President Donald Trump mused about cutting off nearly $500 million in annual federal funds to the University of California-Berkeley in a tweet on Thursday, following a night of violent protests against a provocative speaker that led the school to cancel the event.
Trump wrote that the university “does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view.” He ended his message with: “NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
The idea is largely harmless, since the president doesn’t have the unilateral authority to carry it out, experts said. Congress would have to pass a law altering the rules governing the provision of federal funds to colleges and universities. The White House didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.
Trump “can’t cut off funding just because he thinks the school did something wrong,” said Barmak Nassirian, a policy expert for the American Association of State Colleges & Universities. Federal rules and laws dictate how and in what circumstances colleges and universities receive federal funds, he said.
For example, colleges can lose access to the federal student loan program, but only under conditions specified by Congress and rules of the U.S. Department of Education. Having high student loan default rates is one such condition. Canceling a campus speech is not.
The trouble started late Wednesday in Berkeley after more than 100 protesters stormed the campus to disrupt a planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a provocateur who writes for Breitbart News, the website formerly led by Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
The protesters “utilized paramilitary tactics to engage in violent, destructive behavior,” said Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. Molotov cocktails were tossed and fireworks were thrown at police officers, the school said in a statement. Campus police concluded that Yiannopoulos had to leave the scene, Dirks said, and the school canceled the event.
“While we have made clear our belief that the inflaming rhetoric and provocations of Mr. Yiannopoulos were in marked opposition to the basic values of the university, we respected his right to come to campus and speak once he was invited to do so by a legitimate student group,” Dirks said.
Yiannopoulos did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment, but said in a televised interview on Fox News Channel that rock-throwing protestors convinced his private security team to evacuate him from the scene with the help of local police.
If Trump did succeed in rewriting federal law to withhold funding, the school would certainly feel the financial consequences. Berkeley received $466.5 million in federal grants, contracts, and bond interest subsidies in the year that ended June 30, 2015, according to the school’s most recent financial statement. That’s 18.7 percent of Berkeley’s nearly $2.5 billion in revenue that year. The figure doesn’t include revenues associated with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory because the Department of Energy is on the hook for nearly all of the lab’s costs, the school said.