WASHINGTON — President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday directing federal agencies to link grants and certain other funds for higher education to how colleges and universities enforce the right to “free inquiry” on their campuses.
At a signing ceremony at the White House, Mr. Trump said he wanted to give notice to “professors and power structures” seeking to prevent conservatives “from challenging rigid, far-left ideology.”
In a background briefing call with reporters on Thursday morning, a senior administration official said grant-making agencies would work with the Office of Management and Budget to make sure that institutions receiving funding promote free speech rights within applicable law. The issue has become a cause célèbre among conservatives, who argue that their voices are being silenced on liberal campuses.
The official said the order would not apply to programs that relate to tuition and fees.
The official could not answer questions about how the order might relate to some of the more contentious areas of discussion on college campuses in recent years, such as the movement to boycott or divest from Israel. And it was unclear what mechanisms would be used to enforce the order.
Mr. Trump was not much more specific in his own remarks. He said agencies would use their control over grants “to ensure that public universities protect, cherish, protect the First Amendment, First Amendment rights of their students or risk losing billions and billions of dollars of federal taxpayer dollars.”
He added, “They’re going to have to not have to like your views a lot.”
Mr. Trump first suggested such an order this month in a speech he delivered before the Conservative Political Action Conference. The president cited the case of a young recruiter for a conservative group who was beaten up last month at the University of California, Berkeley, and the crowd leapt to its feet when he pledged to hold school administrators accountable for ensuring that conservatives could express their views.
But the order raises questions about the role of government in regulating speech.
Emily Chamlee-Wright, the president of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, said there was a risk that Mr. Trump’s executive order would create new, bloated bureaucracies in government agencies and on college campuses.
Federal agencies that fund research at colleges will have to ensure that they do business only with compliant institutions, and when complaints are lodged — about, for example, a conservative speaker whose appearance is canceled — there will need to be a system for determining whether funding may continue.
“There is going to be some level of surprise at how overburdening the regulatory environment is going to become,” Ms. Chamlee-Wright said. “Is the Department of Education going to have to have a kind of agency that adjudicates this? We don’t know.”
Ms. Chamlee-Wright said the result could be similar to the bureaucracy that was created at colleges and in the government to ensure the effective enforcement of Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding.
“You want to be compliant. It also means that we have a lot of growth of staff, and there’s always a cost associated with this,” she said, noting that those costs were usually passed on to students through tuition increases.