Episode 29: Preparing for the 2020 Election on Campus


​​Co-hosts Jon Fansmith and Mushtaq Gunja discuss the new COVID-19 relief bill from House Democrats, keeping the government funded through the end of the year, and why the Education Department has targeted Princeton for discussing institutional racism. In Part 2, Jonathan Alger, president of James Madison University, joins the discussion to talk about promoting civic democracy and engagement on campus and how JMU is approaching the 2020 election in light of the pandemic and the extreme partisanship that has gripped the country.

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:


Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. I'm your host, Jon Fansmith, and on this episode we'll be talking about preparing for the upcoming election on campus. I am joined today by my new regular co-hosts, Mushtaq Gunja. And I am not joined by my other regular co-host, Sarah Spreitzer, who apparently had better things than you to do today, Mushtaq. So I'm glad you could make the time anyway.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, I think the two of us are going to do great. And we're just going to have Sarah just miss us that much by now.

Jon Fansmith: No, no, I think this podcast will be further evidence that Sarah is kind of just an anchor on the whole thing. But since she's already told me her kids don't listen to it, I'm not really that worried about offending her. Anyway, there's been a few things happening here in DC this week. I know you and I have been talking a little bit offline about what that is for the election season as we head into it, things tend to quiet down. But there have been a few prominent issues, I think.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah. And quite a bit has happened in the last couple of weeks since we last talked, including some movement or seeming movement in a continuing resolution and potentially on the supplemental, jams happening there.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, it's an interesting thing. Basically, the supplemental is the emergency funding bill, Congress passed one of these back at the end of March. There was a lot of thought. They do another one sometime in the summer and then that fell apart. Recently, I mean, as recently as last weekend, the House is trying again, to come forward with the compromise bill. There's lots of possible differences. The final bill hasn't been done. But one of the big differences is that the House originally proposed $3.2 trillion for COVID relief, and that would go to businesses, would go to universities, would go to K12 school districts, all across the country, different things.

The compromise bill is looking to be about 2.4 trillion. That's an attempt to come down to levels that congressional Republicans in the White House would want it. They previously hadn't budged much above 1.2 trillion in negotiation. So it's not clear that 2.4 trillion will be enough to do it. But we shall see. And then the other thing you mentioned is a CR, Continuing Resolution. It sounds important. It's basically just Congress admitting they can't get their work done in terms of funding the government. So they pick a new deadline, usually, the deadline is the end of September. Now Congress has agreed that they won't be able to get the funding bills. And rather than have a shutdown, which we've had a few of those in not too distant memory, they're going to push that deadline back to December 11th. So the government will continue to be funded at current levels through to December 11th. I should say it seems that they will do that. The House has already passed it. The Senate is expected to take this up tomorrow. As we record that, that would be Tuesday, the 29th. All expectations are the Senate will pass it, the President will sign it, and we'll move forward. Nobody really wants a big fight over spending going into an election season.

Mushtaq Gunja: And tomorrow is also the first presidential debate. And you would think that perhaps both President Trump and Vice President Biden might want to focus on different things and not on this continuing resolution and the budget fights.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, absolutely.

Mushtaq Gunja: And since we last spoke, the Department of Education has also made some news as it relates to Princeton University. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what happened there, Jon?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. It was appropriate of you to frame this by starting talking about the election season and debates because I think this is one of these things we are seeing a lot of right now that are actions taken by the administration in particular with an eye towards the election. President Eisgruber at Princeton University as part of a speech, he talked about the historical presence of racism in Princeton University's operations, as part of a way of addressing that and looking forward to where the institution needed to go going forward, which, frankly, is where a lot of institutions are, and frankly, should be right now. So it was very much an appropriate and commendable action on his part.

