When the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters reached out to Elon University last spring to see if it would be wiling to host a gubernatorial or senatorial debate, Elon jumped at the opportunity.
Elon saw the debate as a way to engage community members in the political process, expose students to prominent figures and strengthen the university’s national reputation. As conversations about hosting a debate began to take shape, the university faced several challenges.
Prospects of hosting the senatorial debate appeared to be in good shape, but the campaigns failed to set a date. Elon tried to hold off on booking speakers, but its hands were tied by the end of the summer.
Equipment set-up, rehearsal and teardown would have been a four-day process. When the campaigns finally came out with a proposal in late August, it was already too late.
The proposed debate date was Oct. 3, which would have been the day before Kathleen Parker’s Baird Pulitzer Prize lecture and days after Fall Convocation with Bob Woodward, Vint Cerf’s sold-out “Internet of Things” talk and Family Weekend.
“It wasn’t for lack of desire, but it was that it just logistically didn’t work out,” said Dan Anderson, Elon’s vice president for University Communications.
Though efforts to host a debate were unsuccessful, they reflect Elon’s growing desire to host premium political events on campus.
Role of Schar Center
Jon Dooley, assistant vice president for Student Life, sees the new Schar Center as the avenue through which Elon hosts these types of events in the future.
“There’s a lot that goes into hosting those kinds of events: the candidate schedules, the moderator schedules but also having the venue that has the technological capacity and also the availability to host an event like that,” Dooley said. “We think the Schar Center will give us that opportunity.”
The Schar Center, which could be ready as early as fall 2018, will seat more than 5,000 people. Elon President Leo Lambert said he hopes the new facility will make Elon more competitive if and when it decides to apply to hold a 2020 presidential debate.
“We’ve not had the facility to do it before now, but the Schar Center, I think, presents us with a real shot at that … I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t make a valiant try to do that in 2020,” Lambert said.
Longwood University, which has a smaller student population than Elon, recently hosted the vice presidential debate. Lambert and several other administrators point to this example to prove that a small institution like Elon has a legitimate chance to host a major political debate.
Paradox of engagement: The student perspective
University offers students plethora of opportunities
Elon’s involvement in the political process has evolved dramatically throughout the last few years, and students have been given numerous engagement opportunities. From voting to attending candidate events to participating in student debates, the possibilities are virtually limitless.
Voting is one of the main ways Elon is looking to educate students.
Elon Votes! formed before the 2014 midterm elections with the goal of increasing voter turnout and encouraging students to make informed decisions.
Bob Frigo, faculty adviser of Elon Votes! and associate director of the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement, discussed the need to simplify the registration process for students.
“We want students to vote at the end of the day, and we are trying to make things as easy as possible for students to cast that ballot, whether it be here in North Carolina or from the state of their permanent residence,” Frigo said.
Elon Votes! has already registered more than 800 students since August and has sponsored several on-campus events, including the first presidential debate watch party, which saw 300 people packed inside the Moseley Center.
“We don’t want students to become single-issue voters,” said June Shuler, a senior and coordinator for Elon Votes!. “We want them to be informed and know what’s going on.”
Other groups have recently emerged to increase student involvement in the political process and facilitate dialogue.
The Political Engagement Work Group — comprised of faculty and staff, students from the Kernodle Center, Elon Votes! representatives and several other groups on campus — is only a year old. It formed as a nonpartisan collaborative team in 2015 with the purpose of implementing voter education activities and increasing engagement.
There is also a smaller administrator-led Political Activities Working Group that approves candidate appearances, campaign events, voter registration events and university-sponsored political forums.
Dooley helps oversee the Political Activities Working Group and is also the co-chair of Elon’s longstanding Council on Civic Engagement.
“The council is really focused on promoting civic engagement and participation of students on campus in a range of experiences,” Dooley said.
Civic engagement experiences extend beyond politics and could include community service and service learning.
Carrie Eaves, assistant professor of political science, is a member of the Political Engagement Work Group, Council on Civic Engagement and recently took over as the Elon coordinator for the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement.
With Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton having high unfavorable ratings, Eaves recognizes the political process might turn off some students.. Even so, she said other students might feel more impassioned and elevate their voices in the wake of a heated election year.
“It’s probably a wash,” Eaves said. “Some people are turned off by the process because of those high unfavorable ratings and some people may be more invigorated because they really dislike one candidate or the other.”
Frigo is unsure how the negative perceptions of the candidates at the top of the ballot will affect general voter turnout. He said one of the keys to promoting political activism will be getting students to focus on local and state issues as well.
“Our charge is to engage every student on this campus in the democratic process, and we know that there’s a lot of focus on the national elections," Frigo said. "But we’re looking at local and state elections as well."
Between the different councils, working groups and organizations, there are many resources Elon has in place to provide students with opportunities to become civically engaged through politics.
