In my February 2017 report to the St. Lawrence University Board of Trustees, I wrote of the unease conservative students on campus had been feeling since the 2016 United States presidential election. Their unease, to an onlooker, might have seemed counterintuitive considering the country had just affirmed their beliefs.
I argued that these students should embrace that discomfort. I argued that their situation did not warrant attention. My sentiments rested with those students on our campus who have felt, for perhaps their whole life, marginalized. I explained in detail how we, Thelmo, did not need to worry about conservative students because they were, for so long, able to freely and plainly express their views. It seems necessary to disclose that I am a registered Democrat.
I was wrong.
Education and inclusion cannot be a zero-sum-game. Inclusion on our campus has been stigmatized to mean an effort of including people of visible difference into the greater campus community. The fact of the matter is that inclusion has no boundaries, it can have but one requirement: Making equal the experiences of all members of our community. Though our students think differently from one another, every student should feel free to speak their mind in our shared community – a community that values dialogue for its own sake. For too long, we have let this issue metastasize like a cancer in the heart and soul of our campus without acting.
At the start of the fall 2017 semester, we launched a window on the university’s website prompting students to share how they think we can make the St. Lawrence campus a more inclusive community. This was one of the responses:
“I write this with the hope that it will not be ignored or dismissed, as it is most likely a view that is contrary to whoever reads these. At this university and most others like it conservative viewpoints are missing… I know I hide my views because of fear of social ridicule, verbal attacks and having professors unfairly judge me. This being a liberal arts university, it is directly against our university’s mission to oppress different views and schools of thought. In addition, making an initiative that encourages people to respect other schools of thought would foster a healthier campus environment for everyone, as they feel every opinion can be voiced… I am not putting my name down for fear of being viewed differently and judged…”
This message from our classmate is not unlike others we have received – in fact, the plurality of responses addressed this very issue. It was our hope, as a campus, this divide would subside naturally after some distance was put between the present and November 2016 – it has not. In fact, the problem has gotten worse – students are silent in classroom discussions, depriving themselves and their classmates of their alternative perspective on a given issue. Our conservative students resent our faculty, staff, they resent their classmates. Our conservative students have been silenced by our campus’s single voice of American progressivism – elitism. Our conservative students deserve better – they deserve to speak and they deserve to be heard.
The Thelomathesian Society has established a fund to support groups and ideologies on campus that can reasonably prove they are underrepresented in our community. Through this initiative, we will reboot the St. Lawrence University Republicans and seek to change our campus culture for the better. Lack of interest caused the group to disband in the Spring of 2015 and no one has revived the group since. However, through conversations in and out of the classroom, we have come to realize it is not a lack of interest that has kept this group from re-materializing. Students are frightened, nervous of what might happen if they begin to self-identify with the GOP. St. Lawrence is no different from other liberal arts campuses experiencing these types of anxieties from conservative students.
We must, as a campus, be able to hear and engage with one another across our political differences. I know, for many of you, this initiative is unpopular – an overreach by the Thelmo Executive Board, myself. As I have learned over the course of my nearly three and a half years here, leadership is not about doing what is popular; rather, it is about doing what is right. I wish this executive board was around a few years back when other organizations where seeking a start, but we were not – we’re here now and this is the problem at hand.
President William L. Fox, in remarks to the Class of 2021, recounted a time from his internship on Capitol Hill. Walking in the tunnels below the Capitol he passed two senators, the equivalent of Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell in present day. These two senators, who by all public accounts despised one another, were walking with arms draped around each other. Fox, astonished by what he was seeing, turned to a friend of his – who was working in the office of one of the two Senators – and asked what was going on. His friend said: “they are having an argument.”
This is not a fix to the issue, but rather a move in the right direction. Out new initiative will be a meaningful step toward encouraging a renewed political tolerance on campus. We should, as those two Senators did, be able to hold differing beliefs while maintaining a level of civility and dare I say friendship.
For any student interested in joining the St. Lawrence University Republicans, the Thelomathesian Society will host the group’s first meeting/information session Sunday, October 29 at 5:00 p.m. in the Hannon Room of the Sullivan Student Center. If you are interested in attending but cannot make the meeting please let me know. Additionally, the group will have the support of a previous member and current Trustee, Christian J. Ehrhardt ’07. Christian is a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service, having served in the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Africa. At St. Lawrence, he was a Government major with a French minor, he studied in France, was a member of the SLU First Responder Team, the Vice President of SLU Republications, and a student advocate for the Judiciary Board. Recently, he has served as a Laurentian in Residence panelist and LINC mentor.
With much pride in our shared values of inclusion,