Unfortunately, that's not the perspective of our Department of Education, which announced that due to the public admission of racism and institutional policies at Princeton, they were going to launch an investigation into Princeton's behavior, subpoenaing a massive amount of information from the university as they investigate this. I don't think most reasonable people think there will be a lot of particular impact of this, ultimately, but obviously, what the concern is less that Princeton will be found at fault and more that this is the type of action that's taken. One, a prominent elite institution and a blue state, but two, other institutions are really looking to confront difficult moments in their past and challenges they face may be chilled from doing so if they fear that they're gonna run afoul with the Department of Education doing that. So a number of institutions have already sent a letter to the Secretary of Education on this. I expect we'll be seeing a letter from the associations expressing our serious concerns with this very soon. And that process is actually underway as we record this. And obviously, I think finishing where I started, the reason for this is probably because it plays well with certain supporters of the President. And so they're highlighting what they see as issues that activate their base.

Mushtaq Gunja: Sure. This strikes me as outrageous government overreach. And also from, putting my lawyer hat on for a second, from an equal protection point of view, strikes me as something that is going to be very difficult for them to justify. I mean, if you were to comb through the statements made by presidents and provosts, faculty at other institutions, certainly, many of them have acknowledged over the course of the last, I mean, couple of decades that there have been problems of racism in many of these schools' pasts, and they're grappling with the implications of that for their present and their future. And to pick on Princeton sort of out of the blue strikes me as very, very problematic. I did see that letter, I think, 80 college presidents signed over the weekend and made good news. I hope that the department might reconsider their actions. Well, this is a perfect segue, I think, into our conversation that we're about to have with President Jonathan Alger, because I'd like to ask him a little bit about the election, though. So hopefully, we'll have a great conversation with President Alger.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, absolutely. And we've talked so much about how the election shapes a lot of the things we're seeing. So talking about this climate, what it looks like from campus, I think will be really helpful to a lot of the listeners and entertaining as well to me. So I want to let people know before we get to that section of the podcast that if you want to contact us, you can reach us at our email, which is podcast@acenet.edu. And people should write in, suggest topics, guests, offer us feedback. I always encourage positive feedback for myself, negative feedback from my co-hosts, so I look better by comparison.

Mushtaq's nodding, he's familiar with this routine of mine. And also in particular suggest guests, suggest things we would love to hear from people about what they want to hear on the podcast and the people they want us talking to. So we would love to see that and strongly encourage folks to do that. Let's take a short break. And we'll be back with the President of James Madison University, Jon Alger. And we're back.

Mushtaq, as we were talking before the break a little bit about the coming election season, obviously, how it's been influencing policy developments here in Washington DC. It's important to note that while we tend to be hyper-focused on the environment in which we're operating, this election is of huge importance, huge attention and huge impact across the country, and particularly in our country's campuses or member campuses. It is an election season unlike any other with the impact of the novel coronavirus. The difficulties that poses in terms of all of the standard issue organizing, informing, educating, registering the process of educating our students and our fellow citizens about the issues as well as enabling our students to find ways to vote and as they choose. And then you add to it the fact that of course, we have a candidate, President Trump, who's in many ways much more divisive than we've seen in previous elections, and particularly has inflamed a lot of tensions on college campuses with some of his beliefs and views. So it is unusual. And luckily, I think you're going to help us meet somebody who can give us a little bit more perspective in a lot greater detail on that.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah. Thanks, Jon. And we are so excited to have with us President Jonathan Alger. President Alger has a long and distinguished career in public service. He is in his ninth year as President of James Madison University. Under his leadership, JMU has developed a bold new vision to be the national model of the engaged university. And the university has a strategic plan focused on engaged learning, community engagement, and civic democracy. This plan has included the development of several ambitious new programs and initiatives in a sort of very short amount of time, including the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, which President Alger, I want to ask you a little bit more about soon.

You can see President Alger's commitment to public service in higher education by looking at the boards that President Alger serves on, including our board here at ACE, but also the Association of American Colleges and Universities. And as past Board Chair of the National Association of College and University Attorneys. President Alger also currently serves on the Board of Campus Compact, an organization that is dedicated to helping build democracy through civic education on campus. President Alger, I'd love to ask you a little bit about how Campus Compact is thinking about this very crazy election season. A lawyer by training, President Alger served as Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Rutgers, served in the General Counsel's Office at the University of Michigan. We are honored to have you with us today. I can't think of a better person to talk through these issues with than you President Alger. So thank you very much for being here with us.

Jonathan Alger: Thanks so much. It's great to be with you.

