Bridging the American Political Divide: The Role of Higher Education in Advancing Civil Discourse

Since the 1980s, America has become an increasingly divided country. The causes of this division are complex, structural, and longstanding, as outlined by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort (2008). Growing ideological gaps and geographical segregation based on values, education, and outlook have resulted in diminished attempts to find common ground and compromise, threatening the viability of our democracy.

The 2016 presidential election was a bellwether in the long-term deepening of partisan divides. The presidential campaign tapped into a sense by many people—especially working-class whites—that the system is rigged against them, and that the political classes of both parties have turned their backs on them. Their pain is real, evident in hollowed-out Rustbelt communities, the opioid epidemic, and the withering of union jobs. Authors like Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016), George Packer (2013), J. D. Vance (2016), and others have offered insight into the tectonic shifts in American society that have caused many to feel as though they have been left behind.

At the same time, the election’s outcome has resulted in justifiable fear on the part of many Americans. Recent federal actions that directly affect our campus communities include executive orders on immigration that are now being challenged in the courts and proposed changes to health care policy that, if implemented, are anticipated by the Congressional Budget Office (2017) to severely reduce access to health care. Extreme polarization has led some to reject evidence in favor of ideology as the basis for their beliefs.

Within this context, American higher education is often seen as part of the America that embraces and benefits from globalization, technological innovation, and the information economy—and therefore as disconnected from the suffering experienced by those in economic distress. Consistent with the rise of the “creative class” described by Richard Florida (2002), our institutions are often associated with large urban centers or technological ecosystems: Silicon Valley, the North Carolina Research Triangle, and the hundreds of university towns representing information economy clusters across the nation. We are accused of glossing over the realities of small-town, rural, and poor America while prescribing education as the cure-all solution to the dislocations brought about by the tectonic shifts identified by Hochschild (2016) and others. In essence, we are thought to be of a piece with the political class that the other America feels has abandoned them.

However, as shown in a recent study released by the Equality of Opportunity Project (Chetty et al. 2017), many institutions of higher education are powerful engines of upward social mobility. They bring together students from different backgrounds in pursuit of the ideals of inclusive excellence, leveraging diversity to provide enriched educational experiences and preparing students for the global society of the twenty-first century.

America’s institutions of higher education—liberal arts colleges, comprehensive universities, research institutions, community colleges, and others—are not only centers of learning, but also key community resources. We create a halo effect along economic, cultural, and social dimensions that extends into the greater society. At a time when division, anger, and acrimony are acting like caustic solvents on our civic fabric, we should help our nation bridge those divides by creating opportunities for reasoned dialogue and understanding.

Finding Opportunity in Surprise

Like many institutions, California State University–Monterey Bay (CSU Monterey Bay) found an opportunity to encourage dialogue last November in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential race. The election of Donald Trump caused surprise across the nation, including in higher education, with most forecasts predicting until the last minute and with near-certainty that Hillary Clinton would win the election. The result was the culmination of a campaign of firsts, most of them negative. Unprecedented acrimony, the intentional spread of disinformation, hacking by foreign actors, and strident anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric—to name only a few extraordinary elements—all contributed to one of the most divisive political environments in recent memory. By the time of the election, many people on both sides of the divide were convinced that a victory by the other party would mean the downfall of the republic.

Following the election, many Clinton supporters lapsed into sadness, depression, and fear. Many of the immigrants among us (especially but not only undocumented immigrants) felt themselves to be unwelcome and the targets of hostility. At CSU Monterey Bay, our mission reflects a strong commitment to educating the underserved agricultural communities of the Salinas Valley, primarily the children of Mexican and Central American farm workers. Like many other campuses in California and elsewhere, we have significant numbers of undocumented students who were anxious about what to expect from a Trump administration. Many of our undocumented students are “DREAMers” (named for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) and have enrolled in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. These students were especially fearful, since by enrolling they had given detailed personal information about themselves and their families to the federal government—information that could now be used to facilitate their deportation or that of family members. They—and many other students, staff, and faculty—were alarmed and concerned about what the election results would mean, and were looking for a venue in which the campus community could come together, process what had happened, and find some reassurance about what to expect in the months to come.

