As the arrival of August signals the inevitable end of summer and return of students to campuses, it is also a time of county and state fairs across the country. Whether you are attending a fair to work a table for your institution and share information about the contributions your campus makes to your community and region or taking some well-deserved time with your family, fairs provide a great excuse to gather with our neighbors. County and state fairs also often offer unique opportunities to meet and talk with candidates for local, state, and federal elections in a more relaxed and un-scripted environment. If you are heading out to your county or state fair and interested in determining where the candidates in your area stand on issues related to higher education, this post will provide some background and tips to get your conversations started.
When engaging with candidates, student affairs professionals should be careful not to mistakenly imply they are speaking on behalf of their institutions, just as when speaking to elected officials. While you can use your expertise and identify yourself as someone who works in higher education, you may want to keep that information to yourself until you get farther into a conversation with a candidate. Working on campus and citing institutionally-based examples may add credibility to your stances, a useful thing in advocacy situations, but when evaluating candidates for office, letting them do most of the talking will help you get a better understanding of their positions. Remember that their job as a candidate is to convince you they are worthy of your vote!
It is always a good practice to familiarize yourself with any campus, local, or state policies governing your responsibilities as a state employee and any restrictions that may place on your personal political speech. For instance, laws governing lobbying by state employees may prevent you from speaking with candidates about specific legislation using institutional resources, which may include communication via computers or wireless networks. If you are planning to speak publicly, say in a town hall forum, on specific legislation or in favor of or opposition to a specific candidate, you should consider whether you may need to state explicitly that you are not speaking on behalf of your employer. If you are unsure of your rights or responsibilities as a public employee in political arenas, speak with your campus human resources office or general counsel.
Public perception around the value of higher education is, like much of our current national political dialogue, notably divided. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that just under two-thirds of Americans think higher education in our country is moving in the wrong direction. The reasons for this perception are different depending on the political party the respondents identified with most strongly, however. Survey respondents who more strongly identified with the Republican Party cited concerns with intellectual diversity, specifically about professors bringing their own political or social views into the classroom and too much concern about protecting students from views they may find offensive. Respondents who more closely identify with the Democrat Party identified the high costs of higher education and concerns around whether students are getting the skills needed to succeed in the workplace.
While these survey data should never be used to assume a particular candidates opinions or stances on higher education, it can be helpful to keep these national perceptions in mind when talking with local candidates. One way you might start to get to know your candidates would be to ask them whether they think higher education in our country is moving in the right or the wrong direction and then to ask them what information they are using to make their determination. Their answer, when compared with your own values and beliefs, can help you decide whether the candidate is likely to generally support or oppose issues important to you related to higher education.
It may be helpful for you to identify a few specific issues that are most important to you and use those to evaluate whether a candidate’s views align with your own enough to win your vote. A candidate seeking local office will have a slightly different set of issues under their possible sphere of influence than one seeking state, or federal office. Some possible questions you could consider for candidates at all three levels are identified below, but you should feel free to ask questions that address issues relevant to your views and what you feel is best for your community.
You can also review the position statements of organizations that represent your interests personally or professionally to identify additional questions. For instance, NASPA provides position statements on a variety of issues at the federal and state level for our members on the Policy and Advocacy page, and Young Invincibles has compiled a federal and several state policy agendas based on focus groups and survey research with 18-19 year olds.