"What Universities Owe Democracy"
As the midterm elections approach on November 8, an important voting bloc – those ages 18 to 24 – will get an opportunity to make their voices heard.
For some, it will be their first vote, and it is an opportunity to make a meaningful statement about the future of their country.
But as important as the process of voting is, the question is also worth asking why you are voting. And for what are you voting? And for whom?
I recently read a book that impacted me profoundly titled, “What Universities Owe Democracy.” Written by Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels with Grant Shreve and Phillip Spector, the book tries to answer the basic, yet very complicated, question: How does a university best foster democracy in our society?
This question is paramount and quintessential to higher education’s place in the current democratic process and how universities strive to meet that challenge.
The author’s contention is that students today should not simply vote — they also must understand the importance of voting and what is at stake when they cast their ballot.
For our student voters, that means educating themselves, knowing the issues and the candidates, and understanding that EVERY vote counts. CMU can, and must, play a role in that.
President Daniels writes that at a moment when democracy is endangered and more countries are heading toward autocracy than at any time in a generation, it is critical for today's colleges and universities to re-establish their place in democracy.
The authors advocate for the concept of “purposeful pluralism,” and quote George Washington, who said that the university is the ideal place to, “enable students to transcend what might sometimes seems to be irreconcilable differences of thought and background by living alongside one another, sharing honestly their beliefs and presuppositions, and challenging one another’s ideas.”
This needs to be our charge as well: to ensure purposeful pluralism and to encourage the thorough examination of our ideas and thoughts. An important place to start is voting.
At CMU, the foundation for that is well established.
For example, on Tuesday night, the Fall 2022 Griffin Forum “Ballot Breakdown” was held at Bovee University Center. The event was hosted in partnership with the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center, the League of Women Voters, the Institute for Transformative Dialogue, CM-Life and the Central Michigan Voter Coalition.
The forum explained the three ballot proposals in the Michigan election, offering a spokesperson in support of and one opposed to each initiative. That is how the process should work: Provide a forum, offer both sides, and let the voter make the decision.
In my recent State of the University Address, I spoke about the important and wide-ranging efforts of Central Votes, the Central Voter Coalition and the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center for their work to educate and engage student voters.
I also spoke of my admiration for teacher education professor emeritus Dr. Norma Bailey and School of Health and Sciences faculty member Dr. Jodi Brookins-Fisher, who work and educate students on civic engagement.
As a result of these efforts, over the past two years, CMU student voter participation has surged, surpassing the national average.
These efforts will get a further boost on campus this Friday thanks to two grants, totaling $8,000, from MTV. With that funding, CMU will host the “Vote Early Day Spooktacular” in front of the U.C. It will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and costumed volunteers will help students make a voting plan, provide nonpartisan information about candidates and issues in their area and help students register if they haven’t done so.
“What Universities Owe Democracy” speaks powerfully about higher education’s role in providing the education and information students need at a period when being informed could not be more important.
President Daniels writes, “It is painfully clear the universities cannot simply assume their students will absorb the precepts of citizenship. As the arc of history has taught us again and again, democratic citizenship must be learned. Universities must do their part to teach it.”
Educated, informed, engaged voters can move mountains. Do not believe for a moment that even a single vote doesn’t matter.
On November 8, America will once again put the remarkable concept of democracy to the test. And CMU students can do their part in this fragile, remarkable process.
Democracy deserves nothing less.