On Sept. 19, members of the Tufts community received an email from Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Provost Mark Brimhall-Vargas announcing the office’s efforts to build a “campus community” during the 2016 presidential election season. Brimhall-Vargas wrote in the email that he, along with the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, the University Chaplaincy, Student Affairs and a number of faculty, staff and students, were planning to host debate-watch events and panels, as well as a series of “dialogue” events that are “explicitly designed to give everyone across the political spectrum an opportunity to engage in a way that is somewhat unusual … to discuss how the election season is affecting them personally and socially.”
Brimhall-Vargas said that one of the major goals of these new dialogue events — which began on Sept. 27, one day after the first presidential debate, and conclude on Nov. 9, the day after the election — is to encourage free speech and acceptance of different political opinions during this unusual and particularly contentious election cycle.
“I think that generally, this is … a way for the institution to really start to engage not in a rhetorical way, but in a lived way [with] this notion of free speech on campus,” Brimhall-Vargas said. “We really want to be able to create an environment where people can disagree openly and survive the experience … They should be able to come to a university, engage with difficult, controversial, upsetting ideas and still feel like the experience did not injure them.”
Additionally, he said that the dialogue events are intended to address the ways in which members of the Tufts community feel personally affected by the election. According to Brimhall-Vargas, while Tisch College, the Department of Political Science and others are organizing presidential and vice presidential debate watch parties and speaker panels — as they have done during previous presidential election cycles — the dialogue events, devised for the purpose of promoting reflection on the personal impacts of the election cycle, are entirely new.
“The debate-watch experiences are designed to help students be engaged, be informed [and] have more than passing, cursory information about serious policy issues,” he said. “But we also realized that there’s an entire social dimension to the election that was left unaddressed.”
Jennifer McAndrew, the director of policy, planning and strategy at Tisch College, said this “social dimension” largely stems from the polarity of the two major presidential candidates and of their supporters.
“I think there’s a recognition from the leadership of the university and from many people here — students, faculty, staff — that this election is really unusual for a number of reasons,” she said. “And it’s not just the extreme differences in the candidates, the first woman nominated by a major party, but also just the level of vitriol and division that it’s exposing in the country and [in] people.”
McAndrew noted that this election is also unusual because it is the first time that the number of potential voters currently aged 18 to 29 is larger than the number of potential voters that are boomers or members of prior generations. This aspect of the election makes it especially relevant to students.
“We know from the research that young people can move elections, and we know from working with a lot of young people that you all have the innovative outlook, the skills and the talent to actually help us repair our democracy,” McAndrew said. “And everyone needs you to be engaged.”
Though McAndrew said that she has heard concerns about the political dialogue on campus being reserved primarily for students who are highly politically engaged, she added that all students should feel welcome and included at these events.
“We want to be clear that these are for people with not only different types of political knowledge and interest, but also different amounts of political knowledge and interest,” she said.
In particular, she hopes that these events will attract students who do not regularly participate in politics, which would ideally create a more representative pool of voters at Tufts.
Nancy Thomas, the director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tisch College, also spoke about the importance of attracting a variety of students to these events regardless of their majors. She referenced a study conducted by the Institute of Democracy and Higher Education that surveyed 7.4 million students about their voting rates and found discrepancies between student voter turnout based on their fields of study.
According to the study, education and humanities-related majors are the most likely to vote, and engineering majors are the least likely. However, Thomas feels that political issues connect to nearly every academic discipline, and that therefore all students have a stake in the outcome of elections.
“No matter what you are studying here, it is relevant to public life,” she said.
Thomas explained that voting exposes the interest of younger voters to candidates, who often do not campaign to younger voters if their voting rates are low. She hopes that with the help of these dialogue events, as well as other efforts on campus such as Tisch College’s JumboVote, students will be more encouraged to vote.
“Voting … sure is obvious and fundamental and relatively easy,” Thomas said. “So for heaven’s sake, go pick the next president.”
Another individual involved with the dialogue events is Jonathan Garlick, a professor of oral pathology at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. Garlick taught a first-year seminar in anthropology last fall called “Science and the Human Experience,” part of which teaches students how to engage in discussions on controversial topics.
Brimhall-Vargas decided to enlist the students in Garlick’s course as facilitators for the first post-debate dialogue, based on the course’s emphasis on training students to participate in hard-hitting discussions, according to Garlick.
“The goal was to use this dialogic approach that we’ve successfully implemented in the [first-year] seminar, bring along the students that appreciate its value, train them to do dialogues and then to enable other students to experience this dialogue and to really listen to each other with empathy,” Garlick said.
In fact, Brimhall-Vargas said that the dialogue events can also be thought of as training sessions for students to help them be more comfortable engaging with political ideas with which they might not agree.
Thomas and Brimhall-Vargas had facilitated a dialogue training session over the summer for Tufts faculty and staff members interested in improving their ability to engage in politically-charged conversations. From feedback collected after the debate, they compiled a packet used to train facilitators for other discussions.
“If you want to have a campus that has dialogue everywhere, you need to start doing it right,” Thomas said. “And to do it right, you need people who are trained and people who are open-minded about trying things out.”
At colleges like Tufts that are typically viewed to be left-leaning, Thomas feels that fostering balanced dialogue can be particularly difficult. However, she hopes that the open nature of the events will attract students from various political backgrounds.
“Students on college campuses are predominantly progressive, and that means that those who are not [progressive] … don’t necessarily come to these things, because they don’t view them as spaces where their viewpoints will be valued,” Thomas said. “We’re really trying to do it differently, so that their viewpoints are valued. That being said, in this particular election climate, that’s a really tough thing to do.”
She added that the importance of communication and dialogue skills extends beyond politics, with the potential to improve interpersonal relationships and ultimately make the Tufts campus, and the world, a better place.
“Facilitating and participating in these kinds of dialogues — these are life skills,” she said. “These are skills that I used to raise my children. They are skills that I try to remember to use in the workplace.”
Brimhall-Vargas views the dialogue events as part of larger voting and civic engagement efforts at Tufts, providing another way for students to participate in the political process as much or as little as they want.
“We’re trying to make this a cohesive experience where students can enter wherever they would like to,” he said. “So if the only thing a student does is register to vote, that’s still a good thing … If they want to go to just the debate watch party, if they want to go to a dialogue, if they want to do it all, it’s available for them. So they have a space to participate.”