A group of students gather for a silent rally on Nov. 10, 2016, in front of the UC Front Lawn. The rally was held in reaction to the recent presidential election. (Sarah Epstein/B&W Staff)

Election 2016 Flashback: What was campus like four years ago?

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With just days until Election Day 2020, Lehigh professors and alumni are reflecting on what campus was like leading up to the 2016 election four years ago. 

Lehigh faculty recall an immense amount of interest in the election and uncertainty over who would win. 

“I’ve been at Lehigh for 30 years, and when Obama ran for the presidency there was enormous interest — but 2016 almost matched that,” said Richard Matthews, a political science professor.

As a result of this wide-reaching interest, faculty and students held a number of meetings and discussions to engage with the campus community during the fall of 2016.

Matthew O’Brien, ’20, former president of Lehigh’s chapter of the College Republicans, recalls organizing a co-sponsored public debate with the College Democrats in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. 

Each team consisted of three people who answered and debated pre-determined questions from a panel. Topics ranged from the economy, immagration and student debt. 

“Aside from one incident involving an audience member, the debate went very well and was

extremely civil,” O’Brien said. “We made it clear that we were debating policy instead of candidates and that helped keep it under control.”

While some alumni and professors agree Lehigh’s campus was not as polarized as the general public, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran in the Democratic primary, seemed to be the leading candidate in the eyes of many students, Matthews said. 

Prior to Election Day, Matthews had his first-year students conduct an in-class activity in which he asked students to write down their opinion on Donald Trump, Sanders and Hillary Clinton. 

Matthews was surprised by the overwhelming support for Sanders, who eventually lost the Democratic primary to Clinton.

“Now I’m rarely surprised, but they really surprised me,” Matthews said. “Not one (first-year student) had anything positive to say about Donald Trump. I assumed Hillary would get most of the positive support. She didn’t. In fact, she had some negative things (said about her), as did Donald, but clearly the majority of students thought Bernie was the best candidate. I didn’t anticipate that.”

Anthony DiMaggio, associate professor of political science, began working at Lehigh during fall 2016. 

“There was this feeling that Hillary Clinton was going to win because she was up in the polls and most social scientists that I’ve talked to definitely (have been) pretty critical of Donald Trump,” DiMaggio said. “They were concerned about his candidacy, but they didn’t think he was going to win.”

A Brown and White poll of 203 students conducted prior to Election Day 2016 showed 70 percent of Lehigh students favored Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Matthews remembers walking into his classroom on Nov. 9 to find some of his students almost weeping at the results and questioning whether anything could be done after Donald Trump secured 304 electoral votes to clinch the presidency.

O’Brien said some professors permitted students to skip class, and some lectures were canceled altogether. 

“To say that a lot of people were upset was an understatement,” O’Brien said. 

O’Brien was surprised by these decisions, as he thought it would have been the perfect time to ask questions and discuss the outcome with his peers and professors.

O’Brien said there was an uproar from students following the election, leading to numerous protests around campus and the silencing of celebrations from Trump supporters. 

One major focal point were efforts to get Lehigh to rescind the honorary degree Trump holds from the university. The board of trustees twice took “no action” on rescinding Trump’s degree: once, after a student-led petition gained 30,000 signatures, and again, after 83 percent of faculty voted in favor of rescinding the degree.

DiMaggio said faculty have remained consistently involved during this election year, and he has observed a heightened awareness from students compared to 2016. 

This year, there was a strong movement to push Lehigh to cancel classes on Election Day. The university did not ultimately cancel classes on Nov. 3, but some individual professors are giving students the day off to vote.  

“I think there’s no doubt about it that this is the most important election in my lifetime,” Matthews said. “The consequences of this will be felt for a significant amount of time.”

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