One participating school is Wesleyan University. This post was written by its president, Michael Roth, who explains what his school is doing toward these goals and how other schools can do the same.
By Michael Roth
Like many college presidents, I’ve seen my share of protests — creative chants for social justice, sit-ins on behalf of divestment, marches aimed at drawing attention to the working conditions of those who maintain the campus. Good causes, all. How are these political energies related to electoral democracy?
I work at Wesleyan University, which recently was awarded a “Gold Seal” by the Campus Democracy Challenge because 47 percent of our students had voted in the last election. Only 47 percent, and we won an award! Can Wesleyan and other higher ed institutions around the country do more to enable greater numbers of students to engage meaningfully in elections? This is the time to try.
At Wesleyan — and we are by no means alone in this — we see it as a core part of our educational mission to prepare students for lives of engaged citizenship. In the fall of 2018 we offered bipartisan micro-grants of about $500 to students to help support work with electoral campaigns around the country. On short notice, dozens responded and many traveled during our fall break to states including Texas, Wyoming, West Virginia, Massachusetts and New York.
It’s almost 2020, and the upcoming election represents a crucial opportunity for civic engagement and liberal learning. I want to find ways to help our politically active students think beyond the borders of campus and take some of their passionate energy and intelligence out into the American electoral system. Last week we announced the Wesleyan Engagement 2020 Initiative (E2020), which will provide internship funding to enable students — during academic breaks — to work in the public sphere.
Undergraduates will apply for support to a faculty/staff panel which will review their proposals for seriousness of purpose, feasibility, and the ability to relate this political work to their educational goals. This could involve registering voters, organizing for political parties, advocating for issues of concern to them, or backing the candidates of their choice by teaming up with their organizations.
The university will not be supporting any particular candidates, but we will give academic credit to students who learn about the American electoral system by participating in it. Students will work across the political spectrum, wherever their passions take them, and they will reflect in writing upon the experience and receive responses from faculty. We are planning additional on- and off-campus programming to educate our entire community about civic engagement and promote its involvement in the elections.
Since students will be spending more time in the field in this initiative than in our 2018 program, we expect to be making grants of between $2,000-$5,000, depending on the length of the project and the number of participants involved. The university will fund this initiative, and we are actively raising money for this endeavor from donors of a variety of political persuasions who believe that civic preparedness is a crucial dimension of a liberal education.
Wesleyan is also adding courses to the curriculum in the coming semesters to raise awareness about the issues facing the nation in the fall election. Our faculty are proposing service learning or other participatory classes — i.e., those in which fieldwork and engagement are part of the course requirements. We are encouraging professors to think creatively about innovations that will add modules to existing courses, and to propose new classes that will help our students achieve a deeper, more well-rounded understanding of our electoral process. The university will provide grants to support this work.
As we announced E2020, we have also heard from staff members who would like to see more on-campus programming that will illuminate the issues of the coming election, and the principles of American democracy more generally. There is a real appetite for understanding rather than invective, for comprehension rather than canceling. One practicum is “Experiences in Civic Engagement” (CSPL 493). There are also classes in government (American Political Parties and Erosion of Democracy) that will be connected with E2020.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 38 percent of women and 33 percent of men age 18-29 voted nationwide in the 2018 midterm elections. Now is the time for higher education leaders to commit their institutions to find their own paths for promoting student involvement in the 2020 elections. This kind of direct participation in civic life provides an educational benefit that will help students develop skills for lifelong active citizenship; participants will gain organizational skills, learn to engage productively with others with whom they disagree and learn about themselves.
Rather than worrying about the excesses of “woke culture,” university leaders should try to channel the energies and concerns of their students to civic purposes. At Wesleyan, we would be delighted to partner with other institutions in an effort to help students develop their capacities as citizens by engaging in the conversations, debates and organizing that will play crucial roles in the months leading up to the 2020 elections.
The urgency is clear, as is our institutions’ civic responsibility. Stimulating such engagement will serve the good of our country as well as the good of our students.