Trump Promises to Withhold Higher Education Research Funding in Partisan Dispute

President Donald Trump says he would issue an executive order that will prohibit U.S. colleges and universities from receiving federal research funds if they don’t support free speech. He made this announcement in an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday, March 2, after bringing conservative activist Hayden Williams onstage.  Williams was physically attacked last month while doing campus outreach for a conservative organization at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley).

During his address, Trump told Williams he should “sue the university and maybe sue the state.” Just before announcing the executive order, the president told the audience that Williams “took a hard punch in the face for all of us, and we can never allow that to happen.” 

The president did not provide any details regarding who would have the authority to decide whether an institution is supportive of free speech, but he did say that he plans to sign the executive order to withdraw research funding “very soon.”  

Both Williams and his 28-year-old attacker, Zachary Greenberg, are unaffiliated with the university, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. Campus police arrested and jailed Greenberg, and he is currently out on bond with an arraignment set for Wednesday, March 6. A spokesperson for UC Berkeley told CNN that even though Williams is not enrolled at the university, he “had every right to be on campus, and every right to express his point of view.”

Federal research funding for colleges and universities amounts to more than 26 billion dollars per year and is mostly assigned to projects for the Pentagon, NASA, and the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, and Health and Human Services, according to The National Science Foundation. 

Many higher education leaders have expressed concern about how the specifics of Trump’s proposed plan could pan out. Catherine Ross, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, told The Washington Post that the policy would likely disqualify many religious institutions from receiving federal research dollars should they prohibit certain speakers on religious grounds. 

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, told The Post that free speech, given its ties to academic freedom, is an intrinsic value of all U.S. colleges and universities. Trump’s executive order is “a solution in search of a problem,” he stated. 

Others who work in higher education point to what they see as Trump’s own problematic relationship to free speech. The president is currently embroiled in a lawsuit filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University for blocking Twitter followers who have criticized him or his policies. 

Several free speech advocacy organizations have indicated a need for more specifics. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a short statement the same day of the conference that praised the president for giving attention to an “important national issue,” but said they do not have details and look forward “to learning more about this initiative.”