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Eagleton Institute of Politics cosponsors discussion on voting, civic engagement

The Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics held this event in collaboration with Williams College, which included a conversation among four university presidents about the importance of voting and the role higher learning institutions have to promote civic engagement among their students. – Photo by WCN 24/7 / Flickr

The Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics cosponsored a virtual event with Williams College yesterday, titled “Voting Rights, Election 2020, Colleges, Universities and Us.” The speakers of this event consisted of four presidents from higher education institutions, including University President Jonathan Holloway.

The first topic of conversation focused on the role that colleges and universities have in shaping the country’s political culture, promoting voting and civic engagment, as well as addressing specific issues arising in light of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

While Rutgers primarily serves New Jersey students, Holloway said it is an institution that must also serve the state as a whole, as well as the nation and the rest of the world.

“To me it is incumbent — and I use that word very seriously — incumbent upon universities and university leadership to talk about the importance of exercising the franchise, and to be even quite pointed about it, it’s not telling people how to vote, but about the responsibility of voting,” he said.

Holloway said that when he hears individuals saying they do not plan on voting in the election due to their lack of support for either candidate, he struggles to understand the reasoning behind it.

Looking at an election ballot in this manner alters the significance of voting, he said.

“My feeling is, if you are unhappy about candidates and you want to register your discontent — whether it is protesting, leafleting or social media posting, whatever it is — and you have not voted, I think you have ceded your right to complain,” Holloway said.

Maud Mandel, president of Williams College, also discussed this issue. She said colleges and universities must think about how they can provide access and opportunities from afar in addition to stressing the importance of voting.

She said educators are not only meant to simply help students understand things about the history of the country, but to also get people to use evidence to make informed decisions that help move society forward.

“We are consistently trying to encourage people to learn for doing sake, to put that education to use,” Mandel said. “There are so many ways you can do that. But, one of the fundamental ways that every single person can do it is through voting and that’s why I think its crucially important that we elevate that to all of our students.”

The speakers also focused on the topic of voter suppression and the impact of higher education communities on this issue.

Wayne A. I. Frederick, president of Howard University, said their institution works to teach students about the importance of civic engagement in society. He said they have voter registration on campus and mobilize students to help volunteer in this process.

He said that in this current moment, higher education institutions will help contribute to modes of civic engagement for the fundamental values of society.

“We still have quite a number (of students) who this is the first time in college, and yet still, they will give up their inconveniences that they already have: not knowing where to get their next meal, having housing and food insecurity, to make sure that other people are registering to vote,” Frederick said.

The idea of social media’s contribution to voter suppression was brought up by Ellen Kennedy, president of Berkshire Community College. She said social media has created “echo chambers” of finding things that reinforce our personal beliefs, as well as creating targets for people who want to disenfranchise others who may not have those same beliefs.

“Our students have been exposed to all of the ways that oppression happens that they’re not even aware of it, it’s not overt,” she said. “Sometimes it’s incredibly overt, but in other cases, it's that argument to disenfranchise your belief that you can actually have an impact.”

The event also included a brief question and answer period, where viewers could submit questions for the speakers. 

One of the final questions related to whether institutions should require civic education in their curriculum in order to increase the basic understanding of how the U.S. government works. 

Holloway said education can be taught in an influentional manner and said he is concerned about civic education being taught in a more nationalistic manner as opposed to a patriotic manner. He said he believes patriotic civic education is more rooted in discourse, debate and discussing the balance of governmental powers than that of a nationalistic approach.

“I do think universities can do a great job of civic education. Requiring it makes me uncomfortable … but I want them to do it anyway,” he said. “I want them to know these things because it makes for a better country.”

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