Mushtaq Gunja: So President Alger, you've been working on these issues for your whole professional career. It's clear that you're really passionate about civic democracy, and electoral participation among your students, your staff. I wonder if before we talk about 2020 that we might spend a second talking about that Center for Civic Engagement that I mentioned a second ago. How did that center come about? What kind of work does it focus on?

Jonathan Alger: Thanks, Mushtaq. Well, coming to James Madison University, I have to say I was very excited as a recovering lawyer, as my friends like to say, to come to a place named for the father of the US Constitution, James Madison. So I felt it was really important that our institutional identity reflect James Madison's legacy. Civic engagement as long been a part of what we do at James Madison University. But we really wanted to have someplace that would provide a focal point and a central resource for the entire campus. And so that's how the Center for Civic Engagement was born.

They work with faculty, with students and with student organizations all across the campus, to make sure that issues of civic engagement are incorporated in the curriculum and student activities and student life, all across the university. So it was very much an idea of providing resources and support to make this part of our institutional DNA.

Mushtaq Gunja: That sounds amazing. And having spent a little bit of time teaching on a college campus, also pretty difficult, I might think, sort of the infusing of civic democracy into the curriculum. Sounds like it might be a challenge. How has that played out in the last few years?

Jonathan Alger: Well, it's a great question, because it is challenging. There are certain disciplines, political science, history, public policy, where people expect to encounter these issues. But what about all of the other academic disciplines and areas. And so that was one of our goals, was to make sure that the entirety of the university was involved in this effort, and to think about the public policy issues that affect them, that affect their discipline. For example, we have faculty all across campus who work with the center to think about, well, if we're in the health sciences, for example, how do we incorporate civic thinking, civic issues into our work.

We have something called the Health Policy Summit that those faculty do every year. They take a major health policy issue, the students have to do research and debate different sides of the issue. And they have solutions that they come up with to potential problems like the opioid crisis. And we actually bring in public officials to act basically as judges and to give them feedback on their proposed solutions to some of these public policy challenges of our time. You can do the same thing, obviously, in the sciences, in the arts. There are public policy issues that affect all of the different disciplines if you take the time to think about it. So that was really the idea of this effort is to help faculty have a place where they could go to say, this is what I'm teaching, but I want to think about the public policy aspects, the civic engagement aspects that come along with engineering or biology or whatever the case might be.

Mushtaq Gunja: I think that's fabulous. And you can imagine, really, that it could infuse every part of the university, right? So in a math class, I mean, given the amount of thought that everybody is sort of spending on graphing out what the novel coronavirus spread will look like, I mean, you could definitely spend quite a bit of time thinking about public policy issues, basically.

Jonathan Alger: Absolutely. How statistics get used, right? What they mean? There are lots of issues that we encounter when you think about our daily lives with math and science, and certainly, science policy has become an enormous issue. And for students that care about things like climate change, the wildfires out in California, why is that happening? Why is COVID-19 happening? And how do you stop it? There are so many policy issues that affect areas like the sciences and math as well. It makes a lot of sense to really be intentional about incorporating this. And I think students are ready for this kind of learning, and they're really interested and excited.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah. I was going to ask, how do you think the students sort of respond to the infusion of public policy issues in their classes in which they may not have thought that it might not be relevant, but it might be relevant?

Jonathan Alger: Well, our experience is the students care about the issues, they're excited about the issues. Where they are a little more reluctant is with things like debate and where they feel like they might be forced to offer a political perspective. What we learned when we did sort of a climate study of our own campus is it was a little bit like thanksgiving dinner. You're told not to discuss religion and politics. That's what students had come away with, as well as many faculty, that gee, we should avoid those topics for fear of offending somebody right, or offering an opinion that might be controversial, that other people might disagree with.

And so that was something that we had to overcome, working with faculty and students to say, look, this is a university. If you can't discuss ideas, different perspectives and opinions here, where is it going to happen safely in society. We had to recognize that first. So it wasn't really empathy on the part of students, I think it was more that fear in an environment where they didn't want to offend one another, they didn't know exactly where their classmates or their professors might be coming from, how to make people comfortable, how to make sure that you create an environment where people felt it was okay to engage in dialogue about these different types of issues. That was something that we've had to work on and continue to work on across the curriculum.