Students take it upon themselves to increase political involvement
Students are also taking the initiative to create opportunities for their peers to participate in political activities.
Sophomore Jay Schulte created the Elon Politics Forum in 2015 with the hope of bridging growing polarization and addressing issues of importance to college students.
“I saw an opportunity for a group that could bring everyone together,” Schulte said. “Part of the issue I have with politics is it creates a hive mind sometimes. EPF is important because it allows for opposition. It allows for disagreement, and we try to stay as nonpartisan as possible.”
Before Schulte arrived on campus, the forum was under a different name and essentially served as a discussion club with very few members. Within the past year, EPF has become a more recognizable outlet for students to come together to debate serious issues during a heated 2016 election year.
EPF became more widely known in spring 2016 after hosting a student-led debate. With the general election quickly approaching, the student group decided to hold its first debate of the fall. More than 100 students attended the event.
The forum is now in discussions with student organizations on campus, including College Democrats, College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty, to host a second student debate in late October.
Paradox of engagement: The administrative perspective
Elon welcomes speakers with diverse viewpoints
The 2016 election year has magnified Elon’s commitment to bringing people to campus with diverse perspectives.
During his 2016 Commencement address, CNN analyst David Gergen blasted North Carolina Republican leaders for passing House Bill 2, a bill passed by the state legislature that, among many things, requires people to use restrooms of the sex on their birth certificate.
Some Elon students criticized Gergen for being too liberal and not focusing on the graduates themselves.
While Gergen’s speech generated a bit of backlash from Republican-leaning students, it paled in comparison to the controversy behind the most recent Baird Pulitzer Prize lecture on Oct. 4.
When Elon announced Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker would be the lecture speaker, about 300 students signed a petition urging the university to disinvite Parker because of the views on rape she outlined in her book, “Save the Males: Why Men Matter. Why Women Should Care.”
Elon responded with a statement that Parker would still speak and that the university remains committed to bringing diverse perspectives on campus.
Anderson said Elon looks for different viewpoints when searching for speakers.
“Certainly you’d like to have some gender diversity and some racial diversity, so you try to look at all these factors,” Anderson said. “Even political persuasion would be important so it’s not all liberal or all conservative. You try to have a mix so that over the course of time, people get exposed to people with lots of different viewpoints.”
On the day of Parker’s speech, she had allegedly planned to talk about free speech on campus. While that topic was discussed in the first 10 minutes, she pivoted to the national election and went on an extensive rant against Trump.
What started out as a coherent speech quickly turned into an off-script series of tangents difficult for audience members to follow.
In the days that followed, Parker wrote in a Washington Post column that Lambert “urged” her to focus on politics.
Administration itself lacks political diversity, leans heavily Democratic
Though Elon seeks to bring speakers to campus with different political views, such as Gergen and Parker, the university’s administration itself is not all that diverse politically.
Steven House, provost and executive vice president, contested that a person could not identify which administrator is a member of which party.
“I would predict you couldn’t predict which administrators are Democratic or Republican,” House said.
But using the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) public voter search, it is easy to determine administrators’ political affiliations.
Before examining this data, it is important to note the searches do not provide information about which candidate a person voted for. Instead, they show which primaries a person voted in and which party a person is registered with.
Analysis of the results indicates that Elon’s administration leans heavily Democratic.
Because Elon did not have a comprehensive list of administrators readily available, three specific departments within Elon’s administration were analyzed: Senior Staff, Office of the President and the Provost Staff with its three corresponding advisory groups — Dean’s Advisory Council, Provost’s Advisory Council and Academic Affairs Advisory Council.
These groups were selected based on the high rank of administrators and the large sample size of the specific departments.
A comprehensive list of administrators and their party affiliations is available below:
Nine of the 15 members of Senior Staff are registered Democrats. Two are registered Republicans and four are unaffiliated. Of the four unaffiliated voters, one likely leans Democratic, one likely leans Republican and two are likely true independents. Lambert himself is a true independent as he has consistently voted in primaries of opposing major parties.
"I want to be able to participate in whatever primary election where I think I can make the most difference on the issues that I care about," Lambert said. "I think the best position personally to be in is that of an independent because it gives you the most leverage as a voter to participate in the political process."
When asked for his personal thoughts on the presidential race, Lambert suggested he was displeased with the available options.
“I guess I’ll be safe here and say I’ve never seen an election like it in my life,” he said. “I think the stakes are high nationally and in our state. I think this is the time to be an adult and to recognize that we don’t live in a world of perfect choices."
The Office of the President is quite diverse politically, though party affiliations for two of the 11 members could not be determined.
The office includes four Democrats, three Republicans and two unaffiliated voters. President Emeritus Earl Danieley is a strong Republican.
The Office of the Provost is the smallest group of the analyzed sample with just 10 members. There are five Democrats, two Republicans, two unaffiliated voters and one staff member who is unknown. The party affiliation for Paul Miller, assistant provost for communications and operations, was unable to be identified. House is a registered Democrat.
