February is Black History Month and, though I don’t want to talk about race per se, my experiences as a consequence of being black in institutions where there were few other people of color seem to bring me back to this song that has no ending.
My student teaching experience in an all-white institution – with no mercy from the high school supervising teacher or the practicum professor from the university – was so traumatic that I fainted in front of the class when I was being observed for my final evaluation. It was just too much pressure.
In my first teaching position after college, then, I was determined to right the wrongs of my student teaching experience. With only one other black teacher in the English Department, I had to pass the rigorous scrutiny of the Department Chair, who frequently just popped in to my classes unannounced to observe.
One day Miss Nelson, white-haired and married to her role as Department Chair, stopped by my classroom to chat about the Parents’ Night scheduled for that evening. She smiled and assured me that there was nothing to be concerned about. In fact, she said, “Don’t be disappointed if parents don’t show up because parents seldom visit the teachers of their children in high school.” Imagine my surprise when all the seats of my classroom were filled for every hour of visiting on Parents’ Night.
Because of my history as a black woman, when I was a counseling psychologist at a community college, I vigorously resisted the suggestion that all counselors have large photos posted outside the counseling center with a short professional bio so students could see with whom they were making an appointment. While there might not have been anything nefarious about the intent, you can guess what I thought.
Thinking back on these times and realizing that this song seems to have no ending makes me want to quarantine new generations of students from our history and from our current cycle of politics. Why quarantine? Because sometimes the professionals who have always believed that education for diversity and expanding one’s world view is the way to confront partisanship and polarization get discouraged.
For those who might be feeling discouraged by the tone and reality of our current political environment, I recommend what I think is an excellent article on what educators can do to continue to provide opportunities for reaffirmation of our very humanity and that of our students. In “Interfaith Learning and Development – Building an Understanding of Religious Differences” (Leadership Exchange, Winter 2020), Interfaith Youth Core Program Manager Janett I. Cordovés and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Director of Diversity and Social Justice Education Ross Wantland write about how “provocative encounters” with diverse peers help students develop a “pluralism orientation,” resulting in the following positive outcomes, among others:
accepting others with different worldviews;
believing that worldviews share many common values;
considering it important to understand the differences between world religions; and
believing it possible to have strong relationships with diverse others and still hold to one’s personal world views.
The success of these provocative encounters depends on the ability of facilitators to both challenge and support students in these controversial learning spaces. Civility in dialogue around differences of opinions about religion and politics are high bars to attempt to reach particularly in an environment in which political identity has become the cauldron of multiple identities that not only exclude “the other,” but also make that “other” the enemy. Nevertheless, it is Black History Month, and we want to end this song.
In the recent inter-generational conversation on gender I had the privilege of facilitating, all of the dialogue participants were connected to education in some manner. The expectation, then, is that responses would resonate with students and those who work with students. To that end, I asked the following question directly related to student activism on campus today:
In a political climate where students take matters into their own hands, what do you see as critical for them to know about the risks and rewards of activism in their future careers? What difference do you think gender will make?
As the person still working directly on a higher education campus, Eboni’s is the first voice heard in the above clip, with a question from Jackie. The clip closes with Tangela’s observations.
Responses to this question clearly recognize that student activism is “cyclical and long,” as Tangela notes. Jackie asks if students know their history to inform their present and future. Eboni sees all kinds of students — those who are “grounded in understanding, as well as those who live only in the present.”
The Silent or Traditional (S/T) and the Baby Boomer generations on campus may see the rolling back of progress in the current climate of overt racist groups influencing students. Organizational and environmental characteristics of colleges and universities remain critical today, as they were when the doors began to open to provide more opportunities for all students. Current student activists, as those in previous generations, realize that they have to look to themselves for support because often the seats of power in academe are still occupied by people who do not understand, or do not care to support them in, their struggle.
