Trump vs. Ripon College

Ripon College president Zach Messitte, a former CNN producer before he entered the academic world:

As a political scientist and president of a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, I’m looking forward to the fall. I’ll have a chance to teach 18- to 22-year-olds during the run-up to a historic presidential election. It’ll likely dominate discourse in the classroom, cafeteria and even keg parties.

This raises the question — how should professors talk about Donald Trump? Is there a way to teach this subject in a thoughtful way, pushing beyond the name-calling and apocalyptic predictions? I believe there is.

In conversations with my faculty colleagues, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, I think it’s fine for professors to acknowledge Trump’s narrow-minded rhetoric. If Trump were a student, he would have already been called into the dean’s office to explain comments about women, minorities, immigrants, veterans and people with disabilities. My college’s core values celebrate and protect differences of perspective, background and heritage. Relationships on college campuses are supposed to be friendly, welcoming and supportive. (In Trump’s worldview, however, it is precisely this kind of academic environment that has led to the United States’ general decline. “I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness,” he said. “And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”)

Second, I hope our faculty spends some of the fall semester explaining Trump’s political rise to their students, because the real story lies beyond political science. Understanding Trump and his supporters means having a deep knowledge of words like “empathy,” “tolerance,” “power” and “narcissism.” History, literature, economics, philosophy, religion, communications and sociology all offer important insights. One of my psychology department colleagues told me that students will be very tempted to take their newfound knowledge and apply it to the Republican nominee’s bizarre behavior, though the American Psychiatric Association just warned its members not to do so. Another professor in the communications department said she plans to hold a class discussion on Trump’s discourses, focusing on how he speaks to people’s fears and creates an illusion of identification and credibility for voters.* There will be assigned readings.

I know some professors and students think it might be easier to just avoid the subject of Trump altogether. But we need to resist that urge. Professors should dive right into the big question: How can we be open-minded in the face of Trump’s bigotry? How can we extend that empathy and thoughtfulness even to those we disagree with?

We need to extend these qualities to the victims of Trump’s bigotry. But we also need to listen and respect those students and professors who support Trump. That 19-year-old supporter just starting his sophomore year shouldn’t be dismissed automatically as a racist for supporting Trump. He’s a stand-in for our next-door neighbor, your child’s softball coach and my cousin’s spouse. Keeping the classroom open for discussion slows a student retreat to the anonymous online world of Yik Yak, where college-aged Trump supporters troll hate without ever directly engaging their classmates. That means that the possibility of ever broadening their perspectives organically will be lost.

There will be tense points and tempers may well flare. Why are Trump’s most ardent supporters rural whites without a college degree? Why does he belittle those he disagrees with? Where does his worldview and his preoccupation with Vladimir Putin come from? But there is a way to have these discussions in the classroom with respect. It will be up to our professors to defend the right to hold an unpopular position, even one that we strongly disagree with. Because if colleges and universities want to remain a training ground for future leaders, an incubator for new ideas or a place where a future political consensus is forged, civil discourse is a fundamental part of that higher calling.

This will not be an easy task, but it is a crucial one. While professors and administrators need to do everything they can to make sure that their campuses promote free speech, they also need to maintain civility and basic decency. And that’s tricky. Beyond higher education, how the nation wrestles with this same conundrum is important — and not just in the run-up to the election. In the weeks and months after Nov. 8, the country is going to have to understand what Donald Trump and Trumpism means going forward. Win or lose, it is critical that we study and interpret what his candidacy signifies beyond American politics. How the nation’s teachers integrate understanding Trumpism into their classrooms this fall, regardless of discipline, will go a long way toward finding some common ground with the 40-something percent of the voting population that supports him.

Campus Reform took what Messitte wrote and put a substantial negative spin while adding:

Despite his apparent hostility toward Trump, Messitte does urge students and faculty to listen respectfully to their classmates and colleagues who support Trump, though according to a Harvard survey, only 25 percent of Millennials say they are likely to vote for Trump, whereas 61 percent would vote for Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head contest.

