College Students Need Better Lessons Than 'All of Your Emotions Are Real'

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).

Taking Sides

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.