Full Transcript for Activism Section
Gwen (T/S): Let’s talk about students on campus. As you know, students are quite active today in going after what they want. They don’t trust people to take care of them, as a lot of us didn’t trust people way back when to take care of us. So, what would you say the risks and rewards are for activism and these students’ future careers and, is there a difference related to – why don’t we say – gender and race if you’re an activist right now?
Jackie (BB): I’d like to hear Eboni’s answer, because she’s still actively on campus.
Eboni (X): Uh, sure. You know, I think that, particularly, kind of post-2016 elections, we’re seeing increasing numbers of students of all stripes, but particularly on the heels of Black Lives and Black Minds Matter, kind of post-Mike Brown and any number of us folks who have died at the hands of – unarmed – and have died at the hand of – and the Say Her Name – right? I mean, we talked about Me Too, but in terms of Black women, in particular, who have resulted in death in terms of interactions with police… I think that there’s been a way in which there have always been risks and rewards when it comes to activism, but that students are showing that, at least in the last couple of years, that they’re willing to go there. That the risks and the rewards in terms of what they seem keenly aware of, is that it’s still an uphill battle. That they have to assert with their whole selves demand for access to be afforded, level playing fields – or at least more level, that they’re not distracted by these superficial kinds of things in terms of what you might dangle in front of them to try to get them to retreat. Right? That they’re also thinking about how to redefine the risk in terms of strategy, in terms of ways that they can address specific challenges – some being mainly gendered in terms of, you know, wanting to see Black female leadership, or some, with a lot of the Black male initiatives – there’s a lot of activity on my campuses and on other campuses where students are rising up, there’s a new wave of activism, and I think that they’re coming up with some unique strategies to try to mitigate some of those risks because they also understand that their activism, their decisions today to do that, can result in ways that can limit opportunity later, depending on how they do it. And then there are others that are not trying to be that methodical about it. It is coming from a more organic, emotional place and, yes, they’re bright, they’re prepared, they understand risk and reward, but at the same time, they’re like, “No, we’re having our say.”
Jackie (BB): Let me ask you this: Do they know they’re history, and are they using it to inform their present and their future?
Eboni (X): I wouldn’t generalize to say that they all do, but I think that some, in particular, are poised and grounded in that understanding. I know in terms of just some of the students that I’ve interacted with – some of my advisees – that some of them feel the least amount of support for that kind of engagement, where they will have older generations tell them, you know, “Be careful” – to not take the risk, but they feel like, you know, that these are matters of public policy, that these are conditions affecting lives and, so, some of them feel like, for any number of reasons, that, you know, whether it’s they want to be active around speaking back – clapping back – at what they see as a growing wave of racial antipathy on campus, or a lack of inclusion efforts from central administration, or whatever it is that – some are feeling afraid to take those risks, and they see the risks as more so to themselves, not where this is something that their family or friends are necessarily subject to, and that the benefits of the risks to them make it worth taking, because, you know, they are just at that point of, you know, really wanting to stand up. And, so, I think every generation gets to a point where something where – and, again, that last election – it’s like you get a call to arms. And then it’s the thousand little cuts, you know, in between, of being inundated, where it seems like it’s a rerun, but it’s a first cut, but it happens so much that the way in which folks get kind of, you know, desensitized to seeing – and then being told, you know, “All Lives Matter”… I know when folk hear that and then we time and time again, there’s an acquittal and there’s an acquittal and there’s culpability, and you have campus police profiling you, you have, you know, right-wing student groups on campus, you know… I mean, we just had another Affirmative Action Bake Sale in the spring. We had chalking where very anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Black sentiment and different campuses. And, so, I think we’re at a point where students are – they’re like, “Let’s roll,” “I can’t,” like, “My cup is runneth over.” And the you’ve got others that aren’t – they’re just not going to be actively involved in trying to be on the frontline or getting in the face of administrators or having people protest or stepping outside of their own comfort zone.
