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Statement of Academic Senate Presidency Regarding Post-Election Classroom Conversations

October 30, 2020

Dear Teaching Faculty Colleagues:

By November 4, 2020, citizens will have already cast their vote for President. We may not know the final election results for some time, but the election results and what it means for our country will be foremost on everyone’s mind, including our students.  Many are predicting legal actions challenging certain aspects of the election relating to voter suppression, ballot tampering and fraud and some are predicting civil unrest and mass protests regardless of the outcome. We live in a time of great uncertainty and we know that being a college student in 2020 is exceptionally stressful as evidenced by the increased mental health challenges being felt on every campus. As faculty, most of us will be in our classrooms – on campus, in Zoom, and on Canvas – on November 4th and possibly for weeks afterward while the country may be in turbulence. Students in our classrooms immediately after the election no doubt will want to dialogue about what is happening. We expect this will occur on campuses throughout our country.

As faculty at a public university, we know we are public employees and are forbidden from engaging in election campaigning activities while at work. We also know that freedom of expression is an essential part of the work we do as a university and that students, as well as faculty, enjoy certain free speech rights.  We are living in a highly polarized and divisive political environment, emotionally exacerbated by the stresses of the pandemic. It is likely that students will have strong views and emotions surrounding the election, regardless of the outcome, and worries about what the election results portend for their future.  No doubt, the election aftermath will offer many learning opportunities and as faculty we should be prepared to manage them appropriately and with civility and de-escalate any inappropriate conduct.

In light of the above, your Senate Presidency offers the following thoughts that we hope will be helpful for faculty and graduate teaching assistants to consider as we continue to navigate our way through this challenging year.

1.     Prior to Election Day: Think in advance about how you will handle politically charged discussions in your class, whether your class be on campus, in a Zoom room, in a Canvas discussion forum, or other location. Have a plan.

  • You may be able to rely on your existing classroom practices and norms. Reminding students in advance of the existing class policies and norms can help to set expectations for civility, including reminding some students that certain statements such as “black lives matter or “all lives matter” may be considered offensive by some.
  • You may find it helpful to ask students to collaborate with you on civility guidelines for use in your course that is specific to discussions of the election and related political issues.
  • Start a dialogue between your own department colleagues and unit head about how best to support your students and classes.
  • Review and be aware of non-violent de-escalation best practices for potential incidents or altercations, such as those provided by the Crisis Prevention Institute.

