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A New Era for Campus Discourse?

Liberal students, and even some conservatives, feel hopeful that Joe Biden's election will lead to less divisive dialogue on campus and make strides for students of color. But some students on the right worry their free speech rights could be compromised.

November 13, 2020
 
Boston Globe via Getty Images
A woman celebrates Joe Biden's election in Boston.

Weston Barker, president of the Republican student group at Cornell University, said students on campus have been in a “celebratory” mood since Joe Biden was declared winner of the 2020 presidential election last weekend.

When major media outlets made the call on Nov. 7, Barker saw a caravan of cars honking and people cheering across the Ithaca, N.Y., campus. Students waved Biden campaign signs and wore blue wigs to parties that blasted “Party in the U.S.A.,” the Miley Cyrus song that has become an unofficial anthem for Gen Z students across the country. Barker, a conservative, said pro-Biden students haven’t exactly been humble about the election outcome, but he is content with the shift he’s seen in his classmates' spirits.

“It’s nice to see people happy for a change on campus,” he said.

Maddy Scannell, a senior at Rice University in Houston was mostly unenthusiastic about the election results. She said she supported Bernie Sanders, the Independent U.S. senator from Vermont, in the Democratic primary race.

“Among a lot of my peers, voting in this election was really a chore,” she said.

Not so for Jayden Bourne, a junior at George Washington University. He was exuberant and said it felt like “a weight was lifted off” his shoulders when Biden was declared the winner of the election.

“I was driving around, and it felt like the world was physically different because now we won’t have an openly racist person as the most powerful man in the world,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”

If Barker, Scannell and Bourne are any indication of how college students are feeling about the election outcome, their views generally seem to mirror those voiced by voters across the country -- a mixed bag of reactions. Despite the reputation of American colleges as monolithic liberal bastions, students' political sentiments seemed more heavily influenced by their personal identities and political affiliations, and in some cases by their race or gender, than any particular political orthodoxy.

Students of color are especially excited by Biden, who has pledged to address issues of institutional racism in the criminal justice system, and by Kamala Harris, who will become the first Black person, first Asian American person and first woman to serve as vice president. Liberal students and women's groups say Harris's election is a win for gender and racial diversity at the highest levels of government, and they believe improved dialogue about issues of race at the top of American government will lead to better outcomes on campus, too.

Even students who identify as progressives and were not initially impressed with Biden and considered him an unexciting moderate compared to the other Democratic candidates for president said they felt “relief” after media outlets called the race. Those students have pledged to continue to push Biden to fully support more progressive policies such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

However, some conservative students, including a few of the Cornell Republicans, have not accepted that Biden has enough votes to be declared president-elect and have thrown themselves behind President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and his legal challenges of vote counts, Barker said. Some of Trump's legal claims have already been dismissed by judges in state courts, NPR reported. Republican students in general seem to be split on whether they accept that Trump’s presidency will end in January, and some are worried that if it does, their freedom to express conservative viewpoints on largely liberal college campuses will not be protected.

Some college conservatives are holding out hope that vote recounts will be favorable to Trump and that his legal challenges will be successful and have a meaningful impact on the outcome of the election.

“There is no president-elect yet,” said Caleb Childers, a senior at the University of Louisville who volunteered for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign in Kentucky.

“There’s a precedent for these legal battles to pan out,” Childers said, referring to the 2000 presidential election. “It looks like President Trump has lost, but I want to wait to see what evidence he has to present before we go one way or another.”

Barker chided members of the Cornell Republicans for their “troubling” statements calling Biden’s election “illegitimate,” according to a letter to the editor he wrote in The Cornell Daily Sun, the university’s student newspaper. This view is “marked by misinformation” and “wild speculation of fraud,” he wrote.

“They’ve formed their values around Trump, and his defeat comes as a shock and an existential crisis for them because their involvement in the party is colored by Trump,” Barker said about some members. “We’re a very divided organization right now. It’s difficult to express messages to the group, but an important note on Biden is something he’s said a lot, that he’s going to be an American president. No matter who you voted for, he’ll be a president for you.”

Progressive students are waiting to see just how much Biden is willing and able to achieve for working-class and low-income people. Scannell, who is involved in student organizations at Rice that support sexual assault survivors and antiracist initiatives, described Biden as a “last choice for many college students.” She said she and other progressive students didn’t feel overjoyed about Biden’s apparent victory, but they felt it was “paramount” to get Trump out of office.

“They weren’t motivated to vote -- it was obligatory,” said Scannell, who is the executive director of STRIVE: Students Transforming Rice Into a Violence-Free Environment, a group that advocates against sexual assault. “Based on what I’ve heard from talking to other students, it wasn’t a feeling of jubilation, it was relief, and you don’t really throw a party because you’re relieved.”

Throughout Biden’s campaign and in his victory speech, he focused on bringing people of all political viewpoints together and engaging in civil discourse. Liberal college students, especially students of color, said they welcome this change after nearly four years of Trump’s divisive and racially offensive rhetoric, which has also seeped into college campuses.

Bourne, the George Washington student, said he is excited by Biden’s “ability to listen to others” and to recognize the persistent and various forms of racism that Black people in America face, which is something he said Trump has failed to do. Bourne is president of the Black Men’s Initiative, a student organization at GW. He lives in Atlanta and did "a victory lap" in his car on Saturday when Biden was declared the winner.

