After the election, academics should pursue a form of radical dialogue (essay)

I am a professor of sociology who did not vote for Donald Trump, and I do not know of a single academic colleague who did. (And if they did, they are certainly not disclosing this in academic circles.)

I remember sitting with colleagues before the primaries when Trump was gaining ground. They laughed him off. They did not know anyone who would vote for him.

The pollsters got it wrong, too, and they all seemed to get it wrong in the same direction: in favor of established liberal Hillary Clinton. They are already writing about the statistical reasons this may have happened. I am going to set those aside for now to address a sociological, qualitative reason.

Sociologists have long studied the tendency of people to bond with others like them. Case in point: I love my academic colleagues because they are a lot like me. We are a group of passionate people who care deeply about the poor. And we are similar in other ways, too. We like to read dry academic articles and make arguments that contain the word “nuanced.”

And politically, many of us lean to the left (or even the far left). When I am with other sociologists, I tend to de-emphasize the things that are different about us and emphasize the things that are similar: I talk a lot about how my husband is an equal partner in care for our daughter, how I come from a biracial family and how I am raising my daughter in, as much as possible, a gender-neutral fashion.

That is starkly different from the way I was brought up.

I was literally raised on Podunk Road, where trailers and beat-up cars dotted the landscape. Our family was probably among the richest of a group of poor white people. Among those I went to school with, I am one of the only ones who attended an Ivy League school, Cornell University. I was likely let in under affirmative action because of a land grant that required the university to take in a proportion of local farm kids. I fit this description.

When I am with my colleagues, I talk less about how most of my family were church-going, card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association or how I still go to church every week.

The truth is, academics at elite institutions tend to be more liberal, less religious and more in favor of big government than the rest of the American population. Most of us would be hard-pressed to give a well-reasoned, conservative argument in response to any social issue. And more than one academic colleague has told me that if their neighbor had a Republican sign on his lawn, they probably would not make any effort to get to know the neighbor.

I join my colleagues in the fight against social inequality in all its insidious forms. But many academics like me have not spent much time trying to understand the groups of people who likely voted for Trump, nor have we spent much time trying to translate our academic work to these groups. And given the demographics of the United States, we forget that, for Trump to win, he needed to have some of the people whose interests I think his views work against actually vote for him -- including poor people, immigrants, women and Latinos.

For most academics, our candidate did not win the presidential election. We now face a crossroads. Will we lock ourselves in our ivory towers and face the outside world with cynicism? Or will we concede that our best social scientists got the prediction wrong?

Now is the time to move forward in pursuing a form of radical dialogue that we do not hear very often on university campuses. I would advocate that we move forward as leaders in listening to and learning from the entire world outside the academy. We need to live up to the best vision of the university, where everyone is welcomed to hear and be challenged by views different than their own.

Here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Challenge yourself to find the best voice on the other side. Academics are human, and it’s tempting when dealing with controversial issues to choose an unattractive opponent. I study religion, and I have heard many debates between erudite, attractive academics and inarticulate faith leaders. We must find the most attractive, well-spoken person on the “other side.”
  • Claim the best vision of the university as a protected space for dialogue. Each month, through the Religion and Public Life Program that I direct at Rice University, I host a discussion or reception for 20 to 30 religious and civic leaders at my home. In the midst of polarized faith communities and tensions between faith and secular communities, the leaders who come say that this is one of the few places in their lives where they have the opportunity to meet with someone who is different. I have seen conservative and liberal faith leaders, people who would never meet under another circumstance, come together around common social justice issues.
  • Claim a nonutilitarian vision of the university. Universities have fallen prey to business principles. Some of this is unavoidable as funding streams narrow. In its best form this utilitarianism is born from a desire to do work that really counts. But universities can be the soul of society. Sometimes we academics -- who are busy with committee work, raising funding for projects and getting out the last possible publication for the academic audience -- forget what a privilege it is (especially for those of us who have stable academic jobs and even stable academic jobs with tenure) to work in a university context where we get paid to do work that we love.