Tangela (M): Uh, Gwen, to your original question, I’m on the University of Chicago, one of their professional division’s board. So, we are interfacing with those students. What I’ve been inviting them to do is have a plan – even a loose one – and then to remember that history is cyclical and long. And, so, with respect to social media, what we’re communicating is still the same throughout history, for the most part, but the medium is what’s changing. And, so, whoever’s Googling your name or Googling your account, all of that will come up – that’s following most times, even when you think it’s not there. And then, the next piece I tell them is to be strategic in your alignment, be good allies, and to build a good coalition – including faculty and staff, because those folks have lots of institutional knowledge. You may only be there for two years, you may only be there for four, and the change that you’re seeking to have is to make it better for people who look like you who may want to come to that university. And, the last one is just to be aware of the criticisms that you receive. Everyone is not going to afford you constructive criticism. To let go of the idea of being coddled – that people ought to correct you and tell you what the error is. It should be enough for you to know that you’ve made an error and that you need to come up with a new solution.
Gwen (T/S): Fantastic, fantastic. I think this should be very helpful for students, because I’m hoping that students and those who work with students will be able to hear this blog.
Some of our colleagues have stopped accessing the news because they say it is far too stressful and depressing. On the one hand, this kind of reaction is understandable when considering educators are generally optimists. On the other hand, covering our eyes and ears does not alter the reality of the world for which we have accepted responsibility for preparing students. We cannot afford to avoid the negatives. Our job is to help students face fears and work together, using what they are learning to solve problems constructively.
There are always problems to solve. Sometimes they are more complex than at other times. Sometimes they are catastrophic. Few of us have the prescience that Jon Meacham had when he wrote an article in Newsweek in 1997 entitled, “Where Have All the Causes Gone?” I was led to read the article when it first came out because I had been hearing from students that they resented being labeled as apathetic. They just didn’t think that they had any causes for which they could have passion and work toward solving. When 9/11 occurred four years later, I recalled the Meacham article. Listening to the news and reading the papers these days brings that Meacham article to mind again. Here is the excerpt that keeps coming back to me:
Something will ultimately test us. Entitlements could collapse, a derivative deal may bring down the markets, some rogue nation might fire a missile at Manhattan. Americans are never comfortable for long without a crusade; one is sure to be thrust upon us. Then it will be our turn, and how we do will be the first big story of the Millennium.
During these critical moments in our nation and on many of our campuses, whether we see ourselves in this position or not, we are the at nexus of helping students integrate their expectations of college within the broader framework of sustaining our democracy. Historically, students have been at the forefront of cultural change, and now is no exception.
Andrew Grove, former chairman of Intel, is credited with coining the term strategic inflection point to describe a time when a business has to make major changes in the way they do what they do. At a strategic inflection point, the very fundamentals have to be altered. At the point of strategic inflection, it is not possible to remain the same. The trajectory defies the status quo. While we like to talk about crossroads in education, there is no urgency about taking one direction or another at a crossroads. However, during a crisis or at a strategic inflection point, there is a sense of urgency because action is going to occur whether or not it is of our own volition. We can see the crisis as opportunity and act with urgency to make the situation better than it was before or we can wait for the gravity of the situation to spiral all we do downward.
Following are two areas, among many, to consider for immediate fearless and forceful action:
changing student expectations of the collegiate experience
declining confidence in our democracy
Helping students take the perspective of problem solvers regarding the intersections of these issues is an excellent way to reinforce students’ academic learning and increase their adaptive skills, such as interpersonal communications and leadership. Setting the stage for problem-solving conversations taps into what student say they want: to be heard and for their values to be considered. Help students understand who they are, who others are, and what they mean when they say what they want and value.
Whether we are in a crisis or at a strategic inflection point, we know that our students will continue to reflect current society. Therefore, we must sync the methods and modes of our teaching and interventions with the way students prefer to learn. In other words, meet them where they are and walk with them as they discover their best selves in sustaining and creating a world that meets the values they have developed through their learning.
As trite as it may be, I think Student Affairs can identify all-too-well with the idea that “there is no rest for the weary.” After a brief exhale marking the end of the academic year, we must take a deep breath and once again begin the work of taking stock, reflecting, and planning. Our reflection, like our work, focuses on our students and the impact our role has in creating a constructive climate in which students can live and learn, both academically and experientially.
