Civic groups seek to carry youth voting momentum into 2021

Youth voting soared in 2020. Can student groups and civic organizations keep the momentum going for this year’s state and local contests?


Students across the country faced voting barriers on Election Day

Efforts to suppress -- and protect -- the rights of student voters grow as they become a more influential bloc. Whether they voted in local elections or cast ballots on statewide issues, the elections last week showed the stakes are high.


Massive surge in college student voting in 2018

A new Tufts study documents that voter turnout among college students doubled in the last midterm election, which may likely influence the coming presidential election.


Clinton proposes $350 billion plan to make college affordable


Democratic front-runner seeks $350 billion over 10 years to encourage public 4-year colleges to be debt-free for tuition, and to make community colleges tuition-free. Plan also proposes cuts in interest rates and tougher regulation of for-profits.


O'Malley and Bush argue about merits of debt-free college plan

More Democratic presidential hopefuls weigh in on debt-free college, with one, Martin O'Malley, squaring off against Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential hopeful. What will Hillary Clinton do?


What People Are Saying About Debt-Free


Who is pushing which ideas -- and why.

Texas law could make voting harder for students

College students in Texas will face stricter registration and voting rules when casting ballots on campus.


Voting rights legislation would change the college voting landscape

The Senate is expected to take up the House-passed bill, which would standardize federal elections across the country -- making voting easier for college students.


Colleges should combat efforts to disenfranchise voters (opinion)

Over the last few years, higher education leaders have frequently advocated for the civic engagement of our students. Now we are faced with the immediate challenge of state representatives in various parts of the country planning legislation to make it more difficult to vote.

The governor of Georgia recently signed a law that will make it harder for people to cast their ballots -- especially those who vote in urban areas, especially, that is, voters of color. As has been widely discussed, the law makes it a crime to bring people water while they wait on lines (which will be longer because of this legislation) to cast their ballots. More important, it shifts oversight of elections so as to allow greater power to state representatives. Who will determine the results: The voters themselves or the party in power?

The legislation passed in Georgia, along with bills being discussed in Texas and in more than 40 other states, are aimed at reducing voter turnout by putting more barriers in front of some who want to cast their ballots. Like the poll taxes, property requirements and literacy exams of old, they are efforts to preserve the power of a minority of citizens in the face of changes in the public sphere. Those efforts, too, were defended as attempts to protect election integrity.

Business leaders have begun to speak out against the restrictions, and Major League Baseball has moved the all-star game from Atlanta. That has fueled more controversy, as politicians long friendly to corporations and their free speech are now incensed that CEOs are calling out efforts to limit voting.

But what about higher education leaders? As institutions that are part of civil society, whatever our political allegiances, it is our duty to refuse to accept these shameful attempts to disenfranchise significant numbers of people. College and university presidents should publicly take a stand against this ugly trend, and we should work together to ensure the basic right of all citizens to vote.

Many colleges and universities have a long track record of civic engagement. In 1831, Wesleyan University’s first president aimed our mission at both “the good of the individual and the good of the world.” That was the kind of statement that university presidents often made in the 19th century. The “good of the world” takes different forms at different times, but young people have long fought since to expand and defend voting rights.

Most dramatically, in 1963, students from around the country worked together to assist with voter registration. More recently, Wesleyan in 2019 developed a plan to encourage the participation of students in the 2020 elections. The basic idea was to increase civic preparedness through engagement in the country’s political systems -- local, state, regional and national. Given the decline of trust in political institutions and the importance of the choices before voters in 2020, we believed it crucial to step up in helping interested students learn through experience in the public sphere. We called this initiative E2020, and it was guided by three basic principles:

  1. Developing civic preparedness is a core element of the mission of American higher education.
  2. Participating in American political life helps students learn from a diversity of ideas and people while developing skills for lifelong, active citizenship.
  3. Empowering students and instructors to engage with the complex issues facing the country are crucial facets of higher education’s contributions to the common good.

Many colleges and universities signed on to these principles, and by the spring of 2020, we had over 300 institutions as E2020 partners -- from small Christian colleges to large public universities. Historically Black colleges and universities, liberal arts colleges, and research universities alike subscribed to the basic idea that civic preparedness is good for individual students, their schools and our country.

Each institution chose its own path for facilitating political participation. Some focused on turning out the vote for the presidential election, others on encouraging basic organizing at the local level. Of course, we all had to adjust our plans because of the pandemic. There would be no more knocking on doors and in-person conversations about the issues of the day. Still, over the past two years, young people have fanned out across the country to register voters, advocate for specific issues or just raise awareness about environmental concerns.

Those of us in leadership positions in higher education should help them continue this work. It is good for our students and for the world.

Attempts to make it harder for people to vote will further marginalize particular groups from the public sphere. We in higher education must combat these efforts. College presidents should make our voices heard; we should be consistent advocates for democratic practice, regardless of party affiliation. Many corporate CEOs have already weighed in on the importance of protecting voting rights, and higher education leaders must also publicly insist that civic preparedness and protecting the franchise are dimensions of our duty as educators. We often say that education is a public good. Now is the time for us to expand our civic-preparedness programs and to defend voting rights as a crucial facet of a more just America.

