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Election 2016: How Did Higher Ed Leaders Respond?

VOTE sticker on a sign

[This is a guest post by Robin DeRosa, Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. Her current research focuses on Open Pedagogy, and how learner-driven curriculum can reshape and reinvigorate the structures of public higher education. You can read more about her work at robinderosa.net.]

The morning after the U.S. election, reeling with the results and anxious to find guidance from organizations and thinkers that I trust, I went online to sort through various posts. I didn’t think to check my work email or my university’s website, since after two decades in higher education, I’ve become trained not to expect official reaction to elections from our nation’s colleges and universities. But late in the day, a friend who works at Southern New Hampshire University sent me an extraordinary email that he had received from the president there, and that email prompted me to ask on Twitter whether any other university presidents had similarly made statements about the election results. Responses started pouring in, and today, three days after the election, I sorted through forty-five such statements which were sent to me via social media and email.

Twitter screenshot

Many of the statements were posted publicly on the university websites; a number were disseminated by email and are not available online. Nearly three-quarters of the statements were from public universities and community colleges, and the total group included institutions from all major geographic regions of the United States, including red and blue states. While the statements I examined are not an exhaustive list, I believe that we can learn a few things by looking at them as a group, and by highlighting some specific examples in order to understand how higher education leadership understands its role in relation to the election.

Most of the presidential statements strike a balance between encouraging free speech and cross-partisan civility on the one hand and standing up for students who feel afraid and alienated in the wake of Trump’s election on the other. How they do this engenders some interesting distinctions, though. Some statements, like Scott Ralls’ from Northern Virginia Community College, position “political viewpoint” as equivalent to a protected class: “NOVA will move forward with pride in the beautiful differences of our students and staff that collectively strengthen our institution’s diversity of race, religion, national origin, sexual and gender orientation, and thought.” Similarly, a coalition of administrators at the University of Southern California writes, “No one on our campus should feel in any way compromised on the basis of race, ethnicity, political identity, religious affiliation, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, immigration status, or ability.” These statements, while standing up on one level for diversity and inclusion, also collapse the post-election fallout experienced by students from protected classes with the fallout experienced by any student with a political opinion. This was even more pronounced in statements that focused on the “divisive” and “acrimonious” campaign season without explicitly naming any of the particular categories of people who might be feeling unsafe on campus and/or in the U.S. in the wake of the election. The statement from the administration at San Diego State, for example, mentions “a variety of student groups who have expressed concerns and fears,” but never alludes to what those groups might be. At William and Mary, President Taylor Reveley sums it up: “Emotions on our campus now run high, ranging from fear and despair at one end of the continuum to excitement and satisfaction at the other. It is important that we talk with one another about what we think and feel, but it is vital that we do so with respect and concern for one another.” All of these statements compare favorably, in my opinion, to the post-election silence emanating from most college presidents, but they don’t go nearly far enough. In a campaign season filled with dangerous false equivalencies, it feels unsettling, for example, to read this from L. Rafael Reif at M.I.T.: “Many say they fear for the future of their country, some for their personal safety, for their civil rights, of that ‘my values no longer matter.’ Others fear their peers will never take the time to understand why they voted for the winner.” Though this is contextualized in a statement clearly supportive of inclusion, it’s something I find in many statements: that inclusivity is as much about tolerating diverse opinions as it is about standing up against the oppression of protected classes; that these are equivalent needs, equivalently urgent. Students with “diverse opinions” have not regularly found themselves the target of hate crimes in the days following the elections, and implying that the fear of being misunderstood or ignored is not equivalent to the fear of being beaten, deported, or legally labeled as deviant or perverse.

But some schools took stronger stands, explaining that the fear some students are feeling now is not related to election politics, per se, but to the racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia that has been unleashed and legitimized during the election season. Eduardo M. Ochoa from Cal State Monterey Bay lays it out this way: “The disparaging remarks [during the campaign] towards women, members of the LGBT community, and ethnic and religious minority groups have generated real fear among some members of our campus community.” Ochoa directly links the experience of post-election fear to members of groups explicitly targeted or maligned by Trump’s campaign. Following a campus dialog facilitated by their Offices of Diversity and Inclusion and of Multicultural Student Engagement, M. Roy Wilson of Wayne State University in Michigan writes that the university has broad responsibilities “including diversity and inclusion…woven into our history, our mission, our strategic plan.” He continues, “While freedom of speech is important, we will not tolerate acts of harassment or intimidation taken against anyone.” Not only are these strong words in support of safety, but Wilson’s linking of this position to the mission and plan of the university also illustrate how the rhetoric we use in our daily committee work and Student Life offices should also guide us to speak out when there are national threats to the diversity and inclusiveness of our country.

Some statements were poetic and moving, like this one from Ángel Cabrera at George Mason, which begins, “Dear Patriot.”

If you grew up in Mexico City, Islamabad, or Roanoke, you belong at Mason.

If you are part of the LGBT community, you belong at Mason.

If you are Black or Brown or White, you belong at Mason.

If you voted for Clinton or for Trump or anyone else, you belong at Mason.