The three groups that advise the provost team on academic affairs have particularly strong Democratic majorities. The Dean’s Advisory Council has seven Democrats and no Republicans. Two council members are unaffiliated and one could not be determined.
The Provost’s Advisory Council has a whopping 20 Democrats compared to just one Republican. Four members are unaffiliated and five could not be determined.
Finally, the Academic Affairs Advisory Council includes 20 Democrats, three Republicans, four unaffiliated voters and six unable to be determined.
Despite the lack of diversity politically within Elon’s administration, Lambert insisted a range of ages and races adds diverse perspectives in staff meetings.
“There’s a wide range of viewpoints,” Lambert said. “If you were in that meeting, you would see that we have very spirited discussions about things and we are not usually of one mind.”
University discourages admins from speaking out on politics
At Elon, top-level administrators are considered deans and above. The higher up a faculty member is in the ranks, the more discouraged they are from expressing their political views.
It is clear that students and most professors do not represent the university’s perspective. For certain administrators, though, there is a fine line between speaking for themselves and speaking for Elon.
Raghu Tadepalli is considered a high-level administrator as he is the dean of the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business. He is a registered Democrat and has been highly critical of Trump throughout the course of the election.
Since the end of the primaries, Tadepalli has written 12 original tweets about the Republican nominee — the majority of which were published in August. He also retweeted dozens of anti-Trump content. All tweets were collected and exported Sept. 8 using Twitonomy. A full list of tweets is available below:
From Aug. 12-15, Tadepalli called Trump an “obnoxious lying sociopath,” “very Putinesque” and said Trump would “use every ruse to suppress these votes as well as those of minorities.”
Well Trump wants to show that he's an obnoxious lying sociopath. He can't help himself. https://t.co/bFK84C9sT2— Raghu Tadepalli (@tadepallir) August 12, 2016
"Allowed to say"? I suspect anything Comrade Trump doesn't like will not be allowed. Very Putinesque. https://t.co/oS2LZHb7fP— Raghu Tadepalli (@tadepallir) August 14, 2016
Trump will use every ruse to suppress these votes as well as those of minorities. https://t.co/cz6IjWQkpF— Raghu Tadepalli (@tadepallir) August 14, 2016
As a 501c3 institution, the university is not allowed to speak out on political matters, according to House. While Tadepalli’s Twitter bio makes it abundantly clear that the views expressed are his alone, there could still be a conflict of interest.
“The risk of appearance of institutional endorsement may be greater when the speaker is a high-level university administrator,” House said in an email.
Tadepalli said he received an email from House on Aug. 16 informing him of the university’s stance on political activism within the administration. Since then, he has declined to tweet overt political opinions.
“While you may have seen my social media postings, they predate the communication from Dr. House that you refer to,” Tadepalli said in an email. “Since receiving the communication from Dr. House, I have refrained from commenting on any aspect of the election. I was unaware of the policy, and since becoming aware, I do not want to do or say anything that runs counter to university policy.”
In that same email, Tadepalli expressed dissatisfaction with both major presidential candidates.
“It is true that I have been vocal against Trump, but as one who has a global mindset, I am disappointed in both candidates,” Tadepalli said.
House said he sent an email to the Academic Affairs Advisory Council and Senior Staff regarding university policy on political speech, but it was unclear whether it was the same email Tadepalli received on Aug. 16. House and Tadepalli declined to provide a copy of the email.
It is common for administrators to face different treatment than faculty and staff on such matters, but it is noteworthy that their exercise of free speech is more limited compared to lower-ranking colleagues.
“I would never tell anybody what they could or what they couldn’t say,” House said. “I would say, 'You don’t want to put the university at risk.'”
There is no formal policy regarding an administrator’s ability to speak openly about their political beliefs, according to Lambert. Instead, the university strongly encourages its administrators to pause and consider how their words could reflect on the university.
For Lambert, the boundaries are clear. His name is practically synonymous with Elon, so he tries to refrain from publicly expressing his personal political views. For other administrators, it is difficult to distinguish what can and cannot be said.
“If Raghu were to be commenting on an economic issue, an issue pertaining to his area of expertise as the dean of the business school with regard to any candidate … put a tweet out there that gets people thinking, I think that’s very much a fair game thing to do within his realm of responsibility within the institution,” Lambert said.
“I think that you would want to be very cautious about putting out a tweet that said, ‘So and so is an idiot. I can’t believe he said this' ... The problem is there are not bright lines in these situations.”
Though Tadepalli’s tweets appear to fall into the latter half of Lambert’s example, he has refrained from speaking out against Trump since August.
The dichotomy between Elon students and administrators in the ability to speak candidly is an interesting dynamic that cuts to the core of subjects like political activism and free speech.