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Tensions can rise on college campuses around election season. A report from the Constructive Dialogue Institute offers guiding principles and suggestions on how to partner with college students to encourage thoughtful conversations.

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This academic year has been marked by free speech debates among students, faculty and staff, and many campus members are bracing for the fall, when the 2024 federal election will provide additional space for discourse and disagreement.

To best prepare administrators and other higher education stakeholders for election season, the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) created a guide to offer practical advice and steer decision making for the coming months.

Published April 16, the resource draws on interviews from 21 college leaders and practitioners as well as a secondary review of prior events from past elections to offer support for individuals at all levels and roles in the institution.

What’s the need: Responses to the 2016 election at college campuses around the nation caught many administrators unprepared for how to manage intense emotions among community members, according to the report. The 2020 election was marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home or social distancing orders in many areas, therefore presenting less on-campus political activism.

This upcoming election season has a unique combination of events that may leave campuses ill-prepared including:

  • Lack of institutional knowledge. Many administrators were not in their current roles, or at their current institution, eight years ago, creating knowledge gaps on what worked well or what lessons were learned at the 2016 election.
  • Higher education on the ballot. This election has implications for higher education policy with increasing legislative scrutiny and public critique of colleges and universities around the nation.
  • Current tensions. Elections can inflame already present feelings on campuses. The rate of hate crimes on campuses against minority students has risen considerably since 2018 and the distinctions between freedom of speech and hate speech have come under fire within and outside of institutions.

Regardless of political affiliation, university staff, faculty, and leaders are worried about the impact of negative political rhetoric on the already-strained sense of community on their campus,” according to the report.

However, a federal election can also help encourage thoughtful and engaged citizenship among students, promoting social and intellectual skills students learn in college and use in their lives beyond academia.

The Pulse on Free Speech

A 2024 survey of provosts by Inside Higher Ed found 62 percent of respondents rate the climate for open inquiry and dialogue on their campuses as good or excellent, but less than one-third (27 percent) say the same for higher education across the board.

Guiding principles: When preparing for the election, the CDI guide asks higher ed stakeholders to consider three themes:

  1. Leverage existing campus investments. The 2024 election should not be treated as an isolated event, but instead, campus officials should learn from lessons taking place (such as the Israel-Hamas war) or previous conflicts to mitigate election-related issues. Checking in with stakeholders, creating space for dialogue and auditing policies are all processes that can provide a foundation and guide future work.
  2. Work proactively rather than reactively. A forward-thinking approach both helps the campus prepare for challenges while creating a more robust and resilient climate, equipping students to engage with peers who think differently from them.
  3. Clear, top-down leadership needed. All members of the campus community should be involved in this work—including alumni and donors, board members, neighboring community and legislators—coordinated by leadership to create a clear vision.

Student success: When working with students, report authors encourage the following actions:

  • Lower the stakes. Students can be hesitant to engage in political discourse. Leaders should offer low-stakes dialogue opportunities for students to engage in civil discourse and refine their communication skills.
  • Establish norms. To help students in their discussions, creating a structure for dialogue and social cohesion is critical. When creating debate or discussion forums, faculty and staff can ask students to consider good will and take responsibility for the quality of the discussion.
  • Foster student agency. Student-led initiatives often gain buy-in better than any institutional practice, so finding ways to let students own these experiences is helpful.
  • Collect data. Checking in with students regularly can help identify when students may need additional support, so leaders should have a pulse on students’ feelings before and after the election.
  • Lay the foundation early. New student orientation, first-year seminars, residence life activities or student leadership initiatives can be great places to introduce students to constructive engagement both in curricular and co-curricular activities.
  • Foster media literacy. Misinformation and efforts to combat its effects can be divisive, so colleges should cultivate students’ critical thinking and evidence-based arguments, and practitioners should lead by example by divulging sources and highlighting information verification.
  • Encourage counterprogramming. Election season can be one time in which controversial speakers visit campus to discuss political ideas and students can be drawn to counterprotesting or shouting down speakers. Practitioners can instead teach students to embrace a counterprogram, which draws attention away from the controversial speaker, and can focus on community or building support for groups impacted by the speaker’s message.
  • Plan proactively. Following the election, administrators may want to facilitate conversation spaces or other supports. Student voices should lead these decisions, but thinking ahead can help campus stakeholders process.

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