In its worst form, the academy is often rightly criticized as being in an ivory tower with no central importance to helping solve societal problems. But in their best form, universities can provide society spaces to stop and reflect. That is why, in particular, the modern university needs the humanities. In my university classes, I learned practical skills for a job, but the best classes I took were my history and philosophy and writing classes -- those that prepared me to think, reflect and appreciate beauty.

I write this from a sabbatical in France. I grew up among the rural poor, but I do not know many of them anymore. In the next few months, I will return to America, to reality and, I hope, to trying to understand this new reality and sharing that knowledge with my colleagues, students and the rest of the world.

The election has changed me. When I return I want to be a better teacher and do a better job incorporating views and traditions different than my own in my classes. I might spend more time trying to translate my work to a broader public that can benefit from it and from whom I can learn. When colleagues say things that cut off dialogue or say that certain views are not welcome, I might feel freer to gently challenge. I might spend more time in my community translating my work, and I might take my students with me. I might try harder to bring that community to campus. In the best case, the election provides a chance for the academy to reflect on itself and achieve a new vision of service to the broader society.

Elaine Howard Ecklund is the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice University, where she directs the Religion and Public Life Program.

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'Freshman 15' Is Myth, but Weight Gain Is Real

Numerous studies have questioned the conventional wisdom that first-year college students gain an average of 15 pounds. But research just published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior finds that the average senior weighs 10 pounds more than he or she did as a freshman. The research found that the mean weight of students at the beginning of their college careers was 147 pounds and it had gone up to 157 by senior year. Further, while only 23 percent of the students in the study were overweight or obese as they started college, 41 percent were in that category by the end of senior year. The lead author of the study is Lizzy Pope, assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont.

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Columbia Graduate Employees Vote to Form Union

Graduate students who are teaching and research assistants at Columbia University have voted, 1,602 to 623, to unionize and to be represented by the United Auto Workers, the union announced Friday afternoon.

“Today, 3,500 [research and teaching assistants] like me have won a voice to make sure Columbia University is the best place possible to learn and work,” said a statement from Addison Godel, a teaching assistant in the Architecture School at Columbia. “This marks a major victory for the entire Columbia community -- we care deeply about the world-renowned teaching and research that happens at our university and are ready to tackle the issues that matter most to us, our students and our neighbors.”

Columbia’s graduate students were the group that urged the National Labor Relations Board to rule in August that graduate students at private universities have that right. In something of a surprise, the voted to allow not only teaching assistants but research assistants to vote to form unions. The board has historically flip-flopped on graduate students’ status as employees, but the recent decision overturned a much longer-standing precedent against unions for externally funded research assistants in the sciences.

Last week’s vote is a big win for those seeking to unionize student employees at a number of other private research universities. It’s possible that some of those votes could be challenged, however. Some administrations have openly opposed the idea of graduate student unions, but institutions can only legally challenge the NLRB decision following a successful union vote.

Columbia did not respond directly to a question about whether or not it would challenge or begin to negotiate with the union, but sent a statement from John Coatsworth, provost.

Since the NLRB “reversed its position and decided that students at private universities may be treated as employees, Columbia’s administration has communicated two principal messages to our university community and to eligible voters: we have always believed that the magnitude of the decision at issue in this election, in combination with Columbia’s values, required an open and respectful conversation that explained the arguments for and against unionization. Having heard those arguments, the research and teaching assistants who voted have chosen to be represented by the United Auto Workers.”

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Deal Ends Protest in Georgetown President's Office

Students occupied the president's office at Georgetown University Thursday night and stayed until Friday night, when they reached an agreement with the university. The protest was to demand that Georgetown end a contract with Nike because of a report by the Worker Rights Consortium indicating inhumane working conditions at a Nike factory in Vietnam. While the university didn't agree to commit to ending its ties to Nike, it did agree to discuss the conditions in the factory and to renew its contract with Nike only if there are systems in place for independent monitoring of factories. In addition, the university said it would discuss with students how these issues would be addressed in future contracts with Nike. The university also indicated that Nike has already pledged to make major improvements in working conditions at the factory.

While some students occupied the office, others held protests outside (at right).