2.     Election Day and Beyond:

Caring for Students and Reporting Incidents

  • Recognize that whatever the election outcomes may be, you may encounter individuals who have very strong political views, have been subjected to adverse personal experiences or who have a highly emotional reaction to the election. Remember, that we will have students in our classes whose political leanings run the gamut from ultra-liberal to ultra-conservative.  Practice kindness and compassion. Be sensitive to the many reactions students may have: anger, fear, sadness, shock, happiness, pride, or satisfaction. Recognize the emotions in the room and address them.
  • Give students the chance to speak their minds. You may find it helpful to ask simple, exploratory questions without aggression. Doing so can open up communication and clarify the root of the student’s beliefs so that you know what information you need to convey. Asking for more information may also let students encounter their own biases. Take affirmative steps to help insure that offensive language  is not welcome in a civil classroom dialogue.
  • Regardless of the outcome of the election, actions that violate the University’s non-discrimination policy or anti-harassment policy are not acceptable, period. The University’s Safe U program makes it clear that bias, discrimination, racism, bigotry, hate or violence have no place on campus. Please do not ignore discriminatory behavior, as silence would suggest that you tacitly approve. Moreover, University Rule 1-012 requires all faculty to report Title IX and other discrimination incidents immediately.  Actions involving sexual misconduct and discrimination should be reported to the University Office of Equal Opportunity https://oeo.utah.edu/ .  Actions involving bias and discrimination should be reported to the Office for Inclusive Excellence https://inclusive-excellence.utah.edu/index.php.  Other student behavioral misconduct should be reported to the Dean of Students Office. https://deanofstudents.utah.edu/ The web pages for these offices have online forms for incident reporting. You may obtain additional information concerning the reporting process by calling the DOS office at (801) 581-7066 or going to https://safeu.utah.edu/how-do-i-report/
  • The University has created a Race and Bias Incident Response Team that oversees the responses to bias incidents.  More information about this team may be found at https://diversity.utah.edu/initiatives/bias/   
  1. Deciding whether to report an incident becomes more difficult if the potentially discriminatory or harassing actions are just speech (words or images only), as students have free speech rights.  Those rights are not, however, unlimited, and we recommend that you consult with the DOS office before attempting to restrict or bar student speech on the basis of the speaker’s viewpoint.
  2. When you see problematic images or speech on a student’s Zoom background, in their home or in a profile picture, it should be treated the same as the student wearing that speech on a shirt or hat in a physical classroom.  Please consult with the DOS, OEO or OIE in individual cases.
  • Of course, in an emergency or acts or threats of violence you should call 911 or Campus Police immediately (801) 585-COPS.
  • Remind students to balance their needs of being informed and the risks of being over-exposed to social media. Suggest that students limit “doom scrolling” if they are having difficulty coping.        
  • There are many campus resources available to students, such as the University Counseling Center https://counselingcenter.utah.edu/  (where extra clinicians are available throughout the week); the Center for Student Wellness https://wellness.utah.edu/ (which is hosting group wellness sessions for students the day of the election); the Bennion Center https://bennioncenter.org/  (is hosting an online “Post-Election Exhale” for students, staff and faculty on November 4th between noon and 1:30 pm.); the LGBTQ+ Resource Center https://lgbt.utah.edu/ and the Dean of Students Office https://deanofstudents.utah.edu/ , among others.  ASUU https://www.asuu.utah.edu/ is also hosting a series of activities the entire post-election week with various self-care resources being offered, including a swag bag.
  • This may be a particularly important time to closely monitor Zoom chat conversations (or consider turning off the feature) where expressions of feelings may easily be seen. Where you see a student who is particularly upset, please be sure to reach out and refer them to resources (regardless of their viewpoint).
  1. Keep in mind that you have a lot of control over content in your classroom (online or in-person), but once you open up a discussion on a particular content area, you are generally limited in restricting viewpoints in that content area. 
  2. We advise that you be thoughtful in how you shape the content that you would like students to discuss.  We also advise that you strive to have any political discussion be germane to the course content of your class.
  3.  You have a lot of control over the manner and timing of speech also.  Just as in the physical classroom, you can insist upon students using certain evidence, methodology, professional norms, particular numbers of comments, not interrupting, etc.
  • Remember that you, as the host in Zoom, have the power to mute or move students to the waiting room who are being disruptive or otherwise violating University policy or your classroom rules.  Please ensure that you are generally applying your rules in a viewpoint neutral rule, such that all disruptive or uncivil behavior or speech is handled similarly (whether you agree with the viewpoint or not).

 

Caring for U of U Employees

  • Faculty, staff, and other University employees may also experience some strong emotional reactions to the election outcomes. Please take care of your own mental and emotional health and ask for help if you need it.  And, be sensitive to the feelings of staff and express your support and willingness to be flexible in these distressing times. There are many campus resources available to both faculty and staff, including many of the resources listed above and you should encourage staff to avail themselves of these resources.

 

Thank you for all you do for the U of U community in this challenging year, and always.

The foregoing statement has been adapted from a similar, albeit a significantly revised, statement that the Academic Senate at Oregon State University distributed to OSU faculty and circulated to the PAC-12 Academic Leadership Coalition.

Regards,

Randy Dryer, Senate President,                                                                                                         

Julio Facelli, Senate Past President                                                                                    

Christy Porucznik, Senate President-Elect