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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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