After a polarizing presidential election, Raynard Kington, the president of Grinnell College in Iowa, writes his opinion about how academia failed to see the “other America” that led to Donald Trump’s election and how higher education leaders should act to bridge the gap. — Susan Svrluga
I was surprised by the election of Donald Trump as president, but as a resident of central Iowa, I should not have been.
I am in my seventh year as the president of Grinnell College, a nationally known liberal arts college located in a small town of 9,000 people surrounded by corn and soy fields and by many typical small, white, American rural towns, most of which are struggling economically.
Over the months leading up to the election, while based in my “liberal elite” campus, I had a sense of being intimately attached to this “other” world.
I was regularly seeing and interacting with another America, one that is quite different from the progressive bubble of our college campus, but I was not synthesizing my experience. I commented more than once about how prevalent Trump signs were in towns around the state. And yet, even though a divide was more readily seen at a school like Grinnell in a place like rural Iowa, I failed to register what I saw.
But now, as the nation heads toward a change in administration, all of us must open our eyes to the Americas outside of our individual worlds.
College presidents, administrators and faculty have special roles as educators and conveners on campus and in our communities. This does not mean we have to compromise deeply held principles and values. College students across the country have obligations as future leaders to listen and learn and try to understand perspectives that may differ from their own.
Grinnell students in particular have opportunities to explore those “other” Americas that the overwhelming majority of their peers at similar institutions do not have by virtue of our location and community demographics.
Grinnell students experience both an incredibly diverse on-campus student population (25 percent domestic students of color, 60 percent from outside of the Midwest, 18 percent international, 20 percent eligible for need-based Pell grants) and a very different surrounding population (100 percent rural, 94 percent white, 20 percent over 65 years old, 11 percent in poverty; 37 percent of children in public schools are from families with low incomes, receiving free or reduced-price lunch).
America has great institutions of higher education throughout the nation, yet too few of our leaders’ experiences reflect the geographic diversity of this country.
Consider the college experiences of the Cabinet members who served in the Obama administration: In the two Obama terms, only 3 out of 25 (2009-2012) and 3 out of 22 (2012-2016) Cabinet-level appointees received their college educations at institutions located in states that voted for Trump.
Given the number and diversity of great colleges and universities spread across this country, that record should cause concern — and that pattern may reflect at least a part of the problem we face as a nation.
Notwithstanding the disturbing bigotry that was unmasked during the presidential campaign, more and more leaders in this country acknowledge the national demographic transition that is occurring in terms of race and ethnicity and support the idea that diversity of race, ethnicity and gender, among other factors, adds to the quality of our work and life in every sphere.
We must add to that list geographic diversity of life experiences.
This does not necessarily mean that attending college in a Trump state automatically leads to students at those institutions having a broader exposure to the issues facing their fellow Americans, but it does provide opportunities that are not easily obtained at institutions in urban and suburban areas mostly on the two coasts.
College education, including its location, matters.
In such a deeply divided nation we must promote the exploration of the complexity of America as much as we push exploration of new and differing ideas of all kinds and exploration of the world outside of the United States.
In higher education we regularly speak about the importance of personal development during these intense four years of intellectual stretching that our schools foster. While we stress the importance of gaining global perspectives to be educated in our society, our thinking about bridging and understanding political, social and cultural distance sometimes stops at our campus gates.
Just as we have recognized the necessity of helping our students understand different global perspectives, we must do more to educate our students about understanding the different worlds and divides within our domestic world.
A significant amount of the unrest on many campuses over the past year was really about those divides, with demands primarily from domestic students of color that their institutions integrate their experiences and perspectives into the core activities and culture of their institutions.
Entrenched in America’s own distinctive history, these arguments have great merit. But we should not stop there.
The American higher education community is politically to the left of the country as a whole and here at Grinnell, we are certainly left-leaning, though not monolithic.
Contrary to what is often suggested by critics of academia, our faculty works hard to provide a broad view of the complexity of intellectual life in the classroom.
We know that our students’ learning will deepen from engaging with a more robust diversity of political perspectives and ideologies expressed and debated outside of the classroom. We regularly think about how we can broaden the engagement of our community with a wide range of ideologies and political perspectives, for example when we present symposiums on important social and political issues.
Even that is not enough.
We are also working to integrate our students into the special place where this college is rooted through volunteer opportunities and joint programs with local public schools, nonprofits and service groups. We plan to do even more in light of this election.
Over the past several years, we have devoted more and more resources to connecting to local and state institutions and organizations. We are engaged in joint development of the town of Grinnell with the city, and we recently moved our bookstore off campus to the central commercial district in town.
Our location is an asset that we at Grinnell have failed to acknowledge sufficiently. The election of Donald Trump was a stark reminder of just how complicated our country is, and that complexity is at least partly defined by geography and everything that is embedded in geography. Our students as future leaders must see beyond a narrow view of what it means to attend college in the America that elected Donald Trump.
As institutions of higher education, we must have faith that knowledge, and with it the ability to understand our complicated world (as it is and as it might become), is the only path toward a better, more cohesive nation.
Our institutions that educate leaders in the heartland of America have an important job.
We must do more to bridge the separation among our many Americas, and for some of our students, that might just begin with a short walk across a cornfield.