Like many of you today, I’m having some trouble concentrating on work. This presidential election, arriving amid this horrible pandemic, is exerting a steep emotional toll on us all. Uncertainty is exhausting under all circumstances. This election, no matter who you voted for, is stressful.
As I write these words, we don’t know who will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021. For many, now may feel like the wrong time to seek common ground. But I’m going to try anyway.
Despite the divisiveness of our current politics and the ferocity in which each side identifies or distrusts its candidates, I believe that there is more that unites than divides us. This overlap of shared values and common goals across political orientations is substantial, I think, within our higher ed community.
Faculty and staff make up nearly 3.8 million people. As the American Council on Education's Ted Mitchell pointed out in a recent letter to Congress, the size of the higher education industry makes it bigger than the “accommodations and airline industry combined.”
While professors tend to lean to the left, I have not come across an analysis of political orientations among staff. While I think we are safe to assume that the majority of higher ed people likely voted for Biden, substantial numbers of staff and faculty voted for Trump on Nov. 3. Belief in the efficacy of diversity in support of a well-run and productive institution has evolved into a widely shared value within higher education. We should be careful to include support ideological and political diversity within our pro-diversity policies and thinking.
So what unites Trump-voting faculty/staff and Biden-voting faculty/staff?
If you work for a college or a university, you probably believe in the power of education as a force for good. The desire for our students to receive a quality postsecondary education, one that leads to opportunities to find meaningful work and achieve economic independence, is shared by all of us in higher ed.
Further, no matter whom we voted for, none of us thinks it is a good thing how expensive college has become. We all worry about students taking on too much debt. We are all concerned about our nation’s woeful six-year graduation rates (under 67 percent) and underemployment of too many of those who do graduate.
Both academics who vote Republican and those who vote Democratic want to see greater access to higher education to those who wish to attend, offered at more affordable costs and delivered at a higher quality.
Where Biden-voting and Trump-voting academics differ is in the means to achieve these goals. We may have many disagreements on what the goals of higher education should be, but we would recognize and understand these objectives as legitimate and worthy by and large.
Our most vigorous disagreements arise on how to achieve goals related to higher education. Across our political divide, we hold many different viewpoints about the proper role of public funding for higher education. We also disagree about where the focus of a college education should lie, which classes should be offered and perhaps the best way to teach them.
I don’t want to minimize the differences in how higher ed people (those who work for colleges and universities) who are conservatives and liberals think that our institutions should be run. These differences are significant and enduring, and they will be difficult to bridge.
For now, however, as I write this blog post at the moment of most profound national division, I want to think about what does bring those of us within higher education together. At least for a minute, we can afford to take the effort to find where we overlap in our hopes and dreams for higher ed.
It may be challenging to look positively at our higher ed colleagues who did not vote as we did on Nov. 3. We will need to focus on commonalities (goals) rather than differences (means). In doing so, we might find that those of us in higher education are less divided than our current politics would cause us to believe. And we might learn something from those with whom we disagree the most.