This article is part of a special issue looking at Columbia's stake in Tuesday's elections. Read the rest of the special issue here.
When it comes to political opinions, Columbia officials are notoriously tight-lipped. Ask a senior administrator whether an Obama or a Romney administration would be better for the University, and you’re likely to get the standard answer: Columbia doesn’t take sides in political debates.
“The dean has no politics,” Columbia College Dean James Valentini said. “I am, I believe, the representative of 46,500 living college alumni and 4,500 current college students whose political opinions, I’m sure, span a considerable range. And my effort is to build a community among people, and politics is very divisive right now.”
“In terms of our nonprofit status, we seriously have no opinion,” said Maxine Griffith, executive vice president for government and community affairs. “I think we’re all hopeful that education, good science, good research, is important broadly.”
But even if most administrators can’t or won’t share their opinions, Columbia as an institution has a big stake in Tuesday’s elections. The outcomes of the presidential and congressional elections could have serious repercussions for Columbia and other institutions of higher education.
On issues like federal financial aid, research funding, and affirmative action, experts say that it’s unclear how much of a difference there would be between President Barack Obama, CC ’83—who has generally been regarded as a friend to universities—and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. But University President Lee Bollinger, alone among administrators interviewed for this story, was more than willing to say what he thinks.
Bollinger’s take? Advantage, Obama.
“I think on funding for research, it may be comparable, but I would give the slight edge to the Obama people on that. With respect to student loans and the like, I think the Obama administration would be much more positive,” he said. “There’s no question that an Obama administration would be more supportive” of affirmative action.
With five days until the election, Spectator takes a look at how the candidates, and the two parties, differ on those issues.
When it comes to helping students pay for college, Obama has a strong record in his first term in office.
The stimulus bill he signed in early 2009 increased the maximum federal Pell Grant from $4,850 to $5,350 per semester, an amount that rose to $5,550 in the 2010-11 budget. According to U.S. News & World Report, 29 percent of Columbia undergraduates receive Pell Grants, by far the highest proportion of any private research university.
Obama has also taken steps to simplify the process of applying for federal loans, as well as changing the way that Stafford Loans are administered. Before he took office, some Stafford Loans were made through private banks, but others were made directly by the government, a cut-out-the-middleman program started by President Bill Clinton and continued by President George W. Bush.
Obama, though, decided to abandon the bank program, in which the federal government had essentially paid banks to administer loans, promising to pay the banks back if a student defaulted. Teachers College professor Judith Scott-Clayton, an expert on financial aid policy, called Obama’s decision “a hugely beneficial change,” both for students and for the government.
“It was very hard to justify why banks were getting this generous subsidy when they didn’t have to bear the risk of the loans,” Scott-Clayton said, adding that the government used some of the savings to pay for the increased Pell Grant maximum.
Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, have both taken decidedly less generous stances toward federal financial aid funding. Romney has been critical of student loan forgiveness—a cause Obama has championed through an income-based repayment program, in which college graduates are allowed to repay loans at 10 percent of their income per year, with any remaining debt forgiven after 20 years.
Romney’s education policy paper, meanwhile, indicates that he could cut Pell Grant funding, saying that he will “refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs.” And Ryan’s signature “Path to Prosperity” budget plan—which the House of Representatives passed last year—criticizes the Obama administration for increasing Pell Grant funding “toward unsustainable rates.”
Ultimately, Scott-Clayton said, the political debate over federal financial aid needs to move past the question of “more or less?” Policy experts, she said, have been working “to think of new ideas to make these programs more effective,” partly out of a fear that they are inefficient and that current funding levels are not sustainable. She noted that some discussions have focused on finding a “better way to target” Pell Grants, possibly by factoring family income into a student’s maximum grant.
“We may want to keep the maximum for students who are really low income, but we may want to say, ‘Lower the grants to families who are getting, say, $40,000 to $60,000 in income,’” Scott-Clayton said. “We may want to limit grants for those more middle-income families. Right now, there’s no way to do that just by changing the maximum.”
Scott-Clayton declined to say whether Obama or Romney would do a better job on federal financial aid, but she noted that “it’s a little hard to predict” what Romney’s policies would be. In the second presidential debate, Romney seemed to reverse course on Pell Grants funding, promising to “make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing.”
“With Obama, since we’ve had four years to observe, I think there’s just less uncertainty. There’s an expectation that there would be a continuation of their efforts to improve simplification, to think about very different aspects of policy,” Scott-Clayton said. “With Romney, I think it really is just unknown.”
One of the most pivotal cases that the Supreme Court will hear this term centers on affirmative action—and whether to partially overturn a 2003 decision that is Bollinger’s biggest legal victory.
In Grutter v. Bollinger, decided when Bollinger was president of the University of Michigan, the court held that it is constitutional to consider race as a factor in university admissions, as long as admissions offices do not attempt to quantify the advantage given to particular minorities.