For some time, we have worked to make it easier for students to participate in the public sphere so that they could learn through practice. Learning through civic engagement helps students build greater trust in the legitimacy of our political institutions. Higher education has a stake in enhancing this trust and in educating our students to defend these institutions.

Politicians who create roadblocks to voting will only erode that trust and legitimacy. A year ago, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a bipartisan report calling for a reinvigoration of our constitutional democracy by emphasizing civic preparedness through community practices and institutions. Politicians are wrong to undermine this preparedness for short-term political gain, and we must not let them further destroy the public trust with their selfish cynicism.

It is clear to all in higher education that participation in the public sphere should no longer be filtered by wealth, race or gender. Just as we strive to model equity and inclusion on our campuses, we must promote easy access to voting. It is good for our students, our institutions and our country.

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How college leaders can help restore civil discourse after the election (opinion)

As leaders of higher education institutions, we along with many colleagues are giving tremendous thought to appropriate responses to the likely ferment that will come to our campuses and to our country after the U.S. presidential election, regardless of who wins. So many young adults are called to the polls this year, and in a recent survey on our campus, 97 percent of student respondents had registered to vote. This is a vital time to reinforce for a generation of students who we hope will become lifelong participants in democracy how our communities can effectively navigate deep conflict.

People of goodwill on campuses have legitimate and sincerely held views that lead them to favor one of the two major candidates. Some will be pleased with the outcome of the election, while others will be disappointed that the policy preferences they hold will not be those of whoever wins the presidency. For others, intellectual and emotional reactions may be more intense: ranging from a deep sadness to hopelessness.

These are ordinary parts of life in a democratic republic, part of the developmental process that we in higher education bring students to experience. In the case of William & Mary, the institution has navigated such experiences for centuries and through nearly every transition of presidential power in the nation. They offer opportunities for learning that are at the very core of citizenship.

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We must also acknowledge that the results of the election will give rise, for some people, to concerns over their personal safety or be perceived as a deep existential threat to our country. These concerns are not far-fetched in an environment where we have seen armed conflict in the streets in different parts of the country, a rise in extremist discourse and even a foiled plot against the governor of Michigan.

The question is, how should we as leaders respond?

As an immediate measure, we should provide spaces for expressions of emotions, perspectives, hopes and fears. Particularly in the age of COVID-19, in which many find themselves isolated behind computer screens, it is important that we foster community and establish outlets for people to exhale and be heard.

But then we need to pivot quickly to facilitating constructive dialogue across ideological divides. There are several prerequisites to doing this successfully.

First, we hopefully have developed and promoted within our institutions meaningful institutional values around mutual respect, community and shared sacrifice. Those common objectives lay the groundwork for a willingness to listen and to build trust. We must repeat the essential work of communicating and encouraging those values annually, with every incoming and outgoing class.

Second, part of our mission must be to instill a common humanity -- to insist on our interdependence as members of our national community. We are truly all in this together, as COVID-19 is teaching us. An “us versus them” mind-set is a risk at any time of conflict and especially during a pandemic. To retreat into our respective redoubts and enclaves is to disclaim responsibility for our individual and institutional roles in community building.

Third, we must take the lead in reversing the trend toward dehumanization of our opponents. Dehumanization always accompanies deep societal polarization, and it blocks engagement and understanding in profound ways. Teaching members of our community that most of those with whom they disagree are sincere and of good faith can go a long way toward reversing this tendency. Yes, there are people of ill will who are not interested in everyone’s best interest or in constructive dialogue. The key to rehumanization, however, is to instill an appreciation that groups should not be defined by their worst actors.

Finally, civil discourse depends on the persistent pursuit of facts. In an era of perceived “fake news” and a preference for “alternative facts,” we must educate our students about information hygiene. The information overload feels unprecedented. Yet democracies have seen such effects of rapid technology change before. The 17th-century explosion of cheap print provides a lesson. As many people worried at the time, print technologies threatened to distribute error and misinformation widely to an increasingly literate society. Yet our nation’s constitutional resistance to censorship evolved alongside innovations (such as the printed errata) designed to correct erroneous information at scale. The intellectual practices to which American higher education is dedicated, such as evidence-based argument, evolved in parallel.

In the wash of misinformation today, it is paramount that those whom we educate practice evidence-based argument and become wise to falsehoods -- alert to missing data, disposed to question sources and to first verify, then trust. Thus prepared, this generation will help design the technological solutions we need to validate trustworthy information in the decades to come.

The two of us lead a university known as the alma mater of the nation and the first law school established in America, respectively. Strengthening democratic institutions through constructive engagement has long been part of William & Mary’s mission -- as has improving our democracy through every successive generation of graduating students. Each of us in higher education has to make good on our commitments to students, no matter our institutions’ history. If we double down on principles of meaningful civil discourse, evidence-based argument and rehumanization, we will be able to move forward together once this election has passed.

Katherine A. Rowe is president of William & Mary, and A. Benjamin Spencer is dean of William & Mary Law School.

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