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By: Eric Stoller

Higher Ed: When Everything is Political

Higher education has never been neutral, but now it’s getting dragged – or diving headlong – into divisive politics more than ever before.

Lessons From the Field /
By: Eric Stoller

Politics has always been embedded in higher education in America. That’s because critical thinking, ethics, science, research, free speech, and social justice are foundational elements for colleges and universities around the country. The byproducts of these practices, which often originate from higher education, help to inform the national discourse. In doing so, they inevitably cross into the political conversation, too.

It’s worth noting that there isn’t a single university in this country that is operationally and academically politically neutral. Colleges plant ideological flags in a variety of politicized issues on a daily basis: civil rights protests on campus, university presidents supporting highly politicized causes, and/or countless donations from foundations/donors whose monetary contributions are likely more about political influence than altruism. There’s simply no denying that reality. The current state of higher education is rife with political examples: 

  • When a university system decides to divest its endowment and pension funds from the fossil fuel industry, that becomes a political act, especially when the validity of climate change science is constantly being challenged. 
  • When the president of a university participates at an event at the White House for an extremely controversial Supreme Court justice appointment and doesn’t wear a mask…that is a political stance.
  • When the counseling service at a Midwestern university actively supports Black Lives Matter, that political statement reverberates far beyond the cornfields and predominantly white neighborhoods in its immediate vicinity. 
  • When a university’s chancellor tells students at their institution not to gather in large groups and then attends a rally hosted by President Trump, their actions speak louder than their words. 
  • When a small private college in Texas decides to go online-only for the fall, purchases laptops / Wi-Fi hotspots for remote learning for all, and maintains a drive-up food pantry for food-insecure students, that is a phenomenally political decision in a state where football and not wearing masks has unfortunately been deemed more important than health and safety.

Higher Ed and the Politics of Voting

Conservative politicians raise alarms about the liberal ideologies being fomented at institutions, as if the majority of colleges are bastions of progressive thought, policy, and action (the data suggests more centrist ideologies carry the day on campus). Those concerns no doubt drive the divergent efforts that ramp up every four years on college campuses to engage those nascent voting blocks. 

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In recent years, that has meant Dems pushing hard to register new students and get them to the polls, and Republicans trying to suppress those efforts. Unfortunately, that is just one way that the fundamentally democratic (little d, not big D) act of voting, something that eligible college students should be encouraged to do en masse as members of a democracy, has become increasingly politicized. 

Football vs Well-being

2020 has revealed a great deal about the state of higher education in the U.S. Institutions that have long touted themselves as being ‘students first’ have shown that even during a pandemic, tuition and football matter far more than the well-being of their community.

Heck, the President of the United States was advocating for college football to happen in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, a blatant political ploy. And, even the conferences that had previously stated that they would cancel their seasons due to health concerns eventually bowed to both internal and external pressure to reverse course. With pressure from POTUS, fans, and wealthy alumni, it’s no wonder those institutions decided to bring back the pigskin, regardless of concerns for the well-being of student-athletes.

Perhaps the thinking was that if universities, especially from the Power 5 conferences, pushed back against POTUS that they would face repercussions if the current administration won a second term in office. There certainly were political points to be made by the President during an election year to ‘bring back football,’ and school leaders may have calculated it was safer – for their institutions, if not their student-athletes – to get out of the way.

Colleges also didn’t know if pleas for financial help would be heard by supporters. With billions of dollars on the line, some schools have relied on mega-donors to help with losses. The realities of today’s higher education is that most schools cannot afford to be on bad terms with either the federal government or their wealthy athletic boosters.

Associations Get Political Too

The political nature of higher ed goes beyond the brick and mortar of college towns. During the height of the pandemic, higher education’s management associations that have had a long history of advocating on Capitol Hill for the needs of students were noticeably silent when a large number of schools announced that they would be reopening. It’s difficult to unpack the myriad motivations that drove those decisions. Many of the arguments from associations on the side of reopening seemed to be more about protecting their bottom line. Some even went as far as assisting corporate entities with ‘safety theater.’ 

News Flash: We Are Divided

Across political lines, there’s a clear partisan divide about how people in this country view the world around them, and this was evidenced in higher ed in the various attitudes toward the fall reopening of American higher education. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, nearly 70 percent of Democrats (or those who lean to that side of the political spectrum) felt that it wasn’t the right call to bring students back to campus in the fall. On the other side of the political spectrum, 75 percent of Republicans thought that institutions were right to bring students back to campus. A simple look at the science and at the numbers should be all we need to ascertain closure on the question “Was it a good idea to reopen?”

Have universities gained more political clout by bringing students back to campus? Or by returning their student-athletes to the gridiron? Or have they revealed their true modus operandi, and shown that higher education is even more political than we ever imagined? 

We know the outcome of the election now, but whether or not you (or your institution) are pleased that Joe Biden won, there is no getting around the fact that the very utility of the tenets of higher education – things like critical thought, discourse, research, and the principles of science – are increasingly treated as “just another opinion” and are open to debate. It is my hope that this questioning of critical thought will be little more than a fleeting political fad, and not indicative of a bigger anti-science/anti-fact dystopia that will damage our higher ed sector (and the whole nation) for decades to come.

Eric Stoller

Eric Stoller

Eric Stoller is a higher ed consultant who specializes in helping organizations amplify the many ways in which digital technologies can enhance the student experience. He has consulted with colleges, corporations, and higher ed associations around the globe, and worked as VP of Digital Strategy for an EdTech start-up. He has also written more than 500 blog posts for Inside Higher Ed, lived in the United Kingdom for five years where he learned how to make tea properly, and is currently based in sunny Florida.

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