Contentious Politics on College Campuses: Where does Political Science fit in?

27 October 2017, 1330 EDT

This is a co-authored post with Carrie Booth Walling, Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at Albion College. She is the author of All Necessary Measures: the United Nations and Humanitarian Intervention and articles on human rights trials, mass atrocity crimes, and the Security Council.   

About a year ago, we started having frequent, intense conversations about how we could most effectively respond to increasing political polarization, heightened racial tensions, and recent bias incidents on our college campuses. The more we talked, the more we realized that political scientists across the United States were similarly struggling, but also that our discipline had the answers for how to maneuver contentious politics. We decided to reach out to our colleagues living and teaching in the United States and ask them three questions:

  • What role should political scientists play in this current period of contentious politics?
  • How can we build campuses to be both bastions of free expression and safe places for exploration?
  • How should we engage our neighbors, communities, students and the public?

The result was a symposium published this month by PS: Political Science and Politics, “Contentious Politics in the United States: What Role for Political Scientists?” In it, we offer a toolbox of applied action created by political scientists for political scientists–we summarize some of those lessons in the chart below and link to the symposium essays.

What we’ve learned since the piece went to press, is that some of the trends we identified in our introduction have intensified including widespread distrust in government institutions and the press.

Most disheartening is that public trust in colleges and universities is newly on the decline with sharp partisan differences in views of how colleges and universities affect the US. Today, a majority of Republicans say that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. Of course, one data point is not a trend. Yet, the data seem to portend a degradation in the authority and credibility of academic institutions and expertise. It is perhaps time to consider how we might engage disaffected groups and restore trust in the academy.

The politics of speech on college campuses have become much more salient than it was even a year ago. We correctly identified the persistent threat of bias incidents on our campuses. By the time we went to press, however, we did not fully anticipate  the degree to which debates over campus speech would mobilize our student bodies. Colleges and universities, which have always been sites of debate, have become battlegrounds where provocative speakers test ideological boundaries and dialogue is sometimes thwarted by student protests.

These incidents reveal tensions between the traditions of promoting inclusive values and protecting a diversity of ideological viewpoints, particularly when including all voices might create hostile learning environments. These protests raise both practical and political questions. How do we keep our students safe and protect our institutional commitments to diversity yet guarantee their right to free speech? Who decides which perspectives are appropriate? And how do we balance rights to speech with our academic mission to create, evaluate, and disseminate knowledge on the basis of the quality of ideas?

If our goal, as a discipline, is to create a campus culture that preserves a diversity of thought and where discourse is civil and respectful toward dissent, then our toolbox provides some insights on how to cultivate these environments. Our symposium authors show how to foster classrooms that are brave spaces where contestation is not feared, where diversity of thought is encouraged, and as much thought is dedicated to exploring the purpose of speech and its impact on community as our freedom to engage in it.

The symposium offers insight on ways to foster political participation; promote critical thinking through pedagogical interventions in the classroom; and how to use social media to counteract the negative impact of fake news. Authors offer suggestions for citizens seeking to build majoritarian social movements, increase civic engagement, and prevent bias incidents in their communities. We summarize some of these practical ideas in the toolbox below and invite you to explore the author’s broader arguments.


Political Science Tool Box

  • Design your course syllabi in ways that encourage critical thinking by including readings and assignments that challenge the hegemony of Western and particularly US-centered ideas and narratives and that unearths the power hierarchies present in our discipline. Bidisha Biswas and Shirin Deylami
  • Incorporate hands-on activities that foster critical thinking, prompting students to 1) identify underlying assumptions; 2) challenge them; 3) explore alternatives on the basis of evidence; and 4) consider how pre-existing conceptions affect the interpretation of ideas. Bidisha Biswas and Shirin Deylami
  • Treat this moment of contested politics as a laboratory for the study of political dynamics and invite your students to study in the laboratory alongside you. Michael T. Heaney
  • Design your classroom as a brave space where you encourage and model healthy and vigorous exchange of views and foster diversity of thought. Bidisha Biswas and Shirin Deylami
  • Promote values of inclusiveness and tolerance in big, public ways on your campus (and in your community) and speak out as loudly and publicly as possibly against hate speech to prevent (and not just respond) to hate crimes and bullying. Elizabeth Levy Paluck and Michael Suk-Young Chwe
  • Identify the members of your campus community who have the potential to be “elite influencers” – individuals who will be better than others at delegitimizing hatred and violence – and work with them to organize events and activities on campus that promote unity and decry hate. Elizabeth Levy Paluck and Michael Suk-Young Chwe
  • Work with faculty peers, staff, and administrators to prepare your students for a life of engaged citizenship by helping students register to vote, participate in political discussions, and learn how to communicate with elected officials. Carrie P. Eaves and Jason A. Husser
  • Counter partisan polarization by helping student activists build solidarity networks that cross partisan and ideological boundaries to address common issues of concern. Michael T. Heaney; Alison Brysk
  • Dust off the “teach-in” or start a series of TED-style talks which create opportunities for student learning about the key policy issues being debated across our communities so that can formulate opinions about them and join the policy conversation.
  • Participate in rights-based citizen action beyond traditional political party structures, including standing with our students and communities to defend human rights and democratic values whenever they are under threat. This may include organizing or attending unity rallies in response to acts of hate or organizing civic actions like calling or writing to elected officials on important pieces of legislation. Introduction; Alison Brysk
  • Respond to the challenge that social media and the proliferation of fake news poses by establishing your own social media presence. Joshua Busby
  • Help to promote a new ethos of cross-ideological conversation through online engagement in the form of blogs and social media posts on facebook, twitter and other social networks. Joshua Busby
  • Defend against the dehumanization of targeted groups by building demonstrating solidarity with them.. Introduction; Alison Brysk
  • Guard and speak out against the dismantling of rights-protective institutions and the privatization of state-based coercive institutions like prisons and police forces. Amy Widestrom; Alison Brysk
  • Advocate for investment in neighborhood-level institutions like voluntary associations and churches and promote civic engagement in your local K-12 schools. Support policies that promote economically-integrated neighborhoods like inclusive zoning laws. Amy Widestrom