Jon Fansmith: And I think that's fascinating, too. Earlier or I guess last season in our podcast, we'd had an episode on free speech, and we talked with a couple faculty members who are experts in this area. And one of the things they'd mentioned was that this generation of students, in many ways approaches this differently. Just to your point, they're clearly wary of offending others with their viewpoints. And that's often misinterpreted as institutional suppression of free speech or abandonment of academic freedom. So I thought that was really insightful point you just made about how a lot of times this is actually students being respectful and perhaps overly courteous to their fellow students, and not feeling comfortable to express themselves. And have you seen results from the changes you've implemented in terms of that engagement, those discussions on campus?

Jonathan Alger: Yes. I think it's gradual, it doesn't all happen overnight. But I think students have become more comfortable learning how to express themselves. So for example, I co-teach an honors seminar on leadership, and we require our students to do debates. One of the interesting things is they don't get to choose which side of the issue they're on, they get assigned to a particular side of an argument. And that can be very uncomfortable initially for the students. They want to be able to argue their feelings, their thoughts, their perspective. But we do that for a reason, because we want them to develop certain skill sets that we think will serve them well both in college and later in life. So learning how to make rational arguments and counter-arguments, learning how to be respectful, learning how to listen as well as how to speak. Engaging in critical thinking, engaging in information literacy to look at different types of sources and determine, is this really a credible source? Is it biased? If so, in what way? So that has really been helpful, I think, for students to get that kind of experience. It takes them out of their comfort zone a little bit, to your point. And I think it's a very good thing that students want to be respectful of one another. We've come a long way in many respects on that front. But we also want them to be comfortable with dialogue and debate and discourse.

And we need to give them the tools of what I call sort of rules of engagement. How do you do that well without personalizing the argument, without name calling. They have so many bad role models that they see on television that we need to give them the tools to know how to do it well. And I think that's one of the greatest gifts that we can give to this generation and that will be in turn important for the future of our country to produce leaders who know how to engage in dialogue in that kind of respectful way.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. This is the perfect time to be having this conversation given the first presidential debate is tomorrow. I hope and pray that we will have a reasoned debate tomorrow full of the citation of sources and lack of name calling. But if 2016 was any indication of what these debates might look like, I think we might be in for a little bit of a rock fight tomorrow night. Speaking of election 2016, how did James Madison sort of approach that election in the weeks leading up to election day?

Jonathan Alger: Well in 2016, we were really getting started in a significant way with these efforts. And we wanted to make sure that our students felt a sense of agency and participating in the process. So certainly, of course, encouraging voter registration, encouraging voting itself, but also voter education was critical to us. And so there are a number of things that we've been doing 2016, 2018, and even more so, in 2020. First of all, making sure students know how, where and when to vote. This may be the first time a lot of them are voting. I think so many of us that have done this for so long, just assume that everybody knows how it works.

But of course, it's gotten more complicated, there are more choices, more options available to students than ever. So that in itself is important to provide students with that information about how, when and where to vote. But some of the things that we've done that have been successful in that we're certainly replicating this year albeit in this virtual environment, we've done class visits for voter registration, we've partnered with student organizations and leaders like in Greek Life, to spread messages about the importance of voting. We've prepared discipline specific voting and voter education materials, because it turns out when we looked at it, that you had perhaps higher numbers in a field like education, lower number sometimes in business, or the sciences, or engineering that were voting. Well, why is that? We wanted to make sure that we could engage those students and make sure they could understand the relevance of the issues and the election to them. We've had virtual town halls with candidates for office. And of course, this year, we're recording those and putting them on our website. But the participation has actually increased, because of the fact that you can use the technology to make them more accessible to more people.