While affirmative action is not a focus of either candidate’s campaign, their parties’ records speak for themselves, Bollinger said. In December 2011, the Obama administration rolled back a policy from George W. Bush’s presidency that restricted colleges’ ability to factor race into admissions decisions. Whereas Bush emphasized “race-neutral solutions,” the Obama policy allows schools to pay some attention to numbers when it comes to applicants’ races.
“Ensuring that our nation’s students are provided with learning environments comprised of students of diverse backgrounds is not just a lofty ideal,” the 2011 directive from the departments of justice and education read. “The benefits of participating in diverse learning environments flow to an individual, his or her classmates, and the community as a whole.”
Quoting the Grutter ruling, the DOJ and DOE statement agreed with Bollinger that “attaining a diverse student body is at the heart of [a university’s] proper institutional mission.”
These changes are a step in the right direction, Bollinger said. “I was quoted at the time that I believe they were extremely strong and good. You would not expect that to come out of the Romney administration,” he said.
“Certainly the Bush administration was very hostile and negative with respect to affirmative action,” he added.
Law School professor Theodore Shaw said that the new case before the Supreme Court, Fisher v. University of Texas, could threaten the return of Bush-era policies.
Should the court overrule any part of Grutter, “I think it’s going to make it more difficult for institutions to enroll African-American and Latino students,” Shaw, who served as lead counsel in the coalition that defended affirmative action in 2003, said. “We are talking about single-digit African-American enrollment.”
Columbia already played a role in the Fisher case when, in August, it was part of a group of 14 universities, including all the Ivies, to file an amicus brief urging the court to recognize the importance of race as an admission criterion.
Affirmative action supporters consider Obama’s two Supreme Court appointees progressive on that front: Sonia Sotomayor has publicly acknowledged how affirmative action policies helped a Latina like her get two Ivy League degrees, while Elena Kagan had to recuse herself from the Fisher case, likely due to her support of affirmative action when she was solicitor general.
Yet Shaw is worried that even Sotomayor’s opinion won’t be enough to counteract the court’s conservative justices, two of whom, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, were George W. Bush appointees.
“I am concerned because this is a different Supreme Court, and it is an even more conservative court—and the Grutter court was a conservative court,” he said.
According to Executive Vice President for Research G. Michael Purdy, Columbia receives approximately $500 million per year in federal funding for scientific research. The largest fraction of that money comes from the National Institutes of Health, followed by the National Science Foundation.
“History shows that university-based research is where the fundamental breakthroughs come through that lead to new technologies and major economic growth,” Purdy said.
During his first term, Obama has often advocated for increased funding for scientific research, and his stimulus package provided $7.6 billion for research—including $3 billion for the NSF. Romney has expressed support for high levels of research funding, although he has provided few specifics, and Ryan’s budget proposes slowing the growth of nondefense discretionary spending, a category that includes research funding.
Purdy said his personal view is that Tuesday’s presidential election is relatively unimportant, from a research funding perspective.
“I honestly don’t believe that whether Obama wins or Romney wins, that there will be a huge difference, at least in the short term, to what our key agencies receive,” he said.
From a research perspective, Purdy said, what matters more is who’s elected to Congress. The House Appropriations Committee already has bipartisan support for a strong 2014 budget for research funding, but it’s unclear whether that budget will be able to pass a divided Congress.
“The most important thing is that we get past this deadlocked situation that we have in Congress,” Purdy said. “That’s what I’m going to be watching most carefully, is whether Republicans retain control of the House and Democrats retain control of the Senate.”
Then there’s the issue of sequestration, a series of $1.2 trillion in across-the-board federal budget cuts that are scheduled to take effect Jan. 2 unless Congress acts to stop them. The NIH, Columbia’s top source of federal funding, could see its budget slashed by more than $2.5 billion, according to a White House report.
Both parties, as well as Obama, have called for sequestration to be avoided, but that will be an issue for after the election. Whether the lame-duck Congress has the political will to stop sequestration is largely dependent on what happens in Tuesday’s elections.
Purdy called sequestration “a law that was never meant to go into effect,” saying that he “desperately hopes that good sense prevails” and that the lame-duck Congress stops it. But even though senior Obama administration officials have assured Purdy that sequestration will never happen, he doesn’t feel particularly confident.
“You talk to Congress on the Hill, you talk to the congressional staffers, and they say, ‘The one thing this Congress is good at is deadlock—and sequestration is inevitable,’” Purdy said.
Still, while he bemoaned the partisan standstill, Purdy declined to say which party he would prefer to see in control of Congress.
“The primary problem right now is the deadlock,” he said. “And even if one [party] has a slight majority, the question is whether it’s a controlling majority—if they could actually get bills passed.”
Margaret Mattes contributed reporting.
Read the rest of the special issue here.