Could Trump yank UC Berkeley funding over Yiannopoulos incident?

The University of California-Berkeley was a hotbed of student activism in the 1960s, when young people pushed for greater political freedom on campus as part of the “Free Speech Movement.” Flash forward half a century and the school faces another free-speech firestorm, this time fueled by President Donald Trump. 

Mr. Trump issued a threat over Twitter on Thursday, suggesting that he would pull federal funding from the world-renowned university after it canceled a speech by polarizing Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos. UC Berkeley officials said they canceled the event because of violence sparked by a group of 100 vandals. who aren’t university students, that “undermined the First Amendment rights of the speaker” and attendees. 

“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Mr. Trump wrote on Thursday. 

Despite the veiled threat, education experts said Mr. Trump would face serious legal obstacles pulling federal funding from UC Berkeley. First, the bulk of the federal monies for universities are earmarked for student loans and grants under Title IV. The law requires institutions to meet certain conditions, mostly involving educational standards, and the president’s questionable assertion that the school violated free speech rights likely wouldn’t offer sufficient legal pretext for excluding Berkeley. 

“Like most things Trump tweets, the threat to pull funding from Berkeley is more bluster than fact,” said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a centrist think tank, and a former policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Education. “The vast majority of money from the Department of Education flows through students first. It’s not like the Department of Education cuts Berkeley a big check. it’s based on how many students choose to use its federal student aid. It’s a student’s right.”

Berkeley and other U.S. research universities also receive federal funding via other pathways, such as through grants from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and through campus-based aid programs. Funding depends on congressional appropriations, and Miller said it is unlikely that lawmakers would approve slashing support to help Trump punish one university. 

“Major research universities are substantial sources of economic development for the places and states they are located in,” he said. “You would be hard-pressed to convince Congress to do that. In theory, someone could introduce a bill that says, ‘No funds go to Berkeley,’ but I think you’d be laughed out of the room.”

That doesn’t mean major universities aren’t at risk of seeing a reduction in federal funding, however. Congress could decide that it doesn’t want research dollars used for specific issues such as climate change, which Mr. Trump has claimed is a “hoax” even though the scientific community is in agreement that rising temperatures are human-induced. 

A similar approach was taken two decades ago, when Congress enacted a measure that blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding research that would “advocate or promote gun control.” As a result, the CDC stopped funding research into gun violence.  

Mr. Trump’s tweet drew a sharp rebuke from Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California and a UC Berkeley regent. “As a UC Regent I’m appalled at your willingness to deprive over 38,000 students access to an education because of the actions of a few,” he wrote on Twitter in a post directed at the president.