In the past, we had candidates that actually came to the residence halls, and did sort of a traveling roadshow, where they would talk and debate about the issues. But now we're doing those virtually and we haven't missed a beat. Another thing that the Center for Civic Engagement has done is it's worked with students to identify issues that are important to them. And they develop questions for a nonpartisan voter education guy where they send the questions to the candidates, the candidates respond with their answers, and we share that with our community. So, it's in the candidates own words, but it's on issues and questions that the students really care about. And then finally, things like debate watch parties. Students love, of course, to get together and watch all sorts of things. The debates this year, of course, are still happening, even though these parties may need to be virtual. But one of the things that we've added is to have student led facilitated discussion following each debate. So it's not just watching the debate, but it's an opportunity to process what you've seen and heard with other students. So there's a lot that I think you can do, even in the virtual environment to bring students together. But I think part of the key is giving them a sense of agency and involvement in the process.

Jon Fansmith: I like to say the student led facilitated discussions. Do you work with the students as moderate to be nonpartisan moderators of the discussions? How does that actually play out in terms of how they approach this?

Jonathan Alger: Well, it can happen in different ways. That's a great question. So we've had debates, for example, where the college Republicans and the college Democrats have worked together on programs and they've actually debated the issues amongst themselves. It was quite effective. But we've also had some student led difficult dialogues. So for example, after the 2016 election, we were thinking about, okay, now what? There was a lot of raw emotion. A lot of students were concerned, some were happy, some were very upset. So how do you deal with that? And we had students that were trained in this idea of difficult dialogues, where they would facilitate discussion. They would have questions out there, they would encourage students to offer different perspectives in respectful ways to bring people together. And it was much more effective, we found, than having faculty or administrators in the lead. For students to be in the lead they respect one another, they understand the pressures that the facilitator might be under. But it also gave them a sense that, yes, we can take some ownership of these types of conversations.

So I think you can train students to be able to facilitate dialogue, to be good listeners, to know how to ask the kinds of questions that will elicit people to actually participate, and to do so in a way where they're not afraid that someone's going to attack them. You've got to talk about what are the ground rules, and then you've got to hold people to those rules of engagement. But I think it's really important for students to play those leadership roles in these types of conversations. That's what we did in 2016 and it's certainly something we're planning to do again in 2020.

Jon Fansmith: That's such a great idea.

Mushtaq Gunja: President Alger, you mentioned that you spent a little bit of time looking at the data at which sort of different students in different disciplines voted. Is that data that you were able to obtain from NSLVE? Or were you able to get that data somewhere else? How are you tracking your student voting data?

Jonathan Alger: Yes. You mentioned NSLVE, which is, by the way, a great resource. I'm sure many of the campuses listening have that data, if not, you definitely want to get involved with that. It can be it can be very helpful. You can learn a lot about where your students are. We did sort of a deep dive using that data and then adding to it with our own analysis, because we really wanted to understand where were the barriers. And what were the differences in different colleges and different academic disciplines. Because that allowed us then to address some of those challenges. To say, okay, students over in this corner of the university are not voting at as higher rate, why is that? And then what can we do specifically to get those students in business or in engineering, for example, to participate? And I think any college could certainly benefit from that. And then to think about, okay, how do we get students that have different types of interests excited about participating? And it may be different sets of issues for different sets of students?

Mushtaq Gunja: Yes. If my research is correct, when I was looking at that data for James Madison, it looked like James Madison had an incredible increase in 2018 in terms of their student voting participation. Is that right, President Alger?

Jonathan Alger: Yes. We had a very significant increase going into that midterm election in 2018. And I think it's because there was that intentional effort. And I think it was also a sense that that students were getting that, you know what, our votes really matter. Elections can be really close. And I think in the past, sometime, there was this sense of, if not apathy, a sense that, well, my vote is not that important. What's one student? It's a hassle. It takes time. It takes effort. But I think by 2018, students understood that their votes really count. And if they care about some of these issues and about the candidates that are running, they needed to participate. So, we certainly don't tell them how to vote, but we strongly encourage them to vote and to participate in the process. If you think about the role of colleges and universities, so often we hear about our mission as workforce development. And of course, that's important. We know that we want to produce students that are going to be future scientists and doctors and musicians and nurses and health care workers, all of those things. But we also want them to be engaged citizens. And the whole idea of we the people in order to form a more perfect union, I think the founding fathers understood that it was the duty of every generation to do its part. That that's how you perfect a democracy over time, is by having that leadership where you pass the torch from one generation to the next.

