University Urges Dialogue, Not Partisanship, in Wake of Election

Students, faculty and staff voiced their concerns about the presidential election results to GW leadership at a town hall.

Image of student at town hall
A student speaks up at Tuesday's town hall. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
November 30, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

Administrators and student leaders at the George Washington University urged community members to stay open to respectful dialogue in the aftermath of November’s presidential election.

The GW Student Association convened a town hall Tuesday afternoon with George Washington President Steven Knapp and five other panelists to address student, faculty and staff concerns about the tone and outcome of the presidential campaign.

The panel also comprised Forrest Maltzman, university provost and executive vice president for academic affairs; Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Student Services Center; Thomas Falcigno, executive vice president of the Student Association; Peter Konwerski, vice provost and dean of student affairs; and Caroline Laguerre-Brown, vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement.

Dr. Knapp emphasized that the university’s priorities and values would not change based on the election of Donald Trump, whose divisive campaign rhetoric has spurred large-scale student protests and walkouts on campuses across the United States.

“We know where we stand, and we know what our values are,” Dr. Knapp said. “The question is how best to protect our students.”

Added Dr. Maltzman: “The university is a non-partisan institution, but it’s not a value-free institution. And our values do not change just because there’s an election.”

Several students grew emotional as they voiced their concerns. Some said they felt personally threatened as members of communities targeted in Mr. Trump’s rhetoric.

One graduate student identified herself as a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an immigration policy allowing certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. Mr. Trump has said that he will deport as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants upon taking office.

“I’ve been in the U.S. for 14 years, and I’ve never felt so unwanted as after the election,” the student said through tears.

She thanked Dr. Knapp for joining more than 180 other university presidents in signing a letter to the president-elect in support of DACA. “I feel like you guys have my back,” she said.

Students who identified themselves as conservative said they felt unwelcome discussing their opinions in spaces where teachers and classmates had voiced liberal views.

One student said that, having heard faculty members discuss support for protesters, he felt “the deck was stacked against [him]” as a supporter of President-elect Trump.

Panelists said they were talking to deans at individual schools about how faculty should comport themselves, stressing that behavior crossing the line into retaliation is illegal and should be brought to administrative attention.

The overarching theme was of open communication and dialogue.

Dr. Konwerski, whose office prepared a resources handout for the town hall attendees, urged students to attend events outside their comfort zones. Mr. Tapscott said the MSSC would host “honest hours” and campus conversations on race and encouraged those present to participate outside of their siloed communities.

“We don’t talk enough. We don’t talk across the table. We tend to get into our pockets, and we hunker down and lob concerns from one side to the other,” Mr. Tapscott said. “I’m not saying we’re going to completely agree. This isn’t a Kumbaya happy moment for everybody. But the reality is we still have to talk, and we still have to share, and we still have to treat each other with dignity and respect.”

Mr. Falcigno, a senior in the School of Media and Public Affairs, urged his fellow students to bring their concerns to the Student Association as well as to the administration and to each other.

“One thing I love about this university is how strongly students feel and how passionate they are about their views,” he said. “I’d never want to see that damaged, because…I think that’s what makes this university really great.”

Panelists also recalled the way difficult historical moments had shaped their own paths. Dr. Knapp said he had “learned to walk through tear gas” as an undergraduate and protester in New Haven, Conn., during the trial of members of the Black Panther Party.

Ms. Laguerre-Brown recalled being a student during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, spurred by the acquittal of the white police officers who had beaten black motorist Rodney King.

“It was my first exposure to people who had a completely different perspective than I did on what was going on,” she said. “I had been crying for three days, watching the news. I was really sad, and I sympathized with the people in that community. So hearing my colleagues refer to the rioters as ‘animals,’ saying they didn’t deserve to be treated like human beings—that was devastating to me.

“I remember, those days and some of the days afterwards, having some of the toughest conversations about racism I had ever had in my life—conversations that brought me to tears and made me angry,” she said. “But those conversations and those experiences changed me. I would not trade them for anything, and I wouldn’t have anybody shield me from hearing what other people think.”

The panel emphasized that dialogue did not mean creating a false equivalency between hate speech and politics, or between real and fictional concerns.

“One of the interesting things about this campaign has been the extent to which facts themselves were under pressure—this idea that everything is a matter of bias,” Dr. Knapp said.

To some extent, he said, academics have long acknowledged that all thinkers and interpreters of thought bring their own preconceptions to bear.

“But we have to balance that understanding with the fact that we still have to uphold certain standards of evidence, standards of research, integrity of data and so on. That’s going to be a role for universities in this rather challenging time when facts themselves appear to be a target in some circles,” Dr. Knapp said.

“We have to be very forthright in saying that we have a mission—we have a commitment to truth, a commitment to knowledge and to debate, and we can’t be intimidated because there are a lot of ideas right now that are hostile to open dialogue,” he said.