At the same time, nearly half of voters nationally had backed the winning candidate and were understandably pleased with the results of the election. Even in California, a strongly liberal-leaning state, a substantial number of people—and 43 percent of the state’s counties—voted for Trump (California Secretary of State 2017). Because CSU Monterey Bay draws students from across the state, we knew that a significant portion of our students, as well as some staff and faculty members, were likely Trump supporters. So in thinking about how to respond to the election, we had to walk a fine line to avoid alienating any one segment of our community. After consulting with the cabinet, the academic senate chair, and the president of the student government organization, we opted to hold a forum open to all members of the university community.

Setting the Tone

In planning the forum, we decided early on not to have an open-mic session, anticipating that such an event could give a platform to the most emotionally distraught members of our community and possibly derail our attempt to promote reflection, thoughtful dialogue, and dissemination of accurate information. Instead, we structured the forum to begin with framing remarks by me, as well as the academic senate chair, the student body president, and a faculty member with expertise in multicultural studies, diversity, and inclusion.

My remarks had multiple objectives. The first objective was to emphasize facts that we could all agree on, and that were the worthy object of our discussion and reflection. These were (1) that the results of the election were a surprise to many people; (2) that the campaign had been unusually hostile and had left the country divided and in need of healing; and (3) that the election results showed that our understanding of the state of our society was incomplete and needed to improve. Many of our fellow citizens felt unrepresented by the traditional establishment of both political parties, and had unmet needs and concerns that deserved to be understood.

The second objective was to reaffirm the university’s commitment to the values of inclusiveness and respect for all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or immigration status, and our commitment to reasoned discourse and dialogue in the pursuit of knowledge, based on evidence and logical analysis.

The third objective was to remind the community of the robust character of the US Constitution and of the checks and balances built into our institutions.

The fourth objective was to inform those most concerned about the fate of undocumented students regarding what they could expect from our institution. On that score, the CSU system—and the entire California state government—had already strongly committed to supporting undocumented immigrants to the full extent possible within US law. Specifically, the CSU system had pledged not to cooperate or share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or any other federal agency for the purposes of enforcing immigration law, unless specifically mandated by federal law or court order to do so.

The fifth objective was to convey that as a university, and by virtue of our mission and values, we were ideally situated to exemplify the respectful inquiry and dialogue that our nation needs to bridge the divide reflected in our political process and exacerbated by social media, socioeconomic segregation, rising inequality, and other social forces.

Finally, the ultimate objective of my remarks was to frame the election and its aftermath as an opportunity to thoughtfully seek understanding of perspectives across the social divide, to develop empathy for others’ hopes and fears, and to begin bridging the divide.

Facilitating Civil Conversation

After my remarks, the chair of the academic senate spoke. She is a white woman with a distinct Southern accent, which could have led some in our university community to stereotype her views and social background. But as she shared her personal history with the audience, her stories of hardship and of her working-class roots effectively dispelled assumptions and reminded listeners not to judge people by appearances. Our next two speakers were our student body president (a third-year student) and an ethnic-studies faculty member. Both women made sensitive remarks reaffirming the open-minded and constructive framework that we hoped to establish.

Having set the stage in this manner, we turned to small-group conversations and asked attendees to discuss the speakers’ comments and any other insights, perspectives, or concerns they had about the election and this moment in our nation’s history. We had convened the forum in a large ballroom, and had arranged attendees around banquet tables seating about ten people each. Attendees had chosen seats at random, so the composition of the groups varied. Some groups were uniformly dismayed by the election results, so they compared notes and shared their anxieties about the current moment, working a bit like support groups but focusing on what we could do as a campus to buck the tide of discord and hostility in the larger society.

Other groups were mixed, with some Trump supporters and some Clinton supporters. In these groups, participants were exposed to perspectives not normally available to them in their circle of friends and colleagues. As the opening speakers circulated around the room, we observed that advocates on either side of the divide were conducting conversations in moderate tones. The intentional seating arrangement reinforced this turn to civility: it is hard to make the sort of intemperate remarks that are associated with Twitter and Facebook when interacting face-to-face.

The conversations were animated but respectful, as attendees were engaged and pleased at the opportunity to articulate their thoughts and listen to other perspectives. After thirty minutes, we reconvened the groups and provided an opportunity for the tables to report on their conversations to the full assembly. The reports were wide-ranging, addressing concerns specific to undocumented students as well as issues faced by African American students on campus, experiences related to microaggressions, the need for training in multicultural competence for faculty and staff, and other topics. The organizers also collected information in writing from attendees who chose to provide it.

