One bromide about colleges and universities is that they are among the oldest social organizations in the world—and their focus has never changed. The assumption of stasis, however, is wrong. Higher education always has changed, and that change is tied to meeting a nuanced understanding of a public good.
Today, however, our postsecondary institutions sit on the sidelines worrying about internal problems, however legitimate they are. Funding remains a concern. The lack of racial diversity is a well-deserved preoccupation. Boards are disengaged or mistakenly obsessed with issues that ought to be left to the faculty and senior administrative leadership. Professors worry about the loss of earning power and the replacement of tenure-track with contingent faculty positions. The Curtailment of free speech is a flash point. The pandemic forced everyone to move online.
A long-standing assumption of American higher education has been that college-educated individuals are well prepared for citizenship. By definition, a citizen in a democracy is an activist. Voting exemplifies active engagement with that democracy. By using my voice, I am a democratic participant. The United States has more than 500,000 positions where individuals are elected—from president to city council, school boards and local and regional positions.
American society is at an inflection point. The American experiment is under attack. I have previously written that colleges share the blame for the assault on the democracy and that sitting on the sidelines is different than what academe did during World War II, when colleges stepped up to address the country’s most pressing challenges. There is no more pressing issue facing the country over the next few years than the protection and expansion of voting rights.
What might academic institutions do to help preserve and enhance democracy, rather than the current stance of sitting on the sides?
- Support voting rights. Our institutions need to be much more engaged with voting rights and voter participation. Statements in support of voting rights are fine, necessary and good, but the threat to democracy today requires more than an eloquent note signed by multiple organizations. The question is less about what a statement says and pertains more to what the signatories will do. We are not focused on whom people vote for but that people vote. To argue for increased participation in voting has nothing to do with what a candidate believes or which political party to support. Those of us in academe should offer seminars on voter rights. Testify in state legislatures and to Congress. Invite legislators and congressmembers to campus for discussion and debate about voting rights.
- Work to register students, faculty and staff. Each postsecondary institution should consider requiring students to register to vote when they register for classes. Some will say that prohibitions exist with regard to requiring students to vote, but there are workarounds to ensure a more aggressive approach to voter registration. We could have an opt-out option, whereby a student has to say that they do not want to vote (or are inligible). Voter forms could be part of registration packets at orientation; we could collect them and then do the necessary work to ensure that students are enrolled to vote.
- Clarify the residency status of students and ensure they can vote in absentia. Voting officials in some college towns often resist acknowledging the residency of students who are not from that town. Universities and colleges need to work to clarify the rights of students to vote in their college communities while also enabling absentee voting.
- Assist voter registration in the local community. Develop a strong, ongoing role in facilitating voter registration for the community. If registering to vote requires transportation, then our 4,000-strong colleges and universities ought to organize transportation. When election officials make it difficult for someone whose native language is other than English, then we should provide a bank of translators who will enable voter registration and voting.
- Make Election Day a college workday. Election Day should not be a college holiday. It should be a day when classes and normal activity are canceled. Everyone at the institution should be engaged in getting people to the polls, whether by operating phone banks or by transporting individuals to polling places.
- Require a course in American government, the principles of the Constitution and the rule of law that emphasizes experiential learning and local research. Representative democracy is not a spectator sport. Students need to understand the fundamentals of the American experiment, warts and all, and then be actively engaged in its preservation and regeneration. We must teach about the centrality of voting rights, the historic attempts to limit those rights and the efforts since then to expand voting rights.
- Teach and lecture on campus and in the community about the significance of voting rights in the Constitution. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, we will have failed as a people and as a nation if going forward we make the right to vote more difficult. There is no constitutional issue here. The matter turns on enabling individuals to vote no matter how difficult state legislatures make it. A concerted effort by all our postsecondary institutions can advance democracy.
- Run for something. Angry posts on Facebook will not save democracy. In a democracy, we live our values. Secretaries, janitors, students, faculty, staff and administrators all need to consider carving out time to run for an elected position. Structural change occurs from the bottom up, not the top down. Get involved.
To think that we should look to yesterday to guide what academe does tomorrow is historically wrong. Higher education always has changed and met different social challenges. To focus only on internal problems and ignore the crucial issues facing American democracy is an abnegation of responsibility. We have the knowledge and person power to get off the sidelines and be active democrats. The question is if we have the will.