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Preparing your university for a visit by Donald Trump

With a snap visit to the UK by US President Donald Trump now on the cards for the coming weeks, we ask how universities will decide whether or not to host the divisive but powerful figure.
This article is more than 6 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Ant Bagshaw is a Senior Advisor in L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice and co-editor, with Debbie McVitty, of Influencing Higher Education Policy

Ever since the UK Government extended an invitation for a full state visit from the President of the United States, there’s been debate about what a Donald Trump trip to the UK should look like. Should he be allowed to address Parliament? Will the focus be on London or elsewhere?

Though a state visit now looks unlikely, it seems as if Trump may visit the UK on a quicker trip: a round of golf and a chat with the PM. But that doesn’t rule out a wider itinerary, and university campuses have been the location of choice for touring politicians throughout history. His golf resort at Turnberry is after all only a short distance from the Ayr campus of the University of the West of Scotland.

But most other UK campuses are within an easy chopper ride too. You have been warned.

The secret approach

A full state visit is always meticulously choreographed and (particularly when it’s from an American president) subject to the most stringent security. It’s likely that the White House would want to avoid exposing the President to visible protests. But the ‘snap’ visit now on the cards will have to be more hastily-arranged. What would happen if there was interest in making a stop at a university or research facility?

  • As a first step, the US embassy would informally sound out a range of possible options. Those contacted would be sworn to absolute secrecy.
  • In the event of a favourable response, there would be a reconnaissance visit from the embassy, to inform the menu of options to be sent to Washington.
  • Closer to the event there would be a more detailed visit from a large team from Washington DC. Security will again be top priority and if there are any doubts the secret service will veto the option.
  • The venues that President Trump may visit (apart from the obvious ones like Buckingham Palace or Balmoral) are unlikely to be announced much in advance, though leaks certainly can’t be ruled out.
  • If significant protest is foreseen, police cordons will keep protesters as far away as possible.

Why and how?

We talked to people in working in universities who might be involved in responding to an approach from the White House. Ed Thomas, Head of Public Affairs at the University of Birmingham told us that there are two considerations to take into account after such an approach: “Why does he want to come, and how will the logistics work?”

“Many of us are familiar with the security and protocol associated with visiting foreign dignitaries, royalty and government ministers, but the President’s advance party and US Secret Service agents would take this to the next level. The logistical challenges such as snipers on the roof (or in Birmingham’s case on the top of the clock tower), buildings locked down for days, and far more stringent campus security, especially if it coincided with exams or degree congregations, may leave some institutions with no option but to say no even before knowing more about the visit.”

Then there’s the why? Ed suggests that the university would ask the following questions: “Is the UK Government or US Government pushing the visit? Does the President want to come and meet some US students on study abroad (or other students just back from the US perhaps) or a particular research group doing groundbreaking work on a subject of personal significance to him? Or does he just want a round of golf with the VC? Will he visit with a senior government minister to make a beneficial joint announcement? Or does he want a venue for a grandstanding rally?”

It is only once all these questions have been answered and all details and expectations have been fully gathered can an informed decision be made. That decision, Ed says, would be taken at the top, much like any other high profile engagement opportunity. It would be “the vice chancellor who would consult with senior figures”. And at this point the “overriding consideration should be around reputation impact – what happens if we say yes, or no?”

It’s the values, stupid

Beyond the practical and reputational concerns, universities would need to consider their principles. Donald Trump is a divisive figure, but a visit could be an opportunity to engage in dialogue, even if robust debate might prove challenging with the Tweeter-in-Chief.

Colette Cherry, Assistant Vice Chancellor at the University of Winchester says that top of the list for considerations “would be the role of universities in promoting intellectual freedom and free speech, even if we don’t personally support the arguments being made.” Colette argues that “Mr Trump is perfectly entitled to present his views, just as we are perfectly entitled to rebut them. It is important that we take every opportunity to challenge discrimination; otherwise we risk legitimizing Trump’s views and policies with our silence.”

Perhaps there’s an opportunity to be proactive here too. Colette believes that the university “has a responsibility to educate and communicate about serious societal issues like climate change. We should not then turn our back on the opportunity to open a dialogue with someone who has shown such blatant disregard of the evidence surrounding issues such as these.”

Lenny Rolles, Head of Public Affairs at the University of Sussex has concerns about the signals about values that declining an invitation would send, saying that “it would simply support the view that academic institutions are elitist…that we are staffed by people who believe they hold values that are superior to those around them. It’s imperative that we challenge this perception and show the President, and others riding the wave of populism, that we uphold the values of free speech at Sussex.”

But it would be an undeniably problematic event, and not just for universities but also for the communities in which they are situated.

Campus cohesion

The impact of a visit by Donald Trump on any campus community needs to be considered very carefully. There would need to be advanced work on the post-visit legacy, particularly dealing with a likely backlash from staff, students and stakeholders.

No matter how well-choreographed the visit is at any UK campus, many students and staff would likely attempt to protest. They won’t just be the regular placard-wavers either. People from local communities could also turn out to voice their displeasure. Most students’ unions would be very likely to organise a sustained protest if Trump came to their campus. NUS wouldn’t think twice about mobilizing students from across the UK to join them. And any self-respecting trade union branch would forever link the university leadership with the Trump administration when it came to industrial matters.

The strong feelings could outlast the visit itself, and the debate and the protests could become an international media event. Think Nick Griffin’s fractious visit to the University of Oxford in 2007, or more recently, the controversial Milo Yiannopoulos visit to Berkeley. It would be a huge flashpoint for the culture wars and could frame the political atmosphere on campus for years to come.

Paradoxically, for all its challenges, the opportunity to host a Head of State is a significant honour. But when that person is as divisive as President Trump, the honour is clearly tempered with the need for universities to live their values. Snubbing a visit could harm student recruitment in the US, while accepting a visit might boost profile, especially overseas, but not necessarily in a positive way.

Balancing these concerns, with many unknown quantities, would be a tricky task. Staff who would have to inform the decision to host, or not to host, will likely be hoping that the dilemma never arrives. But if that day does come, Lenny Rolles from Sussex is optimistic about the response of his university and for the wider higher education community: “we have many persuasive academics and students who will have a fighting chance of making Trump pause and reconsider his views.”

Will they get their chance?

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