While our philosophy and point of view have not changed regarding the positive impact of student involvement and engagement on students’ cognitive and affective learning and development, the manner of student engagement on some campuses has changed considerably. We are witnessing how students’ engagement is evolving from apathy to activism. Many of us support this change because we see it as preparation for future democratic engagement.
Whether we are on board with today’s brand of student activism or not, we must accept that the context in which we do our work is changing. Therefore, the manner in which we do our work will change, as well. Despite our best intentions, we often employ one of two strategies in dealing with change. We either cope with it or adapt to it.
What would our work look like and how might we feel this time next year if we focused on initiating and leading change instead of simply coping or adapting to it? A quick and simple way to gauge whether it’s time to take responsibility to initiate and /or lead change is to think about our response to the following questions:
What am I hearing about what is happening at other colleges and universities?
What do I see at my own institution that is different than it was two years ago, one year ago?
Have we made any adjustments in our operations and policies in the past two years that reflect the changes that we see and sense around us?
If our response to these questions is accompanied by a feeling of unease, then this is one indication that we need to act and not wait and hope that whatever is occurring around us will blow over, dissipate, or disappear. The risk of waiting for change and then reacting to it is often greater than the risk of taking action and initiating change. Admittedly, some of us are risk-averse and do not see ourselves initiating or leading change. What low-level risk might we consider as we anticipate the inevitable?
As the increasingly mild weather brings out more golfers, we might recall author Tom Friedman’s anecdote about being a golf caddy at one point in his life. He recounted what he saw as the essence of his job as a caddy:
describe the terrain;
shout warnings and encouragement; and
whisper in the ears of big players.
Depending on the particular circumstances that contribute to climate on our individual campus, we can initiate change by thinking metaphorically about Friedman’s description of the role of a golf caddy.
We can describe the terrain by going out to students to hear what their expectations are rather than waiting for them to come forward. We can share what we learn from students with colleagues who want to help initiate change. We can share with students the history and evolution of the institution as it strives to create a climate that promotes the best interest of students.
We can shout warnings and encouragement to all the constituents we encounter by reminding them of our shared values. We can push the agenda to act on our rhetoric or warn about the consequences of failing to act. We can help students visualize the process of moving from abstract thinking about their beliefs and convictions to concrete plans for change. We can praise students’ progress in how they are acquiring the support they need to reach their well-considered goals.
Whispering in the ears of big players is an important part of initiating or leading change, and one of the best ways to do this is by creating partnerships without borders. We can redefine our territory and move beyond our circumscribed bailiwick and communicate with those who students see as critical in how they experience the institution. Faculty and high-level administrators are the big players in students’ eyes, and we can target them, without condescension, for orientation to today’s students. And, we can support them in their efforts.
Whether we are describing the terrain, shouting warnings and encouragement, or whispering in the ears of big players, our efforts will serve as a promising bridge between groups that may appear to be in different spaces regarding campus climate and the state of our institution.
Acting, rather than simply hoping and waiting, regardless of how minimally, is the first step in preparing to lead change. Imagine how we will feel this time next year when we take a deep breath, take stock and do it all over again.
Joy, dismay, fear, elation, security, vulnerability, anger, betrayal, despair, hope. The results of the 2016 presidential election elicited a wide spectrum of reactions from both colleagues and students. The breadth and strength of the reactions prompted us to write to you, our colleagues, who, like our country, reflect diversity in all its forms including ideologies, attitudes, opinions and beliefs. Our message is a call to you to emerge, as you always have done, in order to do the important work of helping all stakeholders come together as a community to help students succeed in the broadest and most all-encompassing sense of the word.
If you are feeling as if what you believed about our nation is out of sync with today’s reality, reflect on what Jon Stewart said in an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning, November 17, 2016: “I don’t believe we are a fundamentally different country today than we were two weeks ago. The same country with all its grace and flaws, and volatility, and insecurity, and strength, and resilience exists today as it existed two weeks ago. The same country that elected Donald Trump elected Barack Obama.”
