Thoughts on the election of 2016

Campus Compact is founded on a commitment to democracy. Democracy includes fair and free elections, but fair and free elections do not define democracy. Democratic communities, because they rely on equal voice for all, are structured around commitments to equal dignity and mutual respect. So it is particularly hard to know how to react when an election yields a victory for a candidate who has repeatedly undermined the core values of democracy.

As I reflect on that challenge, my first conclusion is that it is important not to overstate what we can deduce from this election. The winning candidate won 47.5% of votes cast, good enough for second place in the popular vote. Under our Constitution, a candidate can win the presidency without winning the support of a majority or even a plurality of voters, so there is nothing illegitimate about the victory. But it would be a mistake to conclude that all, or even most, Americans have embraced the views of a candidate who garners such a vote total.

The bigger question at the moment is how we protect our democracy in the face of this outcome. I am convinced that the only chance we have is to fortify the institutions in our society committed to openness, diversity, human dignity, and truth. That is the lesson of societies contending with leaders with authoritarian values—which is, as of today, what we are. We have to face our situation honestly and be prepared to fight together to preserve what so many have given so much to build.

If any college or university is not focused today on the need to rebuild a democratic civic culture that values equity and inclusion, that has to change. If any faculty member or president believes that something else matters more than preparing students to be democratic citizens who act on behalf of humane values and the most vulnerable in our midst, we have to help them see past that. Nothing else that an institution of higher education does is remotely as important. Our job is to ensure that no one fails to see that.

The work of Campus Compact and our many partners has always mattered, but it has never mattered more than today. In various ways, the environment is likely to make our work harder in the coming months and years. It will also make our work more essential. I am feeling today that I have to get better at what I do. I want to work with partners within and beyond the Campus Compact network to ensure that we rise to this challenge.

My father, Walter Seligsohn, was a holocaust refugee. He left Germany in 1940 with his mother and sister; he was 14. His own father, my grandfather, stayed behind to help smuggle Jews out of Europe and ultimately died in a Nazi camp. My father found in the United States what he had never experienced during his childhood under the Nazi regime–an open society where he and his family could pursue their lives according to their own beliefs and plans without fear of oppression. Before World War II was over, my father, who had fled Europe just a few years before, proudly served in the United States Army. He believed fervently in American democracy, though he was clear-eyed about the fact that its benefits had never been available to all on an equal basis. As a lawyer, he always saw his role as pushing our institutions to live up to the values and commitments embedded in our fundamental laws. My father died in 2014, the month before I started at Campus Compact. He was immensely proud that my siblings and I had chosen careers focused on service. Throughout the 2016 campaign, I was glad my father did not have to see our democracy besmirched by attacks on immigrants, refugees, women, and minorities. I was particularly thankful that he did not experience the resurgent anti-Semitism on display. Today, despite all that has happened, I do not feel ready to give up on the American democracy my father held so dear.

All of us who work every day to ensure that higher education rises to the challenge of its public purposes now must gather our own strength in our own ways. Then we must get back to work with even greater focus, clarity, and energy. I feel stronger knowing that we will do that work together.

 

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