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Wisconsin Board Approves Posttenure Change

Over faculty objections, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents on Thursday approved change in posttenure review policies that will give administrators the final decision and the right to make their own independent reviews of tenured faculty members, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Faculty groups have long argued that for posttenure reviews to remain consistent with the job security provided by tenure, the reviews must be conducted by professors. The latest decision has added to the distrust of many professors in the Wisconsin board.

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OCR Receives Record Number of Complaints

The number of complaints filed last year with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights soared to a record 16,720, according to a report the department released Thursday. The number of complaints was a 61 percent increase over the previous year's total.

By far, the largest increase has been in reports of sexual violence on college campuses. Since 2011, when the department released a Dear Colleague letter urging institutions to more rigorously investigate and adjudicate reports of sexual assault, the number of complaints related to campus sexual violence has increased by 831 percent. The increase in complaints, the department said, has also been notable in other areas, including restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities (a 100 percent increase), web accessibly for persons with disabilities (511 percent), and harassment on the basis of race, color or national origin (17 percent).

From 2009 to 2016, the Office for Civil Rights received 76,022 cases and resolved 66,102 of them.

"Over the last eight years, one of the Obama administration’s highest priorities has been to protect the access of all students to a world-class education," the department stated. "As a result, the department and OCR have seen significant progress in increasing educational equity nationwide and reducing discriminatory barriers that students face."

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Barnard's Different Approach to Divestment

A minority of colleges have in recent years opted to bar their endowments from holding investments in either the fossil fuel industry generally or specific parts of the industry (such as coal). Barnard College on Thursday announced a different approach: a committee of trustees, professors and students has recommended that the college sell holdings in "all fossil fuel companies that deny climate science or otherwise seek to thwart efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change." The Barnard board's investment committee said that, pending a review, it expected to recommend adoption of the policy by the full board.

A statement from the college explained the approach this way: "The recommendation to divest from climate change deniers would align the college’s investments with its core mission, centered on academic freedom and scientific integrity. This will enable the college to distinguish between companies based on their behavior and willingness to transition to a cleaner economy and could create incentives for the poorest performers to change their ways."

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NYU Dean Will Become Next Pomona President

Pomona College announced Thursday that G. Gabrielle Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at New York University, will become its next president. Starr will succeed David W. Oxtoby, who announced earlier this year that he would step down in June 2017, ending 14 years leading the college.

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Pima CC Settles With Former Instructor

Pima Community College has settled out of court with a former professor of chemistry who accused it of firing him with no due process, reported. David A. Katz will receive $100,000 in compensatory damages and about $50,000 in lost pay related to his 2014 termination. Katz will not be reappointed, despite his desire to resume work on campus. All parties are subject to a gag order, but public records show that the college, Chancellor Lee Lambert and two former subordinates implicated in Katz’s lawsuit denied wrongdoing as part of the settlement, according to

A federal judge ruled in a pretrial hearing in July that the college violated Katz’s constitutional right to due process in suspending and later terminating him without giving him the right to defend himself. The judge did not rule out the possibility that Lambert could personally be held liable for damages if the case went to trial. The court rejected other claims by Katz, however, including that his free speech rights were violated when he was disciplined after complaining about laboratory conditions. The college argued that Katz was prone to angry outbursts, but some instructors disputed that characterization. All parties will bear their own court costs.

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LIU Faculty Contract Negotiations Stall Again

Contract negotiations between Long Island University and its faculty union are again stalled, just three months after the parties came to a temporary agreement that ended a 12-day faculty lockout. The faculty union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers said in a statement Thursday that compulsory mediation was terminated after several rounds of talks, due to administrators’ failure “to meaningfully engage with faculty on the terms of a new labor contract.” The current contract runs through May of next year, and sticking points going forward include a management proposal that would cut pay for new adjunct faculty hires by up to 30 percent, according to information from the union. It said that student learning remains “at risk.”

The university challenged the union account, however. Gale Haynes, vice president of academic affairs at the Brooklyn campus and chief operating officer, said the union’s statements “do not accurately reflect” the course of negotiations and that the university wanted to move forward. The university was “extremely disappointed to learn of [the union’s] decision not to continue with the mediation process. We remain available, willing and eager to negotiate and urge the faculty union leadership to return to the bargaining table as soon as possible and to engage in good faith bargaining.”

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