As we begin the school year across the nation, I wanted to revisit some of my notes from a call with a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education, in preparation for his July 11 story, “When Does a Student-Affairs Official Cross the Line?”
New and returning students, alike, are coming to campus after a summer of continued polarization on many fronts, and they are witnessing a larger society that not only seems to be failing to adequately address multiple grievances, but even failing to engage in civil discourse around the varied issues we currently face.
How much more important, then, is it for student affairs and faculty to be prepared to walk the line between “student support” and “political solidarity”?
Student activism is essential – not only as a component of campus life, but as a critical impetus for change occurring at pivotal moments in the history of our democracy. As a group, students have played a key part in the Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, Gay Rights, and Occupy movements, and they have been politically active around issues related to the environment, sustainability, and fair trade.The two most recent generations of students have largely demonstrated their social consciousness through community service and service learning.
Historically, student affairs professionals have been on the front lines during these cycles of student activism. There is no conflict if it is understood that the role of student affairs is not to control or direct the activism of students, but to help students see responsible civic engagement as an essential outcome of a college education.
Administrators should welcome the active involvement of student affairs professionals and faculty in supporting students’ activism. After all, if members of the academic community don’t support student activists, others outside of higher education and any particular institution will be more than glad to stand in the gap. In this case, students may be advised in generic strategies by those lacking an understanding of an institution’s unique mission and context. What is important for other administrators, faculty, and staff to know is that when student affairs professionals are working with students who are activists, they are doing so as educators using the knowledge and passion students are exhibiting as strategic pedagogy.
With this in mind, student affairs professionals will see their roles as educators as they help students make connections between what they are learning through their courses, the realization of their personal values, and their desire to do something to make a difference in regard to what they see as social injustice. Student affairs professionals feel an obligation to encourage students to look for congruence between their intent and the strategies they use to reach their goals.
Opportunities to help students learn through action are not shunned by student affairs; their professionalism allows them to work with students in a manner that, first, demonstrates support for students reaching their own educational and personal development goals, (this is direct support for the mission of the institution and the philosophical foundations of student affairs) and, secondly, helps students learn how to reach their activists’ goals in a manner that is more likely to provide a platform for sustained engagement, learning, and eventual success in making a difference.
One of the most important skills student affairs will help student activists with is communicating in a manner that sets the stage for dialogue by challenging activists to both hear and learn from ideas that are different than their own with respect and civility. Student affairs professionals can offer students coaching and feedback on how to become civically active without jeopardizing their good standing as students. In doing these things to support activist students, student affairs is supporting the mission of the institution – stated or not – that exists to promote responsible citizenship, preparing students to be agents in improving the quality of life not only for themselves, but for humanity.