Over the past few years, Wesleyan University, like many across the country, has provided incoming students (and sometimes staff and faculty members) with classes in bystander intervention. The idea is simple, really. We want to give members of the campus community the tools to act in situations where somebody is at risk: when you see something amiss, do something so as to protect others from harm and make the campus a safer place.
I’ve been thinking about bystander intervention lately in the context of the presidential race. As the president of a nonprofit university, I am advised by legal counsel that I should not take public positions in elections. I know this makes a lot of sense, and over the 15 years or so that I’ve been a college president, I have encouraged electoral participation without being overt about where I stand in regard to any particular candidate.
This year is different. Donald Trump has been using the tools characteristic of demagogues and fascists to do the only thing that really matters to him: gaining power. He will say anything that he thinks will help him win, and there is no telling what he will do if he is successful.
Does he really believe that the “Mexican heritage” of a judge disqualifies him from a case? Does he genuinely condone “Second Amendment people” using violence to stop a newly elected president from making court appointments? Does he actually feel nostalgia for the days when you could beat up protesters?
He does affirm his intention to build a wall and ban Muslims from entering the United States, and he repeats a contention that Barack Obama is the founder of ISIS. You don’t need a fascistic theory of government to use the inflammatory tactics of fascism. It is clear enough: given his rhetoric and behavior, Donald Trump’s election would undermine the foundations of the republic and cause fundamental harm to the country.
Now, I can imagine that some readers will be rolling their eyes and thinking, “What a surprise … another liberal academic trying to use the university to push his own ideological agenda!” And I know that some people would prefer I not opine on politics at all lest I give the impression of speaking for the university and compromise institutional neutrality. Finally, in political matters, university presidents may have a megaphone but not necessarily, so the criticism goes, the relevant expertise.
I agree that my academic position gives me no special skills when it comes to electoral politics. Even though I am a historian, I don’t have much confidence in my profession’s capacity to offer sage counsel in contemporary political matters. But when we ask bystanders to intervene in an unfolding medical emergency, we are not calling on their knowledge of biology. We are asking them to call for help, to sound an alarm. When we ask a student to dissuade friends from binge drinking or other risky behavior that makes them vulnerable, we don’t expect them to be experts in a field. When we encourage people to stop a sexual predator from acting, we don’t need them to have law enforcement experience. We want them to be aware and feel responsible.
I also agree that many colleges and universities suffer from political biases that distort the educational experience of our students. At my left-leaning Wesleyan University, I have found it important to support Republican groups and faith-based clubs. Although I identify as a person on the left, I am developing programs to bring more conservative intellectuals to the campus to teach classes in a variety of fields and to present points of view not heard often enough in the liberal campus bubble. Intellectual and political diversity is a pressing problem in undergraduate education, and teachers have to be much more aware of the dangers of using their classrooms as a platform for ideology.
I do not believe that presidents or other university leaders should normally throw their institutional weight behind a specific public policy or a candidate. But despite my worries about institutional biases, this year I feel strongly that I need to intervene more directly, to join others in sounding an alarm about the grave danger to our political culture. I’ve done this in speeches and in the press, but I don’t think I am intervening enough, given the gravity of the situation. That’s why I am publishing this piece, and why I will continue to call out the dangers that the Trump campaign poses to our political ecosystem. I urge other higher education leaders to do the same. Some of the damage has already been done, as the bar for racist, hate-filled public discourse has been lowered in ways that would have shocked us just a few years ago. Even many who support candidate Trump are revolted by his intemperate, cruel and dangerous remarks.
When we teach students the skills for bystander intervention, we want them to feel empowered to make our campuses safer, more humane places. If faculty, staff or students see a dangerous situation unfolding, we expect them to act. After all, if someone on campus sees sewage spilling into a classroom, detects a noxious odor in a residence hall or simply sees a hallway filling with smoke, we don’t want them just to hope that someone with expertise and responsibility will arrive. We want them to feel responsible for bringing attention to the developing calamity. At the very least, we expect them to sound an alarm when danger threatens.
Donald Trump is a developing calamity for our polity. Whether from conservative, libertarian, religious or leftist positions, we should protect our culture from further Trumpian pollution. Even university presidents, as citizens, must use the tools available to us to sound the alarm as long as the danger threatens. And threaten it does.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.
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