A Civic Call

Faculty leaders at colleges across the country should lobby their institutions to support voting, including giving people paid time off on Election Day, write Joel P. Christensen and Sarah Pessin.

October 15, 2020
 
 
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We are writing as leaders of our faculty senates at Brandeis University and the University of Denver and as the co-founders of the new Faculty Leadership Network. Since the beginning of the summer, we have been convening faculty leaders from across the country online to discuss faculty governance and the pressures of the pandemic as our institutions attempt to manage an international crisis with local resources.

We know that especially in these precarious times, our campus presidents, provosts and deans have benefited from leadership networks to share information and compare plans in the absence of coordinated national leadership. We formed the Faculty Leadership Network on the belief that faculty leaders would benefit from a similar model not only to share ideas and support each other, but to work together toward systemic reform. From its very first meeting, the Faculty Leadership Network demonstrated how many challenges we share in common and how beneficial it is to work through these challenges in dialogue with peers from across institutions. We have also come to recognize how collaborating among ourselves can be a strong engine for positive social change.

In that spirit, we are writing today to ask faculty and administrators at institutions of higher education across the country to consider their civic duty to their communities on Election Day. In particular, we are calling on faculty presidents and chairs of academic and faculty senates to lobby their institutions to support voting on Election Day by: 1) providing all staff with at least three hours of paid time off for voting on Nov. 3 of this year, 2) encouraging faculty to be flexible with assignments and attendance on Election Day, and 3) reminding all members of the campus community of their civic responsibility to vote. We urge university leaders to adopt these suggestions immediately, and we ask faculty members to use the mechanisms of shared governance to work with them to do so.

Colleges and universities have a vested interest and a shared responsibility in advocating for civic engagement. We have seen sweeping changes in recent years -- well before the pandemic -- in public attitudes toward higher education, the funding of our public institutions and legislation and executive orders impacting how our institutions operate. In many places across this country, moreover, institutions of higher education are among the largest employers and most significant engines in local economies. This influence brings with it a responsibility to our communities. Let’s show that we take that responsibility seriously by ensuring that we actively support everyone’s right to vote.

Other countries make Election Day a national holiday, supporting the spirit and foundations of democracy by ensuring that all citizens have equal opportunity to cast their ballot. In the United States, we have a ways to go -- and are in some ways headed in the wrong direction. In recent years, we have witnessed a steady weakening of voting rights by gerrymandering and by limiting support for polling precincts. The pandemic has exacerbated an already frayed system by stretching these resources even further and requiring more space and time to facilitate social distancing. During the spring’s primary elections, many people waited hours and hours to vote, and those numbers are modest compared to what we might expect for a general election. Just this week, for example, people had to wait as many as 11 hours in exceptionally long lines to vote early in some states. And these waits disproportionately affect BIPOC communities where nonwhite voters are seven times more likely than white voters to wait an hour or longer in line to vote.

Toward the goal of strengthening American democracy, many institutions have for years engaged in voter registration campaigns to encourage their communities to engage in the electoral process, while a growing number of corporate, civic and educational organizations have pledged to provide employees time off on Election Day. This year, let’s commit to significantly increasing the number of colleges and universities that join in this important civic effort.

Institutions of higher learning have a responsibility to demonstrate their commitment to productive civic engagement by making sure everyone has equal access to voting. And as faculty leaders, we can bring about even larger-scale social change when we act together in our shared governance roles to foster increased civic health.

Bio

Joel P. Christensen is chair of the Brandeis University Faculty Senate and associate professor of classical studies, and Sarah Pessin is president of the University of Denver Faculty Senate and professor of philosophy and Judaic studies. Contact them if you’d like to join the Faculty Leadership Network.

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