Of course, it is unlikely that Christian students or white students or students from Roanoke (!) would be, as classes, facing the same sense of alienation as the other student groups mentioned here; there is too much of the #alllivesmatter flavor here for my taste, but the clarity of the statement directly repudiates the clarity of the hatred at the root of much of the Trump platform. Bill Destler at Rochester Institute of Technology goes even further. After a scathing critique of the racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic, anti-Islamic, and misogynistic (yes, all named) views and proposals of the 2016 campaign season, he writes, “Each year, I tell prospective students that if they are afraid to immerse themselves in a community of students, staff, and faculty from widely different backgrounds, ethnicities, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and religions, then RIT is not the place for them.” He extends Cabrera’s message: everyone belongs at RIT, except the intolerant. Destler’s is one of the strongest statements in the group in terms of naming and condemning the campaign rhetorics that are most directly linked to the kinds of hate crimes that seem to be multiplying since the election. (You can read Destler’s statement and a short article about a small backlash related to presidential statements issued in Rochester, New York here.)

Paul LeBlanc, at Southern New Hampshire University, has been a vocal critic of Trump throughout the election process, tweeting regularly about his concerns. In his post-election email to the community, posted publicly now on the university website, LeBlanc writes, “I became a citizen 14 years ago, when the country felt in terrible danger after 9–11. I’m not giving up on it now…I’ve always thought of SNHU as a kind of oasis, but now we must also be a sanctuary. A place where the only thing to not be tolerated is intolerance itself. Today I start with things that are basic: kindness and love.” Ana Mari Cauce at the University of Washington similarly (and bravely) places her own identity at the center of her concern for her campus community: “As an immigrant, Latina, lesbian, I can understand why some in our community may be feeling marginalized, threatened or afraid.” Both LeBlanc and Cauce hope to move forward from the difficult election season, but both insist on foregrounding the reality of the intolerance that has demoralized and terrified so many marginalized groups.

Some presidents are expressly interested in why higher education– particularly public higher education– must respond to the 2016 election. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. at Stony Brook University writes, “What we do at a public university has never been more important than today,” anchored, he argues, as public universities are “in our strong values of diversity, access, and inclusiveness.” The Chancellor at CUNY, James B. Milliken, notes that CUNY is “committed to providing opportunities to immigrants and low income and underrepresented students,” a sentiment echoed by the president of the Borough of Manhattan Community College. The President of Cuyahoga Community College calls attention to their commitment to “access, equity, and success for all students.” What these statements suggest is that the missions of access-oriented public institutions of higher education don’t just justify the speaking up in the wake of the 2016 election; the missions require it.

“This moment in history reminds us of the importance of higher education,” writes Joseph Savoie of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Education is the most effective weapon we have to fight prejudice and to open minds that are closed.” Paul C. Pribbenow of Augsburg College in Minnesota went so far as to announce that his office will be disbursing “new peacemaking and innovation grants to fund ideas for responding to the fear and hate that so many of us are experiencing.” He especially welcomes proposals that address such issues as “Islamophobia, support for our immigrant neighbors and undocumented students…advocacy for higher education policy that values equity and justice, and so forth.”

For an example of a statement that truly demonstrates presidential leadership in a moment of crisis for higher education, we can look to the statement by Vincent Boudreau, interim president at City College of New York (appointed on November 2nd, just six days before the election). Boudreau begins with an uncompromising condemnation of bigotry and an empathic reaching-out to vulnerable community members on campus: “To many of you, the world today must feel a colder and more lonely place. Over the past months, we have watched the parameters of what is acceptable in our political and social life, and in the speech acts associated with that life, shift radically away from established norms of racial justice, gender fairness and basic equality before the law.” And then Boudreau offers words that could guide any educational institution that brands itself with mission or strategic plan language related to “diversity”:

We are a campus community that proclaims its diversity, and so we must be a refuge and a source of wisdom on questions of racial, religious and gender fairness. We are, as an institution, built on foundational beliefs about the necessary place of accessible education—and by implication the need for robust social and economic mobility—in any stable and democratic society. And all of this means that whenever and for whatever reason the climate shifts against these values outside our campus, we are obliged to reaffirm them within it.

Staving off the inevitable charges of partisanship that are likely to follow his statement, he asserts that he “writes these lines not as a partisan in our political process, but as someone who has been asked to steward, for the time being, an institution that is not neutral on these questions, and that cannot remain neutral.” And for me, this is the crux of it. Institutions of higher education are not politically neutral.

The candidates were not unclear about their positions on diversity, inclusion, funding for public higher education, or the relationship of higher education to the public good; given this, why should our higher education leaders be silent on their positions about issues raised and conditions created by campaigns or elections? I am so grateful to these forty-five college presidents for speaking out immediately following this election, acknowledging that our institutions of higher learning are intrinsically bound to social justice, civil rights, freedom of speech, and educational access. There were probably many more statements issued that I just didn’t find in time to consider, but clearly, the vast majority of higher education administrations remained silent in the wake of Trump’s election, silent while so many of our students were waking up to a world they now have reason to believe wishes to silence, assimilate, deport, assault, or brutalize them.

So what should we do? We should insist that our college and university leaders speak out before, during, and after elections to explain how their institutional missions intersect with the changing political reality. We should insist that our rhetoric about diversity and inclusion, so proudly on display in our mission statements and strategic plans, be connected to the actions we are willing to take when that diversity and inclusion is threatened on a national level. And we should thank and support those leaders who have spoken out this week despite the guise of “non-partisan neutrality” that masks deeper anxieties about pleasing donors and protecting enrollments. If your college or university president made a statement, thank them and discuss it in your community. If they didn’t, ask them to do it now. Higher education is not neutral territory, and anyone who wishes to lead here needs to be willing to step up when it matters. And it matters now.

Thank you to Michael DiTommaso for his invaluable work as a research assistant on this project.

You can review a complete list of the statements I received here. Please use the comments below to contribute links to additional statements.

Photo “Vote” by Flickr user Ally Aubry / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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