Faculty support for liberal candidates is even more staggering, with 99.51 percent of political contributions at top liberal arts colleges going to Democrats. Among those who donated to presidential campaigns, contributions averaged $1,043.75 for Hillary Clinton and $323.73 for Bernie Sanders.

Messitte’s most objectionable statement is his assertion that “If Trump were a student, he would have already been called into the dean’s office to explain comments about women, minorities, immigrants, veterans and people with disabilities.” (Where to begin?) There can be a fine line between free expression and being a jerk. Such an experience could bring home the real-world lesson that the First Amendment need not apply to the private sector, and sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut and express your opinions in the polling booth than in public.

On the other hand, to put on my cynical face for a moment, one wonders if as a tuition-dependent college (as most private colleges are) Ripon College would really expel from campus one of its students who, using this example, comes from a rich family of potential future college donors.

Beyond that, perhaps it’s because, unlike the Campus Reform writer, I have actually spoken face to face with Messitte, but I have a hard time getting wound up about this. Perhaps it’s that in five years at UW–Madison I argued, when I thought it was worth doing, non-liberal points of view in classes and was not expelled from the university. I know present and former Ripon professors, and yes, many are quite liberal. It is safe to assert as a 13-year resident of Ripon that Ripon College is certainly the most liberal thing in Ripon.

If you actually read Messitte’s column, or previous opinions he’s written, you’d read that he is actually a defender of free speech, unlike some other college administrators. (See Shalala, Donna, “speech codes.” By the way, Shalala was mostly great for UW–Madison with one major exception, along with not firing football coach Don Mor(t)on immediately upon arriving in Madison.) Is the objection that professors are liberal (and they mostly are), or that they hate Trump? If it’s the latter, the population of Trump haters is much, much larger than college professors.

Readers know that I am not a believer in the echo chamber. I have made appearances in such non-conservative places as Wisconsin Public Radio, the Sly radio show(s), and The Scene tabloid. I don’t think your viewpoint gains anything by talking only to people with whom you mostly agree. Your views do not necessarily make you correct, and you certainly won’t find that out unless you find someone with whom you don’t generally agree and try your persuasive skills.

As someone who worked in higher education for a college probably as liberal as Ripon College (and my former employer is my favorite employer in my career), I see complaints about liberalism in academia and education as reflecting a certain lack of faith in your own parenting skills and in your children’s reasoning skills. Just like when I was growing up, I have had discussions in the Presteblog world headquarters about things our kids have learned in school, and if they seem to me inaccurate I point that out. Ultimately it’s up to them to decide which views are correct, though I always have the ability to assign dishwashing duties until Armageddon.

One also wonders sometimes whether objections to the liberalism of college professors are motivated by concern over constitutional rights, or opposition to constitutional rights expressed differently from your own. Freedom of expression has to apply to everyone, or it means nothing.

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One thought on “Trump vs. Ripon College

  1. Too much “love” for Zach here Steve. His comments were inappropriate and anti-free speech. Say I’m a student at Ripon College and I’m in Professor Messitte’s class. I adamantly argue Trump’s true positions on “women, minorities, immigrants, veterans and people with disabilities.” Messitte, based on what he thinks Trump said, is going to frog-walk me to Dean Wiggenbach’s office. And when I protest that my free speech has been violated, I appeal to President Messitte (Wiggenbach’s boss). That’s a fair process? That’s what my tuition is funding? I am not a Trump supporter and never will be. But Messitte’s comments about Trump’s positions show an absolute ignorance unbecoming a sitting college president — especially one that is a political scientist. You and I both know, from our time in Academia, that college is supposed to be about the free exchange of ideas and the challenging of those ideas. We’ve heard our liberal bosses repeat that tired line routinely but that is what college is supposed to be. It’s not about frog-walking students to the dean’s office if they say something with which we disagree. Sad to see Zach sink so low.

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