As cases of the highly contagious, deadly Delta variant of COVID-19 surged in the southern United States during the summer and early fall of 2021, a growing number of politicians from both sides of the aisle began urging all Americans to get vaccinated. Some individuals saw this unsolicited advice by those who had previously raised doubts about the vaccine as a betrayal of a shared understanding and consequently met it with utter contempt. For instance, former president Donald Trump was greeted by a chorus of boos when speaking to his base at an Alabama event in August after proclaiming, “I believe totally in your freedoms. I do. You’ve got to do what you have to do. But I recommend take the vaccines. I did it. It’s good. Take the vaccines.” At the time, the state had the lowest vaccination rate in the nation, and Trump quickly pivoted upon hearing the crowd’s reaction, recanting with “No, that’s OK. That’s all right. You got your freedoms. . . . You have to maintain that.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina experienced similar pushback at an October rally in his home state when he encouraged audience members to get vaccinated. Graham’s toothless appeal “to think about getting [the vaccine] if you’re my age” was interrupted by jeers and shouts of “No!” from attendees. When the senator persisted, noting that “92 percent of people in hospitals in South Carolina are unvaccinated,” his constituents responded with cries of “False!” and “Not true!”
These scenes highlight America’s burgeoning challenges around having even cursory conversations with respect to controversial topics, especially in circumstances in which social identity has been built around an us-versus-them mentality. The episodes also raise fascinating questions about the psychology of leadership and the phenomenon of people doubling down on false beliefs in the face of incontrovertible evidence. One such question—that of what happens when the conversation shifts and emotional connections are lost—was center stage at an October virtual town hall meeting on “Cultivating a Just and Inclusive Democracy” that the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) held in collaboration with James Madison University.
Part of AAC&U’s Presidents’ Trust programming, the meeting was premised on the notion that as political polarization, partisanship, and intolerance for difference continue to thrive in the United States, colleges and universities have a basic responsibility to exercise leadership in strengthening our democracy. With a focus on how to model civil discourse without being partisan, how to engage all students in practicing the skills of democracy, and how to build environments of meaningful engagement with differing perspectives, the convening illustrated how AAC&U strives to support campus leaders at member institutions in working toward solutions that unite rather than divide.
A few weeks earlier in September, AAC&U had also affirmed its commitment to strengthening democracy as it participated in creating a new coalition of higher education and student success organizations dedicated to ensuring that civic learning is both expected and experienced equitably across postsecondary education in the United States. Joining with Complete College America, College Promise, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association to form Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement (CLDE), AAC&U endeavors to fulfill higher education’s civic mission by making civic inquiry and democracy engagement part of each student’s educational pathway.
Ultimately, CLDE aims to provide leaders and educators with the support they need to deepen civic learning and democracy engagement within their own contexts; to make equitable participation a documented achievement; and to work toward a common goal of creating a high-quality, civic-oriented postsecondary education for all US students. Such an education includes connections between curricular and experiential learning; opportunities to work on significant public problems; practice in constructively engaging views different from one’s own; and compiling disaggregated data about what is most effective and what needs to be improved in students’ experience of democracy learning. To achieve these objectives, we must begin by reflecting on our own institutional commitments to equity and pluralism and the ways in which our culture, practices, and policies support faculty, students, and staff in expressing their political views freely on campus, alongside the critical issue of what to do when the expression of these views disregards the humanity of others.
Each of these topics will be woven into discussions at AAC&U’s 2022 annual meeting, January 19–21. I hope that you will join us in shaping an agenda for higher education’s future that foregrounds the civic mission of all colleges and universities as a means of promoting a truer democracy.
Illustration by Paul Spella