That's very much the sense that we wanted to give our students. That, look, this is your time. Now that you are able to vote, your voices can and should be heard. And a lot of the big problems we're talking about right now are the problems that your generation is going to inherit. And so giving them that sense that their voices matter, that they should participate, I think, has really been helpful to get their attention and hopefully to get those numbers up. And hopefully we'll see that again in 2020, not just at JMU but across the country.

Jon Fansmith: Sure.

Mushtaq Gunja: So 2020 is different, right? So I think, in speaking with some of your college president colleagues, I gather that pre-pandemic, presidents felt like the enthusiasm for voting was going to be pretty high. And that the voter participation rates among students and faculty and staff were going to exceed 2016 levels and 2018 levels. But now we're in a little bit of a different space, a lot of campuses are dealing with a physical campus that is mostly empty. And a lot of the voter registration work that might happen in the fall on campus can't happen in quite the same way.

A lot of great energy, the voter participation drives that folks like the Greek Life system that you mentioned, President Alger, can't happen again in quite the same way. How are you thinking about that? How are you approaching the fall? And are there sort of special steps that you're taking in sort of a virtual world, anything that you haven't already sort of talked about?

Jonathan Alger: Sure. Well, one thing that I might mention specifically that has really revved up this year is the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. We've got college presidents that are leading that effort across the country to address the very issues you're talking about, because we know this is a very unusual year. I mean, you don't even know where students might be located come election day. So I think it's made colleges and college leaders understand that we have got to send messages, and we can't wait until the week of the election to do that. So, this effort has actually been going on for months. Recently, we had national voter registration day. I sent out a message to all of our students, and we included very specific links to how you register, what are the different types of options for voting and both for in state students and for out of state students to make sure that students have ready access to answers to those types of questions. One of the great things now I think there's a lot of organizations like ALL IN and ACE has been helpful in this as well, are sharing information, so that every college doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of good resources out there that you can tap into, that you can link to so that students know if I live in Wyoming, here are the deadlines, here are the options. If I live in Virginia, here are the deadlines and here are the options.

So that's something that's been really important. You talked about the great energy that you typically see on campus, for example, we have these tents on campus where students register, they often use them to raise different policy issues where students can express themselves. So how do you replicate that in a virtual environment? Well, one of the things the ALL IN group is doing, for example, is they're having something they call couch parties. So, students don't have to leave their apartment or their residence hall room, but they can participate virtually in a party, where they talk about voting, they can talk about the issues. There are creative things like that, that I think colleges are trying to do to engage students even in this virtual environment. I mentioned with classroom visits, which is something that we've done in the past in person, you can still do that virtually. Whether it's students that come in, or whether it's other people that come in and just say, just a reminder, the election is coming up, here's how you register, here's how you vote. So I think we can be very intentional about the types of things that happened in the past and adapting them to this very different kind of environment that we're in. And for better or for worse, students absorb messages through many different media, so we have to communicate through email, through social media, you have to find a variety of different ways to try to connect with students in these circumstances.

Jon Fansmith: Can I just add, one of the resources, President Alger mentioned was an ACE issue brief we've just recently updated in light of the pandemic that gives guidance and information to university leaders based on what their legal obligations and what the limits and boundaries are in terms of registration, political education, things like that and that will be linked on our show notes site as well as links to some of the organizations President Alger has mentioned.

Jonathan Alger: And Jonathan, we might just mention too, shout out for ACE's Engage platform in communities of practice, one of which is now focused on civic engagement. ACE was very prescient in deciding to establish a ACE Engage, who knew that we would be hit with a pandemic? But what this platform allows people to do is practitioners can come together across the country in this virtual environment and share ideas and best practices. Already, we're seeing that kind of effort bear fruit. And I think people are more willing to participate in something like that than ever, because they know they have to if they're going to stay connected with colleagues across the country. So that's been a great resource as well.

Mushtaq Gunja: President Alger, I know you've spent some time on that Engage site and in that community of practice, anything interesting being discussed in there? What are the takeaways in terms of best practices that are being shared?

