This fall many college leaders will struggle with how to navigate an intense election season in which the polarization of the country is seemingly everywhere. Higher education officials usually try to maintain their nonpartisan status, both for legal reasons (as employees of tax-exempt not-for-profits) and for educational ones. Our job as administrators and teachers is not to tell students what to think about politics but to help them formulate their own views while considering the best available information and most thoughtful perspectives.
In the summer of 2016, I broke from this tradition because the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump represented not just a political choice for teachers and students but a clear threat to our educational mission. At the time, I wrote that he was “using the tools characteristic of demagogues and fascists to do the only thing that really matters to him: gaining power. He will say anything that he thinks will help him win, and there is no telling what he will do if he is successful.”
We now know more about that. We know that Trump encouraged a coup in the wake of his electoral defeat and that he continues to advocate for the dismantling of our democracy. He is backing candidates who proudly claim that if they lose the election, it has to have been rigged, candidates who want to hinder from voting those unlikely to support them. And how can we not be alarmed by the apparent readiness of Trump and his allies to remove from the federal workforce anyone who disagrees with their approach to America First. As Trump said at a rally last March, “We will pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fireable by the president of the United States.” Known as “Schedule F,” it means tens of thousands of people could be in danger of losing their jobs if Trump is elected in 2024. Positions of power would be filled not on the basis of competence but of fidelity.
This is not about policy differences but about the mechanisms and values of our representative system. And that’s why educators at all levels must speak out to defend democracy. We must also speak out to defend those who have already become the victims of creeping authoritarianism. Vulnerable poor and working people, members of marginalized groups, and immigrants are already being harassed by would-be strongmen and their cronies. Texas and Florida are only the most obvious examples where governors emulate Trump’s demagogue playbook by scapegoating trans people and migrants to energize the base emotions of some of their strongest supporters. After the election of 2016, some campus leaders vowed to protect immigrants who felt threatened by Trump’s election, and now we must remind politicians that schools and colleges have a responsibility to educate all students.
As we defend the processes of democracy and the most vulnerable members of our community, we must also protect the rights of all students on campus. This includes ensuring that those who identify as conservatives are not further marginalized by our efforts to protect the democratic process. We must not confuse the rejection of authoritarianism with a partisan suite of policy judgments about domestic and foreign affairs. The defense of democracy always includes the defense of one’s right to express views other than the majority’s. We must not encourage campus authoritarianism just because there seems to be a local consensus about what it means to be progressive.
A broad, inclusive college education is so valuable because through it we learn to reason together. We learn to engage in ongoing conversations with people different from ourselves and whose views we might find objectionable. This serves the country as a whole by creating habits of open-minded discussion and practiced, free inquiry. The authoritarianism we see growing in the United States and around the world pulls apart the very fabric of liberal education and would make it impossible for us to continue this work.
We in higher education must energetically cultivate democratic values — including freedom of expression, rights to representation, and the protection of the vulnerable — at home on our campuses. And we must take a stand against the would-be strongmen who threaten these values in our country and beyond. As educators, we should encourage our students and colleagues to join us in fighting for basic democratic rights. And should that fight be lost in America and the capacity to reason together be rendered pointless (or even persecuted), what then becomes of a genuine education? The nature and mission of our colleges and universities will change fundamentally. That so many are demanding just that should be warning enough.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses.”