A Professor’s Lessons From Running for Public Office

Cynthia Richards found it meant representing higher education in venues where she was as likely to be confronted with anger, despair or even an AR-15 as with a pen and a notebook.

August 20, 2021
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I wish I had a Hollywood ending to share: hardworking English professor and dedicated instructor runs for public office as a Democrat against an incumbent Republican businessman she views as insensitive to community needs -- and wins. She runs the same year as record voter turnout leads to change in the White House, a woman of color becomes vice president and Ohio returns to its long-standing role as a swing state. Newly elected, she becomes an effective voice in a more bipartisan statehouse that prioritizes better health incomes, improved economic viability for working people and more equitable funding for education. In the process, she becomes the first English professor in Ohio to win state office.

No Hollywood ending. I lost. A wave of largely older, white voters turned out on Election Day to vote for the incumbent president, resulting in Republican gains in the Ohio Statehouse. Until Election Day turnout, I had a fighting chance -- running neck and neck with my opponent in a heavily gerrymandered district. But on Election Day, the votes were so overwhelmingly Republican that every Democrat in my county and all but one nonincumbent Democratic candidate for statehouse lost. All our efforts were lost in the wake of a national disinformation campaign that overwhelmed local interests.

My foray into public service may not have produced a Hollywood ending -- nor, more important, an outcome in the best interest of my community -- but on a personal level, it was both gratifying and illuminating. My experience can also offer broader lessons for higher education in general: it can prove useful in thinking about the future of the liberal arts and the role of service in academe. Certainly, my campaign reframed for me the service I perform every day in my role as a professor and how essential that service is to the well-being of my students, my university and my local community. Running for public office meant learning to represent higher education in venues where I was as likely to be confronted with anger, despair or even an AR-15 as with a pen and a notebook.

For one, that experience taught me that I am an educator, not only a professor. As an educator, my work correlates with the ongoing public service of hardworking public school teachers, beleaguered public school administrators and even parents who homeschool their kids. We are all working to do the best we can in a world where our children are struggling and resources are limited. As an educator on the campaign trail, doors opened to me. Until the last 10 days of the campaign, every encounter in someone’s front yard led to common ground. We all wanted our children to have a better future, and we all knew that education was key to that outcome.

I remember a long conversation with a single mother across her fence -- her kid playing in the car, her mother at home helping her manage her complicated schedule -- and how fervent this woman’s desire was for her children to learn to be tolerant of others and their differences. We spoke the same language. Yes -- she wanted her children to have economic opportunities, but what she really wanted was for them to be good people. My Ph.D. was irrelevant to her, yet my service to my students and my commitment to promoting tolerance were recognizably similar to her needs and values. By the time we finished talking, she had put up my sign in her small yard. I still do not know her party affiliation, or if she had one. I know, however, that we shared the same hopes for her children.

Such encounters also made me realize what parts of my own educational story had been hidden. Where I earned my degrees, how much I published and whether my teaching met and/or exceeded professional expectations led to my academic job and to tenure and promotion. My journey there was irrelevant. Yet I grew up using a nonstandard dialectic. My grandfather could not read or write, my parents were the first in their large farming families to attend college and I was the first to pursue a Ph.D. It was a call from Democratic senator Sherrod Brown that made me realize how little I shared this story. Because I was one of his endorsed “canary candidates,” he followed my campaign and recognized before I did the power of this personal narrative -- leaving a message on my work phone, of all places, saying I needed to tell my story more.

He was right, and not just in my campaign. A third of the students at my university are first generation, an even larger group fit my second-generation profile, and those were the students we in higher education were failing. Their retention rates were the lowest, their anxiety the highest. Yet only in the last few years had I started to share my story with my students. I had assumed my authority as a professor resided in my elite status and that I would best be recognized as a campus leader by emphasizing my successes and not the struggles along the way.

Yet my students’ struggles -- economic, educational, personal -- were the primary reason I ran for public office. As I said in every stump speech, I was seeking public office because I realized that it was no longer enough to serve my students only in the classroom. They needed me to fight for them outside of classes, too.

Ironically, doing so required me to put my story -- and my service -- front and center. There were eight 10-foot billboards across my district proclaiming me a fierce advocate, a half-page newspaper ad and recurring radio spots doing the same, T-shirts that read “I ♥ Cynthia Richards,” and three full-length videos documenting my commitment to my community. That commitment also meant addressing community needs in my three daily Facebook posts, speaking at every local rally in support of racial justice -- including one where I was immediately confronted with an AR-15 -- and running a solitary 10-K across my district in honor of women getting the right to vote.

The young man with the AR-15 did not want me to speak about the value of Black lives in a small, historically white town in my district. Some public officials were more concerned about eliminating drop-off boxes -- including one in that same small town -- than celebrating expanded access to voting. Fighting for my students meant taking the stage and making sure their stories were told.

Still, running for public office was the most egoless work I have ever done. Unlike building my professional credentials, it was about serving my students and my community. Like much of my academic service, it was uncompensated labor. As an educator first, professor second, my job was to tell the stories that will “win [our communities] over,” as Senator Brown put it.

I felt this most intensely in the last 10 days of the campaign as the national election claimed the spotlight. Before, talking about my students’ struggles opened doors. But now some people cursed me or shooed me off their property, convinced my students’ lives were far easier than their own. They had no firsthand knowledge, just the political motivation to believe the worst of my students, and not enough of us were countering those narratives.

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Surprisingly, being a professor had trained me for a tough campaign. My biggest laugh at fundraisers was mentioning how few English professors had been elected to state or national office. Mentioning my skills as a communicator, researcher and critical thinker, however, garnered support. I could post cogent messages three times a day on difficult and complex topics. I could speak at rallies, debates, forums and fundraisers, tailoring my message to individual audiences. I was good at listening to local leaders and then reframing their concerns for larger discussion. In the heat of a debate, I could stick to my “lesson plan” while proving responsive to individual comments. I learned that what my audience valued in me was that I advocated for their children every day in the classroom.

What this says to me is not that all professors should run for public office -- although I don’t discourage it -- but rather that we must use our positions to educate the public about our students’ needs and about the role we play in advocating for them. The work we do is public service, and we should never hesitate to say so. The ways we serve our students need to become front and center in how we describe what we do. In making the case for our students’ needs, we fight not only for them but also for our communities, including academe.

There may be no Hollywood ending for my story, but foregrounding the struggle makes the story of higher education a powerful one to tell. Our futures depend on us telling it.

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Cynthia Richards is professor of English and director of faculty development at Wittenberg University and, in 2020, was the Democratic candidate for state representative in Ohio’s District 79. Her co-edited collection, Early Modern Trauma: Europe and the Atlantic World, was just published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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