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Higher Education

What does it mean to be a 'sanctuary campus?' Two college presidents weigh in

In a lively panel Friday at Pitzer College, education leaders and experts on race, immigration and civil rights gathered before dozens of students and professors to discuss the future of liberal arts education in today's political climate. 

"We do have an obligation to create a safe space here, but we will have differences in opinion. We have donors who have threatened to withdraw their resources because we are 'breaking the law' — which we are not," said Melvin Oliver, Pitzer's new president, who in November became one of the first to declare a college as sanctuary. 

"So this is the situation that we find ourselves in... we are going to have to take grave stances that may cost us."

Oliver said that in the days after Donald Trump was elected president, he confronted "all the legal limitations" of what it means to be a sanctuary college.

He and fellow panelists talked about how schools could support their more vulnerable students by establishing DREAM centers, developing concrete policies with campus police on how to interact with immigration enforcement officials, providing summer financial aid and creating a program for naturalization for lawful, permitted residents who are employees on campus. 

"When you're naturalized, you can better defend the members of your family, as well as exercise your voice in the political square," said Manuel Pastor, a panelist and director of USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.

Reed College President John Kroger, who declared his campus a sanctuary days after the November election, added that "as one of our official principles of our school, we don't get involved in politics. This was always viewed as core to what real belief in academic freedom was... But we've always had an exception for being engaged on issues that really directly affect our ability to achieve our mission."

Kroger, who was the attorney general of Oregon before taking the helm at Reed, said that in his first five years as college  president, he did not once need to step into politics.  

"And now, it happens about once a week," he said.

"Because when we're talking about things like immigration policies, which are restricting where our students come from, where we're hiring scholars from, the ability of our international students to go home over the holidays — they can't, because they're not sure they're going to make it back, cuts directly to the funding that keeps our research labs open... We are going to have to engage on these questions."

These statements come at a time when more than 600 college and university presidents across the nation have signed an open letter to the country's leaders pushing for the support and expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama administration program that deferred deportation proceedings against certain young people who were brought to the country illegally as minors but stayed in school and out of trouble. 

The leaders of California's three systems of public higher education also have publicly stated their commitment to the tens of thousands of DACA students who have turned to UC, Cal State and California community colleges for a shot at higher education. 

Oliver, Kroger and Pastor on Friday were joined by Lawrence Bobo, chair of Harvard University's African and African American Studies Department, and Cheryl Harris, a civil rights and liberties professor from UCLA School of Law.

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