College campuses have been eerily subdued this fall with students stuck in dorms and social gatherings limited to small groups. But what happens on the night of a deeply polarizing presidential election and the ensuing days if the results are unknown or hotly contested?
With the election just days away, colleges across the country and in the Boston area are preparing for potential turbulence — celebratory parties, angry protests and counterprotests, and bursts of violence, all in the midst of a global pandemic.
“I’ve never prepared for an election and then potential violence after the election,” said Cynthia Lynch, the executive director of Salem State University’s Center for Civic Engagement & Frederick E. Berry Institute of Politics.
For the past few weeks, dozens of Salem State administrators, faculty, campus police officials, and mental health experts have been developing plans to ensure that students feel safe, can express their opinions, and find support on Election Day and the weeks after.
“Everyone from the top down has a pit in their stomach about what may ensue no matter what the results are, because of the unknown,” Lynch said.
College campuses have long been hot beds of activism and action over issues such as war, racial justice, police reform, and immigration.
But this year university leaders are facing heightened anxiety brought on by both COVID-19 and heated political rhetoric. Supporters of President Trump and the Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, are sharply divided, and that’s mirrored on college campuses, raising concerns that tensions could spill into physical clashes on election night.
In many parts of the country, where colleges serve as liberal bubbles in conservative communities, university officials fear their campuses could be a draw to right-wing and militia groups, spurring many leaders to plan for additional police presence.
Colleges also want to avoid having any election-related parties or protests turn into coronavirus super-spreader events just weeks before the Thanksgiving break, when many institutions are scheduled to send students home for the semester.
“We’re all desperate to get together, and here we’re going to have an emotional trigger, the election,” said Herman “Dutch” Leonard, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and business school. Students are going to want to be together to celebrate or commiserate. “But you don’t want to create a super-spreader event 10 days before you send them home.”
Leonard cohosted a virtual town hall earlier this week attended by leaders from 152 campuses to discuss crisis management and contingency planning for Election Day and the weeks that follow.
Todd Diacon, president of Kent State University in Ohio, who attended the virtual town hall, said preparing for potential clashes makes sense, given the current tense political climate. This year, Kent State commemorated the 50th anniversary of the shooting of four student anti-war protesters by the Ohio National Guard.
Kent State also hosts a polling site, and Diacon said trucks bearing Trump flags have been driving by the campus. Even at his own polling site recently a heated dispute broke out over a voter wearing political gear that required local police to step in, he said.
Kent State plans to have more police presence around its voting site.
“At Kent State, more than most places, we understand what happens when heightened passions lead to violence,” Diacon said.
Some of the college election planning is a result of Trump’s victory in 2016, which caught many higher-education institutions off guard. After Trump won, many students were despondent, fearful, or angry about what the victory could mean for them because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or immigration status.
Some colleges reported increased complaints of racially biased incidents before and after the 2016 election.
“One of the lessons we learned is a need for people to deal with heartbreak, fear, their anxiety,” said Kenneth Elmore, Boston University’s associate provost and dean of students.
BU president Bob Brown has sent a letter to students reminding them of the need for civility during the elections. The university is also offering forums and listening sessions, in-person and virtual, in the coming days and after Tuesday.
Usually, election night on college campuses involves social gatherings with undergraduates coming together in the student union and watching the results on multiple television screens. Students traditionally stay up late into the night rehashing the outcomes with friends in their dorm rooms.
The pandemic has complicated those traditions. Tufts University said it will hold a watch party, but students will need a ticket to attend and it will be monitored by staff. The university has also offered faculty training on post-election discussions, since many students are studying remotely and their first conversation about the election with their peers may be in the Wednesday morning virtual class.
“You may have to talk politics in the chemistry class,” said Nancy Thomas, the director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Tisch College. “The bottom line is that faculty members have additional burdens on them.”
At BU, university officials are setting up large tents on the lawn where students can gather with phones or laptops and watch the results come in while masked and staying socially distanced. BU also plans to place platforms and microphones in the tents for students to use to express opinions.
Salem State is holding several virtual watch parties on the night of the election for students who support different candidates and for students of color and other groups.
Many universities emphasized that their mask and social-distance policies will still apply to election-related events, and many plan to have staff and employees monitoring for compliance.
But after a summer of protests over the police killings of Black people, including George Floyd, universities also more cautious about when they deploy police to enforce rules around on-campus student gatherings.
Considering the public health and public safety ramifications of this election, universities need to be prepared, said Leonard, the Harvard professor.
“I hope they are overprepared and none of this happens and it all goes down without a ripple,” he said.