Volume 85 | Issue 1
January/February 2017

From the Chief Executive Officer: Election Results

John Taylor, Ed.D.

John TayorThe misleading polls prior to the U.S. presidential election caused many of us to be shocked by Donald Trump’s victory. The resulting statistics of who voted for whom reveal some surprises, greatest of which to me was that 45% of college graduates voted for Trump. Sometimes it is easy to assume that others with similar backgrounds think in a similar fashion. However, as noted by Becky Supiano in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Voters’ identities can be linked to their demographic characteristics, but no voter can be reduced to a one-dimensional description.” While more than 10% of his supporters had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, they still voted for him, indicating that they were more interested in change than the attributes of the candidate himself.

There is no doubt that Trump’s victory has already affected higher education. The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded more than 400 incidents the week after the election, including reports of hate speech and violence on college campuses. Many students, faculty, and staff are scared, feel disenfranchised, and are unsure of what the future holds. Emotions are high, with campus demonstrations ranging from student marches to unity gatherings. An anti-Trump rally in The Ohio State University’s Ohio Union resulted in a demonstrator being knocked down half a flight of stairs by another student. In contrast, while attending the Big XII union directors meeting at West Virginia University, the union directors and I observed a peaceful and empowering unity circle. The words of the Black Student Union president resonated with the 500 people in attendance: “Don’t let the climate of this country change who you are. People ask me what I’m going to do. I’m going to get my degree and change the world.”

In our college unions, we are again presented with the question of how to help students navigate such a complex and sometimes threatening world. I have great faith in students, that they will change the world for the better, and that our college unions can help to mend a fractured society. To this end, I would suggest three practical avenues: activism, diversity, and dialogue.

While there has been a strong resurgence in student activism over the past two years, college unions have served as conducive spaces for students to express themselves for more than a century. In my opinion, there is no more appropriate place on campus for students to demonstrate and engage the campus on important or controversial issues. Aside from the physical space, staff in the college union are skilled in managing events, providing a safe environment, and allowing for differences to be expressed in a constructive and respectful manner. Students sometimes push the limits, choosing an approach of dissent and disruption. This can be time-consuming and stressful for staff, but we should embrace such student activism. Protests are at the center of what we do to support student expression, and they prompt the campus to wrestle with challenges facing the community and society at large.

We are all at a different point on the continuum of intercultural proficiency. While there is much that can be learned through workshops and study, our life experiences and interactions with others are what shape who we are at any given time. We know that college provides great opportunity for students to engage with people from different backgrounds. In Dan Barrett’s Chronicle article about race and the election, Dr. Alyssa Rockenbach, professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, indicated that positive interracial encounters allow students to “become more culturally aware, respectful of difference, open-minded, and comfortable interacting across race.” Our college unions provide excellent vehicles for students to engage across cultures, and we must continue to be intentional in planning programs and encouraging formal and informal interaction for students to interface with others who are different than themselves.

Finally, I will reiterate the message I’ve conveyed in prior Bulletin columns: create avenues for constructive dialogue and bring civility back into style. As campus community builders, we have the hard work of bringing people together who experience and see the world differently. It is a challenge we accept, to get everyone into the same room, to be confronted with uncomfortable situations when people disagree, and to push forward for respectful and civil discourse. In her November commentary for The Chronicle, Dr. Mariko Silver, president of Bennington College, artfully articulated how community does not mean agreement, but that “being able to live with disagreement, give it space, and analyze it is crucial. Seeing the people around us as fully human doesn’t require consensus, but it does require listening, empathy, and rigorous thinking … bringing to the conversation a sincere desire to make things better for everyone, even for those with whom we disagree.” College unions are the most appropriate venue for bringing people together for such dialogue.

Our work has never been more important, to support student expression, to create avenues for cross-cultural engagement, and to prompt constructive dialogue while building community. As we inaugurate a new president and look ahead to the future, we must remember that college unions exist to support all students: those who are the most vulnerable, those with whom we disagree, and those who will profoundly change the world.