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A New Year’s Resolution for Colleges and Universities: Reflecting on 2018 & Planning for 2020

Policy and Advocacy
January 8, 2019 Nancy Thomas Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

In August 2018, the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education published Election Imperatives, ten recommendations for using election issues and processes to launch or reinforce improvements in the campus’ political climate and educate for student political learning, discourse, inclusion, and participation. Throughout the election, we talked with administrators, faculty, and students about the opportunities and challenges presented in this election season. We offer reflection questions to consider now before memories fade and before 2020 planning begins.

#1: How involved were institutional leaders?

We recommended that presidents establish and support a permanent, not temporary, coalition of faculty, staff, and students dedicated to improving political discourse and participation. We also recommended that senior leaders get personally involved. We spoke with campuses where presidents walked with students to the polls to register voters or talked with students about their rights to vote near campus. Some presidents regularly issued letters or posted blogs on political issues such as the treatment of refugees. We hope that presidents fought any barriers to voting caused by suppressive voting conditions. We also hope that they helped connect often-disconnected learning objectives of increasing political knowledge, intergroup discussion skills, and student activism and leadership.  

#2: How did your institution take on “fake news?”

We recommended that campuses track and refute misinformation and nefarious social media campaigns.  On one campus, the library was tasked with the responsibility of identifying “alternative facts” and offering student programs to correct the record. At another college, students talked about the delicate balance between fomenting passion and maintaining integrity. They insisted that student opinions be informed and truthful, no matter the political lean.

#3: To what extent did your institution reframe voter engagement work as exercises in diversity and inclusion?

We recommended that institutions reimagine common election tasks, like staffing voter registration tables, as exercises in inclusion. One campus told us that students worked in pairs intentionally chosen to reflect social and political diversity. On another campus, the coalition convened and consulted with 100 people, including faculty across all disciplines and students from all clubs, athletic teams, disciplines, the arts, activist groups, and political parties, to collect ideas for political programming. At another campus, the polling location was placed in the multicultural center to highlight the connection between inclusion and electoral engagement.

#4: How did your institution seize election issues to educate for controversial issue discussions or intergroup dialogues?

We recommended that campuses use their NSLVE data, election controversies, policy issues, social conflicts, and campus concerns to teach the arts of discussion and to reinforce norms of active listening, perspective taking, shared responsibility, compromise, and collaboration. We also recommended that campuses recruit, train, and establish a cadre of faculty, staff, and students who can facilitate tense discussions. On campuses we tracked, many employed exemplary facilitation techniques to manage issue discussions, and in one case, the members of the coalition participated in dialogue training. At another, students from immigrant families engaged in facilitated conversations with native-born students to talk about the privilege of attending college and voting.

#5: To what extent were political issues taught across disciplines?

Every field faces policy questions, but not all departments intentionally teach them, and in some disciplines, professors are not accustomed to discussing salient political, policy, or controversial issues. We found campuses that used the field of study data in their NSLVE reports to catch the attention of professors across disciplines. At one campus, a politics institute convened more than 150 people on campus during the summer and into the fall to solicit advice for the programs they wanted. In return for the institute offering the program, faculty members built attendance into course requirements. The institute offered 25 programs during the fall semester. At another, all departments hosted “civic conversations.”

#6: How open were institutional leaders to student activism?

We recommended that institutional leaders accommodate and encourage issue activism and leadership, even for unpopular causes. Some presidents may be uncomfortable with this recommendation because they want to maintain order and avoid disruption, but there are ways to listen to student activists and provide them with a platform without fostering disorder.  At some campuses we tracked, students engaged in protests or organizing with the support of administrators and faculty.

#7: Did institutional leaders stand up for democratic principles and practices?

While breaking down divisiveness and polarization and seeking common ground and compromise are good ideas, that does not mean that campuses need to yield to perspectives that encourage discrimination, exclusion, violence, or unethical behavior. Campus leaders may have forgotten that they have academic freedom to control student learning content and the learning environment. Institutional leaders should take a stand against undemocratic forces in some segments of American society and on campus.

These reflection questions can be taken to your coalitions of faculty, students and staff who worked on election season activities, or to your entire campus community. For resources and suggestions for improving answer to these questions, check out our ten recommendations in Election Imperatives and the resources – most created by our partner organizations – in our Toolkit.

Nancy Thomas directs the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education and the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. This is her third Election Reflection. The first (November 10, 2016) posed seven “Election Reflection” questions about what students learned and did in the months leading up to 2016 presidential election. The second (November 2017) suggested an election anniversary examination of (1) students’ capacity to talk about politically charged issues, (2) student voting rates – as an indication of their interest in public affairs, and (3) how civic learning goals are articulated and met. You can follow along with our work on Twitter @TuftsIDHE.