Jonathan Alger: Well, certainly one of the first conversations that we had was, what is this environment going to be like going into the election on campuses? How do you prepare for it? Being at a public university, James Madison University is a public institution, we have to comply, of course, with the First Amendment. We know that we have a variety of different opinions and perspectives on campus. And there was a lot of concern expressed in this community of practitioners about the very deep polarization that we see in society, and how it in turn is reflected on our own campuses. Sometimes people assume that higher education is a monolith. But we know that's not true. Our own campus, when we've done surveys, we know that our students are roughly divided with about a third that are more conservative leaning, a third or more liberal leaning, and roughly a third in the middle. And so it's simply not true that they all believe and act in the same way. And in this deeply polarized environment, how do you have civil dialogue and discourse? How do you model that for students? How do you give them the tools to engage in that; is something that faculty have been really concerned about.

If you're going to dare to open that door in the classroom or in some sort of student activity, how are you going to do that in a way that doesn't degenerate into the kind of personal attacks, the kind of shouting matches that we so often see in the public sphere? And so there are some really interesting models that people have shared out there where organizations very intentionally bring together people who have very different political perspectives. I know on our campus a few years ago, we had two former members of Congress, a former Republican and former Democrat, that were members of Congress that disagreed on virtually every issue, but they were friends and debate civilly. The one rule they had when they did their campus visit was, don't separate us, we always have to be together, when we're talking about these issues, so students can see the point and the counterpoint. That's something that I think this community practice is really concerned about is, how do we model for our society how to do this better? If we can't do it in higher education, where the whole purpose is that pursuit of truth in that marketplace of ideas, where is it going to happen in our society? So I think there's a real sense of urgency among people in higher education to be able to show that it can be done. And by the way, that you can actually compromise, that you can change your mind, that you can learn from hearing different perspectives. When was the last time we heard any politician say, "gee, that was a great debate, I've changed my mind on an issue". It just doesn't happen. But that should happen in a university setting. And that's one of the things that we don't want our students to be afraid of, to feel like they have to be so dug in, that they don't actually engage in active listening and learning.

Jon Fansmith: And I think that's a great point. And particularly, I can speak on behalf of some my colleagues here at ACE who work with our federal government and a lot of ways at training a new generation of people who will ascend to those roles and how to civilly disagree, and how to advance knowledge in a less polarized, less confrontational way, is something I'm tremendously grateful for you doing. I think, certainly people listening to this show have learned a lot and have a lot more that they can pick up from you and your work at JMU. So I just want to take the opportunity to thank you on behalf of our podcast for coming on joining us today. Mushtaq, anything you want to say before we sign off?

Mushtaq Gunja: No. I think that this was incredibly valuable. And a lot of what President Alger is talking about are issues that are going to survive the 2020 election. It is not as if all of our problems with civil discourse, with civic democracy are going to be solved if President Trump wins or Vice President Biden wins. There's some long-term work that clearly all of our campuses I think need to be thinking about how to do properly. And I think you've given us, President Alger, a lot to think about as it relates to sort of laying the groundwork.

Jonathan Alger: It's been great to be with you. And I have to say, one of the greatest services we can give to our students is to challenge them, to challenge their thinking. We know that there's a tendency now in our society, not just among students, but among everybody, even to choose news media that reinforce your beliefs rather than to challenge your beliefs. And I think in higher education, we owe it to our students to continually challenge them to see, hear and understand different points of view. And if we can do that, we'll be preparing them well for what comes next after they graduate.

Jon Fansmith: It's a great final note to end on. And thank you so much for joining us today, President Alger.

Jonathan Alger: Great to be with you.

Jon Fansmith: To listen to earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU, you can find us on Apple podcast, Stitcher, Google podcast and wherever you get your podcasts. For show notes and links to resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at acenet.edu/podcast. You can also use our email, podcast@acenet.edu, for suggestions for upcoming shows or guests you'd like to see or just thoughts on how we're doing. Before we go, I'd like to thank Carly O'Connell, Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton and Malcolm Moore who are the exceptional producers dotEDU and make us sound as good as we do every episode. And finally, I'd like to thank you for listening.

About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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