14 December 2016

College Presidents Respond to Students' Trauma over Trump's Election

Stephen Kershnar
A Mistaken Response to Donald Trump’s Election
Dunkirk Fredonia Observer
December 5, 2016

            A fight has broken out over how university administrators should respond to Donald Trump’s election. Underlying the fight is the question of how universities should view students.

            A number of university presidents responded to Trump’s election by reporting students’ traumatic feelings. Consider the comments of State University of New York at Fredonia’s president Virginia Horvath. “[T]here was considerable disappointment in the room as the numbers of electoral votes moved closer to 270. ... Students of Color, LGBTQ students, international students, students with disabilities were dismayed—not a strong enough word—and reported to me, again and again, that the country apparently voted that they don’t matter.” She continued, “There was a lot of confusion and shock. A number of people reported physical signs of trauma: sick to their stomachs, shaking, and numb. Many were crying and holding one another.”

            She then channeled their sense of oppression, “The social media comments from students continued through the rest of the night, with people expressing fear, inability to sleep, anger, and profound sadness at what they saw as affirmations of the racism, misogyny, and disrespect they associated with the campaign.” Horvath said what university presidents across the country were saying.

            University of Colorado at Boulder president Phillip DiStefano said, “You may find yourself with friends, classmates or colleagues who do not share the same reactions as you. … In some cases, you, or others close to you, may feel you are experiencing or witnessing negative treatment or more subtle forms of oppression, perhaps related to the election or perhaps because of your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, country of origin, political thought or other aspect of your identity.” DiStefano then gave therapeutic advice in telling students and others how to respond to the election, “Connect with friends, family, a community or a safe space to ground and support you. … Take care of basic needs such as eating, sleeping and drinking water. Incorporate activities that recharge and relax you.”

            Students elsewhere reacted similarly. The Daily Signal reported that at an event sponsored by Planned Parenthood, Cornell University students staged a “cry-in” following Clinton’s defeat. Students dressed in black and held signs saying “He’s not my president” and similar things. At American University, 200 students gathered in protest and some burned an American flag. UCLA students burned a Trump piƱata. Yale students responded with a coordinated primal scream.

            Writing in WorldNetDaily.com, conservative intellectual Jack Cashill criticized Horvath’s comments. First, he argued that Horvath was wrong to take the charge of racism seriously and that her doing so defamed Chautauqua County residents. He argued that Chautauqua County voted for Obama in 2008 and this is evidence that the county is not racist.

I might add that Trump is well-known as a long-time supporter of the gay community, both financially and personally, and well before it became popular to do so. He even opposed the North Carolina bathroom law. None of this is news to anyone who followed the election. 

Second, Cashill claimed that Fredonia students had a demeaning view of the county’s voters. He argued that voters’ preferences for Trump were not unreasonable.  He points out that the county’s poverty rate is 20% and 57% of the county’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. The county’s voters might reasonably have thought that the status quo is not cutting it and preferred policies other than more debilitating handouts. Cashill suggested that Horvath should have shown more respect for the county’s residents by telling the students, “You sniveling little elitist. Grow up quick or get the hell out of here.”

Third, encouraging hothouse-flower sensitivity is not good for the students. The country is split along two very different worldviews and the left will not win every vote or Supreme Court decision. Validating students’ trauma, shock, and crying suggests that such oversensitivity is legitimate. Americans, including leading intellectuals, differ as to whether the Bible prohibits homosexuality, whether it should let in another 25% of Mexico, and whether the government should further socialize medicine and education. Students would gain more by rigorously discussing these issues than by citing trauma to excuse themselves from engaging with their opponents. Even if they are confident in the left’s solutions to these issues, students might still learn about the reasons that best support these solutions, improve their ability to think through such issues, or gain some helpful insight in the otherwise mistaken conservative views.

Fourth, there is no doubt that if, following the election, evangelical Christians, pro-lifers, or College Republicans were depressed, angry, or crying, college presidents wouldn't worry about them, let alone send out memos asking us to sympathize with their trauma. In crediting their concern with voters' racism, homophobia, etc. the presidents adopt the view of the far left critics of Trump voters. This is not an intellectually respectable position. Even if it were, they are free to broadcast their views, but should not use state channels to do so.  

The broader issue is whether universities should view students as adults and intellectuals or as vulnerable teenagers who shouldn’t be expected to handle political discussions. By comparison, no one would say the same thing about young Marines disappointed by the election that they said about students. Universities will eventually have to decide whether to continue to spend more on therapeutic and other support services and less on classroom programs, especially in the most demanding majors (for example, chemistry, math, and history). They will also have to decide whether to encourage the faculty to lower standards to match some students’ poor work habits, psychological vulnerabilities, and inadequate college preparation. These decisions dovetail with the attitude one takes toward them as disappointed voters.  

Universities shouldn’t baby students about the election. It validates a false and demeaning view of voters, encourages oversensitivity, and reflects universities’ far left bias. It also incorporates a view of students as children rather than adult intellectuals.