Universities Don’t Have to Be Part of the Problem

If you do a Google search of the words ‘free speech’ one of the first results is ‘free speech under attack.’ Today, free speech is frequently under attack. The media only fans the flames of this issue by broadcasting protests at universities nationwide and promoting distress in what they cover.

But I believe in the power of positivity and that is why I write this article today: to show some of the good things happening on college campuses nowadays with regards to civic participation. I go to the University of Notre Dame and on Monday night, I was very proud of that fact. The Office of the President spent a significant amount of money to have an absolutely massive screen put out on the quad for the debate watch. Of an undergraduate population of eight thousand about two thousand people showed up to watch the debate in community with one another and engaged in our political process. I almost cheered when I saw it because for me that screen represented something more: it represented that Notre Dame wants their students to be politically engaged. It represented that Notre Dame was willing to sacrifice significant resources for this cause as well.

Some people might question how much the university spent on the screen or on providing eight different local food trucks for free as a waste of money, but I do not. More than anything, millennials want to share things with one another (think Uber); our generation is not solitary or prone to isolation. We are a giant community. Politics ought to be about community too, and this was a perfect way to do it. I saw people calmly discussing the issues brought up in the debate, and laughing when funny comments were made or when either candidate made a silly face (there were many of those moments). We need to promote this positive political environment more broadly. Universities should provide students with an atmosphere to practice respectful civic discourse and to get engaged in the political process.

Universities, in short, do not have to be part of the problem; rather, they can be part of the solution to the problem of millennial engagement in politics.

I see good things happening at Notre Dame, and I assume that at many other universities around this country there have been similar instances of healthy dialogue. Among the positive developments at Notre Dame is the creation of a joint student and administrator team which has signed up thousands of students to receive an absentee ballot. For the first time in its history, Notre Dame is hosting a mock debate and a mock election to engage students. Notre Dame is using social media to reach out to students about voting as well.

Now obviously Notre Dame is not perfect, but I hope that what we do will inspire other universities to pay attention to what their university does to address the problem of such low rates of civic participation among millennials. If you think something needs to change, bring it up. Make sure your school has innovative ways to encourage absentee voting, hosts debate watches, considers a mock election, and together we can bring positive change to campus.

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