And it will be “huge” to have Harris as Biden’s vice president and the first Black woman to fill the role, Bourne said. He recalled a similar moment when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and the sense of pride and possibility he felt as a young Black person. Representation for Black people in the highest offices of the U.S. government “cannot be downplayed,” Bourne said.

“It’s a representation of what you can do as a person, what the opportunities are and what the ceiling is for you as a person of color,” he said.

Ryan Khaghani, a sophomore and founder of Terps for Biden, a student group at the University of Maryland at College Park, is confident that a President Biden will address issues of systemic racism and noted that members of the Trump administration have denied that the U.S. institutions are embedded with racism. Khaghani, whose parents are immigrants from China and Iran, said it’s “monumental” that Harris was elected vice president.

“I really don’t see a lot of representation from people who look like me and aren’t white in the political universe,” Khaghani said. “It’s inspiring to see that someone who overcame so many barriers achieved so much success and will be the second most powerful person in the world.”

Some liberal students believe that as a result of Biden and Harris’s perspectives on race, there will be a positive shift in campus dialogue under his presidency, in sharp contrast to Trump’s frequent attacks on people of color such as immigrants, which some conservative students embraced and mimicked in their own comments and political positions.

Andrew Schaeffler, a sophomore and co-founder of Biden for UMich, a University of Michigan student organization that advocated for Biden’s election, said he hopes a “lack of divisive rhetoric coming from the executive branch will trickle down” to campus groups across the country.

“What the president says matters, and seeing that stark change will hopefully lead not to a shutting down of discourse, but a movement toward more respectful discourse and more focus on the issues as opposed to hurling insults that have nothing to do with the issues,” Schaeffler said.

Robert Dana, vice president of student life and dean of students at the University of Maine at Orono, said he has had to wrestle with conservative students who explicitly followed Trump’s lead, espousing divisive messages on social media with the goal of shutting down and hurting others. The UMaine College Republicans, which is among several conservative groups on campus, were responsible for “upsetting” posts about Indigenous people last year, which prompted a public condemnation by the university. Dana said the group told him directly that if such rhetoric “works for Trump, we think it’s going to work for us.”

But the “tenor and tone” of campus discussions has since become more “moderate and more inclusive” as Trump’s influence recedes and that particular Republican group was restructured, Dana said, adding that Biden’s calls for unity as he prepares to take office “can only help.”

“We spend a lot of time with students talking about their responsibility to be thought leaders and change makers, but to be effective at that, you have to be communitarian in your approach and you can’t be combative and disregarding the needs, rights and hopes of others,” he said. “A divided society is a society imperiled, so unity at the top of the ticket helps, and I’ve seen this since this election happened. People are extending olive branches.”

Some conservative students are less convinced by Biden’s calls for unity. Childers, the University of Louisville student, said he doesn’t envision Republicans getting behind the message “since he and his party attempted to sabotage in every way, shape and form the current president.” Students on the right are also concerned that Biden will stifle open debate and discussion on college campuses, something they believe Trump championed through a 2019 executive order that required colleges to uphold the First Amendment or existing policies for free speech.

Some colleges and university leaders criticized the order and argued that they already uphold free speech and academic freedom. But a majority of students still feel they have to censor their opinions, especially if they’re in a political minority on campus, which most conservative students are, according to research by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.

Justine Murray, a junior and president of the Syracuse University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student organization, was at the White House ceremony when Trump signed the campus free speech order and is afraid Biden will quickly rescind it. Murray said she has firsthand experience at Syracuse of being shouted down, intimidated and rejected for official student organization recognition by liberal students who disagree with her organization’s viewpoint and support of Trump.

“If [Biden] doesn’t take a stance against shutting down speech on campuses, they might feel more inclined to shut down conservative, centrist or right-leaning students because they think, ‘the Department of Education is on our side now,’” Murray said. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, protecting free speech on campus. I hope that he can show some empathy to conservative students.”

Murray, who is Jewish, was also impressed by Trump’s defense of Jewish students against anti-Semitism, including by signing a controversial executive order that considers some anti-Israel sentiment a form of discrimination.

But for Democratic students, these political issues take a back seat to efforts to get students back on campus in the first place. They firmly believe Biden will speed up efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic at a national level, which means a quicker return to in-person and “normal” college life, which students are desperate to get back to. Bourne is approaching his final year at GW, and he said he thought that “if Trump wins, I’m not having a senior year.”

Ariana Velasquez, president of the University of Louisville Young Democrats, recently lost her great-uncle to COVID-19 and said he was one of several family members and friends who have died of the illness. Once you have lost a loved one, Velasquez said, it’s hard to look at Trump and the people who support him without getting angry. She believes the federal government “wasn’t strong enough in cracking down on coronavirus.”

“If Trump got re-elected, I would be very doom and gloom,” Velasquez said. “In Gen Z, we can’t imagine a time where we weren’t at war with some country. We’ve witnessed two recessions now, we just keep witnessing these monumental historical disasters … We needed a sure bet after Trump for someone who could fix things. And I saw that in Joe Biden.”

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