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Julián Castro: Higher Ed Needs to ‘Step Up’ to Political Challenges

When Julián Castro was growing up in San Antonio, he benefited from educational opportunities provided to him by the public school system. Later, when he and his twin brother Joaquín were accepted to Stanford University, they were able to afford the cost of tuition with Pell and Perkins Grants.

Yet, the federal and state programs that helped Castro ultimately earn a law degree from Harvard Law School and go on to become the mayor of San Antonio and the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) may be at risk in today’s political climate, he told a crowd of student affairs professionals at the Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education (NASPA) conference in San Antonio on Tuesday.

“The political climate that we’re in is one that is giving short shrift to education in general, and budget-wise, may well take an axe to a lot of domestic programs, including to higher education and research programs that are vital for the future prosperity of the United States,” Castro said.

The Trump administration is set to release its proposed budget in the coming days, which is expected to seek to increase defense spending by $54 billion. That $54 billion would most likely come at the expense of domestic programs, including higher education, Castro said, affecting research conducted at universities and loan and grant programs that help students pay for college.

Castro was frank about the challenges ahead in the current political landscape.

“The few words that come to mind when I think about what we face today are volatility, uncertainty, division, and gridlock,” Castro said. “I think that’s more pointed today, but I also think we’ve been dealing with it for a few years, and it’s been getting worse and worse.”

Given the current climate, higher education leaders have a responsibility to speak up for the institutions, Castro said, counseling conference attendees to not underestimate the value of a phone call or letter to elected officials. He also pointed out that the majority of elected officials — and their staffers — attended a college or university, meaning that institutions have a direct, personal link to the Capitol.

“I’m convinced that higher education needs to step up,” Castro said. “All of you have a role to play in influencing the perception of what is important and of value of the higher education experience in Washington, D.C.”

Beyond advocating for themselves, universities also have a role to play in connecting individuals within a nation that appears to be increasingly polarized, Castro said. As the nation splits off into distinct camps based on political ideology, universities are one of the remaining places where diverse communities can connect with each other.

“The university experience is often, for many folks, the first time that they have the chance to expose themselves to people who have different opinions and are from different places and different cultures,” Castro said.

His own experience growing up is an example of this, he said. Castro attended a high school that he estimates was 85 to 90 percent Mexican American. His experience is not unique. In some areas of the country, school segregation is on the rise, even as the nation becomes more racially diverse, according to a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office.

“We’re sorted out too often, and because of that, we have limited experiences with people who are different from us,” Castro said.

That makes the role of colleges and universities all the more important. “Now is an especially important time to use your resources and programming to bring people of different backgrounds together,” he said.

Castro was the mayor of San Antonio until 2014, when he was asked to serve as the HUD Secretary under President Obama. He has said that he does not plan to run for office in 2018, but is leaving his options open for subsequent election cycles, a position he reiterated on Tuesday morning.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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