always held a central role in our society and it’s a given that college age youth feel that speaking truth to power is their right. The exceptional ones consider it a duty. As a society, we should want those young citizens who will one day themselves grow to occupy positions of power within our society to be thinking, rational and implicated beings.

Political engagement is an important part of the learning process. So is learning to respect the rule of law. It could be that universities setting themselves up as sanctuaries will get a lesson they didn’t bargain for.

Without federal or state funding, students paying subsidized tuition and faculty receiving regular paycheques may discover that the right of protest comes with a hefty price tag.

Troy Media columnist Gavin MacFadyen is a U.S.based writer and occasional lawyer. Gavin is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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