The morning after the election of Donald Trump, colleges and universities reeled. Having insulated themselves from the outside world, administrators, professors, and students were shocked by Trump’s win. As Fordham University associate professor Charles Camosy explained, “College-educated people didn’t just fail to see this coming — they have struggled to display even a rudimentary understanding of the worldviews of those who voted for Trump.”
In letters emailed to the campus community, college presidents and other administrators solemnly faced the music. Several sites have aggregated collections of these emails. Three themes stand out: acknowledging emotions, providing emotional support, and reciting values.
Treating Despair with Relaxation Stations
Wellesley College president Paula Johnson wrote, “For many of us hoping to see our first woman president, this election has surprised and disappointed us.” George Mason University student body president Nathan Pittman said that reactions range from “jubilation and optimism to despair and fear.” A department advisor at Virginia Tech professed, “many among us are waking up with fear” and “anxiety.” Connecticut State University associate professor Paul Petterson wrote that “many of us have seen students and colleagues who are feeling deep uncertainty and fear for the future.” UNC’s Center for Social Justice declared, “This morning we are confused and angry. This morning we are heartbroken.” An administrator in the office for first-generation students at Ferrum College in Virginia lamented that “there are many students, faculty, and staff grieving.”
Many colleges offered emotional support in the form of a physical safe space where students could go to “be with people who care” (Webster University in Missouri). Iowa State University hosted a “relaxation station” with “relaxing music, coloring, Play-Doh, puzzles, and more!” Numerous professors postponed exams, canceled classes, and excused students from attending classes and labs.
The writers then took the opportunity to remind readers of the institution’s values. These included “full equity for women,” “social justice,” and “the embracing of difference” (Wellesley); “you are loved” and “all of your emotions are real” (Virginia Tech); “civility,” “mutual trust,” and “respect” (College of Charleston); “citizen leadership” (Longwood University in Virginia); and “compassion,” “a just economy,” and “a peaceful global community” (Central Connecticut State University).
While these letters and services were meant to soothe distraught progressive students, they also demonized those who voted for Trump. As University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds put it, “when you treat an election in which the ‘wrong’ candidate wins as a traumatic event on a par with the 9/11 attacks, calling for counseling and safe spaces, you’re implicitly saying that everyone who supported that ‘wrong’ candidate is, well, unsafe.” Safe spaces for conservative students were not a phenomenon when Barack Obama was elected in 2008 or reelected in 2012.
The political partisanship on display at colleges and universities this week—in many instances coming from the top leadership—is inappropriate for these academic institutions. Lawrence Schall, president of Oglethorpe University in Georgia, even took the occasion to express his personal dismay at the election results: “I still find it difficult this morning to believe that the majority of voters in our country chose to elect a man whose views on civility and inclusivity are so at odds with mine and with the values of our Oglethorpe community.”
Not all colleges have reacted in partisan woe. William & Mary president Taylor Reveley wrote a temperate and thoughtful letter. He offered no safe spaces but encouraged students to speak graciously and to continue their civic involvement. His letter was full of hope for the future of the American spirit.
President Reveley’s letter took advantage of a good moment to evaluate what should be the animating principles of higher education.
One ideal colleges should pursue is building their students’ character. Some of the letters above leaned that way when they talked about “respect” and “compassion.” They, however, leave out many other virtues such as honesty, humility, self-governance, diligence, perseverance, and courage. The idea that “all of your emotions are real” is actually detrimental to students. An emotion may be “real” but discreditable. Pleasure at the suffering of others, self-pity, and smugness can be real, but emotions should be valued, not because they are real but because they are right. Colleges’ indulgence in this area leaves students where they already are emotionally and doesn’t challenge them toward self-examination and growth.
But the principle of wanting a leader who embodies good character and sets a virtuous example for Americans is the right instinct. Donald Trump’s election clearly poses a challenge in this regard, as the election of Hillary Clinton would also have done. Students and faculty will need to reckon with the flaws of elected leaders now and in the future.
Freedom to pursue the truth is another ideal toward which higher education should strive. Colleges foreclose debate and free inquiry about matters such as race, immigration, and sexuality when they take sides and expect students to follow suit. President-elect Trump has criticized political correctness—which is one reason so many people found his views a refreshing new wind ruffling up the stifling atmosphere of cultural taboos. Trump’s frequent tactlessness, however, strikes many people as going too far the other way.
In many of his statements, however, he overcorrects with tactlessness.
This is the perennial problem for colleges and universities as well as all Americans: how to balance civility with freedom. For decades higher education has embraced a form of civility often to the neglect of free expression. President-elect Trump has embraced free expression often to the neglect of civility.
We need both principles in great measure. Ignoring either side does a great disservice to the quality of public discourse.
As the nation receives a new president, colleges should equip students with the civic mindset they need to live as citizens during an administration with whom they may strongly disagree. This means training them to evaluate arguments and facts, to stand up for their beliefs in ways that obey the rule of law, to debate ideas with respect for their opponents, and to be resilient when faced with someone with whom they disagree. So far, many colleges have laid a poor foundation for this kind of teaching. But it’s not too late to do better.
President Reveley at William & Mary shows us one way to do better. Administrators and faculty members can also take the lead by hosting, instead of safe spaces, debates and conversations between campus conservatives and liberals. The hosts should make it clear that these events are to be conducted fairly and civilly. Student groups such as the University Union at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst already do this. Now it’s up to the adults to follow their example.
Ashley Thorne is the executive director of the National Association of Scholars.