By Darren Cambridge and Brad Farnsworth

The 2020 presidential election was bound to be controversial even before COVID-19, but the pandemic has made the stakes even higher. Campuses, normally centers for voter registration and other political events, are struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy or are physically closed altogether. The typical activities surrounding civic engagement in an election year must be carefully considered, either because of the limitations of social distancing or because of the fraught nature of today’s political and racial climates.

No matter which candidate wins, campus leaders have a role in maintaining civility, promoting civic engagement, and celebrating the democratic process. ACE’s Community of Practice on Civic Engagement and Democracy recently discussed how to make the election meaningful to students, regardless of the results. Composed of 45 members, the community of practice includes presidents, provosts, vice presidents, faculty, and nonprofit leaders from a variety of institutions. Together, they explored how campuses can prepare for the 2020 election, as well as a vision for success that focuses on student and institutional outcomes, not political wins.

Action steps for campus leaders

One thing the group made clear up front: In advance of the election, leaders can set the tone for a campus climate that respects and acknowledges the democratic process and the opinions of others. Integrating that message into campus communications creates safe and accessible environments for civic engagement for all students during any election season, but particularly this year.

Academic leaders also play a significant role in creating these environments. Provosts, deans, and chairs can cultivate a climate for political learning, including integrating election content into courses across disciplines and preparing students for post-election scenarios. Center directors can provide resources to inform students about voting and civic participation, with intentional strategies to reach underrepresented groups. Directors can also check in with students to ask about their response to different scenarios after the election and their would-be reactions to other campus groups. Leaders in intermediary organizations, such as associations and nonprofits, can also help, especially in providing resources and support on topics like voting, digital literacy, deliberative dialogue, and how students can learn from other groups and those with differing opinions.

Questions to ask during this period:

As a president: How can you encourage democracy on your campus using your leadership position and communication channels? Is your campus prepared for the days and weeks after the election?

As a member of the academic community: How can you integrate this election into your classroom discussion in a way that benefits student engagement and civil dialogue?

As a center director: Have you reached out to your student groups, encouraging individuals to vote (particularly underrepresented individuals)? Have you checked in with groups that might particularly need guidance after the election?

As a subject-matter expert at an intermediary organization: Have you reached out to your campus contacts to offer support and resources?

Success means democracy wins

In 2020, almost everyone seems to care deeply about who wins the presidential election, campus leaders included. It is difficult to have a vision for success that isn’t linked to a specific candidate’s victory. Nonetheless, we owe it to students to impart the importance of civic engagement and to teach them that a successful democratic process alone is a victory.

The Civic Engagement and Democratic Practices Community of Practice agreed that success can take many forms after the election. These outcomes are both goals to work toward and talking points for conversations with students after the election. While we are writing this post about a month in advance of the election, we imagine success on November 4 might include these scenarios:

  • During this election, students led, organized, and felt engaged. The election was an opportunity for students to show leadership and get out the vote. It has and will continue to be a time to connect policy and theory to issues and action.
  • The campus community saw widespread democratic discourse, making room for a diversity of views.
  • Polling was safe and smooth: no one felt targeted for their ideas, and the checks and balances of power worked. Moreover, people trusted that their votes were counted.
  • Historically underrepresented groups sought representation, made their voice heard in this election, and brought the need for equity to the national conversation.
  • Campus leaders communicated their commitment to democracy and civic engagement, using campus communications to encourage students to participate.
  • The campus community supported students after the election. A post-election plan is in place to help students process events and outcomes productively.

No matter the outcome, students can benefit from understanding democratic ideas, and as a campus leader, you can help students recognize and celebrate democracy. Our nation needs a future generation that believe that democracy trumps any one political party.

Higher Education Today