Opening New Possibilities

As a follow-up to the forum, two spontaneously formed groups—the AB540 Coalition and the African American Faculty and Staff Alliance—developed a set of recommendations for the university and met with me to discuss them in a collegial manner. (The AB540 Coalition was named for California Assembly Bill 540, which establishes eligibility for resident tuition and financial aid for undocumented students meeting certain conditions comparable to federal DACA criteria.) The recommendations fell into three categories: (1) things the university was already doing; (2) steps that we could take either with existing resources or additional resources; and (3) things that we could not legally do. We reaffirmed our commitment to items in the first category, agreed to implement a number of recommendations in the second, and communicated about why we were unable to address items in the third. This response was well received by both groups.

Reflecting on the overall effect of the election on our campus, I believe that our response was timely, measured, and effective. We did not experience postelection disruptions or protests aimed at the university by either pro- or anti-Trump groups (although the surrounding community did choose our campus as the setting for January’s Women’s March). The forum and subsequent meetings reassured members of our community about the support provided by the university and opened up new spaces for continuing dialogue.

This outcome was possible because of CSU Monterey Bay’s strong sense of its mission and values. Our Vision Statement makes an explicit commitment to social justice and respectful collaboration among all university community members (CSU Monterey Bay 2017). They provided a shared language that guided our deliberations as well as our actions. The campus community saw consistency between the administration’s words and deeds, and members of the community felt reassured that the university supported and respected them, regardless of where they stood in relation to the election results. The election thus became a crucible wherein our true essence emerged: that of an academic community dedicated to promoting social justice and the respectful search for knowledge and meaning.

Expanding Our Public Role

CSU Monterey Bay’s response to the election is indicative of how we can promote dialogue in the community. One way we have done this is through our President’s Speaker Series. For several years, we have selected annual themes that resonate with the communities of the California central coast, such as regional economic development, global trends and their regional impact, and, most recently, immigration. For each event, we have convened a panel of speakers to share their different perspectives, followed by a moderated question-and-answer session. The series has drawn strong participation from a variety of stakeholder groups in the surrounding communities and has established a role for the university as an intellectual center and a place where challenging issues can be examined and illuminated.

We now have the opportunity to apply a similar formula to the big policy issues that are roiling the nation—jobs, trade, globalization, technological disruption, health care, immigration, taxes and public spending, infrastructure, diversity and inclusion—and to the question of what constitutes the essence of America. We hope to use our position as a neutral meeting ground and convener to bring diverse communities together to explore these issues in a more measured setting where different individuals can seek solutions and common ground. Our fellow Americans are hungering for this.

If higher education is to fulfill its promise of strengthening the civic foundations of our democracy, we must break out of our bubbles and reach out effectively to all parts of America. All colleges and universities have as part of their institutional DNA the tools to engage in respectful, inquiry-based dialogue: practice debating ideas rather than engaging in ad hominem attacks; an appreciation for evidence and careful reasoning; a commitment to the scientific method—in other words, the suite of critical thinking skills that we continually strive to develop in our students. We need to model their use across the political divide, and then find the way to bring our larger communities into the conversation. No other institutional body in our country has the capacity to do it, so we must.

References

Bishop, Bill. 2008. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

California Secretary of State. 2017. General Election—Statement of Vote, November 8, 2016, June 3. California Secretary of State. http://elections.cdn.sos.ca.gov/sov/2016-general/sov/17-presidential-formatted.xls.

California State University–Monterey Bay. 2017. Vision Statement—Cal State Monterey Bay. https://csumb.edu/about/vision-statement.

Chetty, Raj, John N. Friedman, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner, and Danny Yagan. 2017. Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility, January. The Equality of Opportunity Project. http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/assets/documents/coll_mrc_paper.pdf.

Congressional Budget Office. 2017. Cost Estimate - H.R. 1628: American Health Care Act of 2017, May 24. https://www.cbo.gov/publication/52752.

Florida, Richard. 2002. The Rise of The Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press.

Packer, George. 2013. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Vance, J. D. 2016. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper.


Eduardo M. Ochoa is President of California State University–Monterey Bay and Former Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education in the US Department of Education.

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