Election Reflections

Nancy Thomas, Director, Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

November 10, 2016

As the director of a research institute studying higher education’s role in democracy, I have been inundated on November 9 with emails, texts, and calls. Donald Trump's election as the 45th President of the United States shocked people on college campuses who are worried about his messages of exclusion, hate, and fear, his disregard for facts and truth, and an anti-intellectualism that may characterize his leadership and  “base.” As I have written before, his messages are antithetical to goals of truth, equal opportunity, and inclusion central to higher education’s mission. We hope that colleges and universities will seize this moment in the nation’s history to reflect on their role in strengthening American democracy. That reflection would include honest introspection and an examination of political learning, discourse, and action during the election, as well as a look at the underlying campus climate for democratic learning. We’ll be posting some questions that campuses can use as the basis for this reflective exercise.

I envision three kinds of immediate responses on college and university campuses. One would be programming to address concerns of students, those who supported Hillary Clinton and feel like their work was for naught and those who feel denigrated and at risk based on their gender, race/ethnicity, immigrant status, physical abilities, and more. The second could be conversations about what this means for students personally in terms of their loans, the cost of college, their legal status in this country, some of which is already covered in Inside Higher Ed. A third might be a message of opportunity from institutional leaders – including the notion that President-Elect Trump represents everyone, not just his supporters, and that what we have witnessed is democracy in action.   

These are appropriate immediate responses, but I would like to propose something more far-reaching and aligned with higher education’s mission, something educational.  

College and university faculty and leaders should view this election as a teachable moment and an opportunity to reflect on how well they fulfilled their roles as educators of citizens in a just democracy. Here are some questions I hope faculty and administrators will ask themselves – and ask students about:

  • To what extent was this election used to advance political discourse, agency, and equity campus-wide? Did faculty across disciplines, not just in fields like political science, discuss policy issues in the classroom?
  • Did students across disciplines grapple with underlying problems of hate, discrimination, and marginalization based on social identity, political ideology, or lived experiences?
  • To what extent did the institution involve the local community in understanding election issues, facts, and policy implications? Was the community invited to election activities? Did faculty and students go out into the community for political conversations?
  • How did students learn about and gauge multiple viewpoints around the country, particularly the challenges of non-college youth or people from different communities? Was empathy an explicit learning goal for students?
  • Did students understand the government’s system of checks and balances, the difference between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches and what was at stake beyond the presidency? How well does the political process actually work, and how can it be improved?
  • What was the role of basic fact-checking in this election? How did students, faculty, and staff come to informed voting choices?
  • What is the institution’s overall campus climate for political learning and engagement? How diverse yet cohesive are your students, faculty, and staff? How do students practice political agency on campus? How did you balance free expression, inclusion, and respect?

Colleges and universities can take this opportunity to take stock of how well they used this election to educate students for their role as citizens in a democracy, and how they worked with the local community to gain understanding of election choices. To the extent that the answers to these questions raise doubts about the campus climate for or commitment to student political learning and engagement, this election presents an opportunity for change. Political learning and engagement in democracy begins anew today, not during the next election season. Like all elections, this one should be a wake-up call.


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 NSLVE is both a service to colleges and universities – providing more than 900 institutions nationally with tailored reports containing their student s’ voter registration and voting rates – and a database of 8.5 million student records, which is used to study college student political learning and engagement in democracy. You can follow along with our work on Twitter @TuftsIDHE.

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