Post-election Silver Linings Playbook: Recommitting to Core Principles of Higher Education by Dr. Shannon Ellis
January 20, 2017
This Is It: Student Affairs for “Such a Time as This” by Dr. Gwen Dungy
January 20, 2017
Events have revealed a truth, and it’s a truth we must acknowledge and understand so we may best serve our students. There is great value in knowing where the country truly stands and clarify our role as Student Affairs professionals.
So, how is our work different now?
Let’s start where we usually do not – with ourselves. Some of us were elated at the outsider being placed in a position in which he could tell insiders how things should be run. Some of us were crest fallen when it was clear the glass ceiling had not yet been shattered by the first female president.
Add to that the students – Trump and Clinton supporters alike – who sought counsel from us. Black women wept, telling us they feared for their safety. Black men asked us, “How are you doing?” White women in both camps were in disbelief. Women who supported Trump felt empowered by their belief that political correctness around equal pay and affirmative action would be dissolved. Women who supported Clinton were stunned, some wondering aloud about what kind of sexist workplace awaited them post-graduation. Legal and undocumented immigrant students feared for themselves, their parents, and their siblings.
Not only were there incidents of “fisticuffs” between roommates at the University of Nevada, Reno but deep divisions also surfaced among staff, characterized by chilling silence and sensitivity to words like “aftermath.”
As Student Affairs professionals, we now are put to the test to stand by a belief in a “no-censorship” approach to life – both on and off campus. We recommit to that principle of higher education.
Journalist and activist Gloria Steinem points out that the election is evidence that we are not living in a post-sexist, post-racist society. Seeing opportunity in the election results, scholar Shaun Harper wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 9, 2017), “The polarizing nature of the 2016 campaign makes improving the racial climate a more urgent matter for higher education leaders…Donald Trump has given us a gift – in that the racial ugliness of our nation has been exposed.”
If the silver lining of the presidential election is that there is no longer any doubt that racism and other biases and prejudices persist, Harper also provides the following warning: “If we’re not careful, we will see a very serious clash of races on campuses. We shouldn’t wait for that to happen.”
Jon Stewart said “there is this idea that anyone who voted for [Trump] has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric. There are guys in my neighborhood that I love and respect, that I think have incredible qualities, who are not afraid of Mexicans, not afraid of Muslims, and not afraid of Blacks. They’re afraid of their insurance premiums.”
What is our role as Student Affairs professionals, then? I will tell you! It is to help students, faculty, and staff avoid viewing any group – Trump supporters, Clinton supporters, Muslims, immigrants, ANY labeled group – as a monolith.
The Student Affairs professionals needed today will help students wrestle with ideas, with perspectives and viewpoints that offend. These professionals will console, challenge, and affirm who students are and their aspirations for who they will become personally and professionally. Our time to develop this openness and willingness with students is brief. We are all on a lifelong journey to determine who we are – each of our students is a part of our journey, and we are just one part of theirs. This is our time to help students on our campuses be courageous, open, resolute – even stubborn – and willing to change their minds. This is, after all, what the academic world prides itself on – intellectual inquiry that requires an openness for discovering new ideas, overturning assumptions and biases, all in pursuit of truth. Higher education should model for all the ability to take joy in learning and growing, as well as the ability to welcome the ambiguity of “not knowing.”
Versatile, disciplined, resourceful, and emotionally strong are some characteristics of successful Student Affairs professionals. These are transferable skills valued in many professions, but you chose to work in a college environment. Now is the time to navigate caution signs without losing either patience or direction and thrive, helping your institution prioritize students’ intellectual learning and emotional development by ensuring a supportive environment. Ensuring a supportive environment in times such as this will require different approaches, new tools, and a clear understanding of what you need to do your job.
While others may view the possibility of turbulence on campus as a problem, you see an environment where you can shape and contribute to the future of students and your institution, alike, in an unprecedented manner. You embrace your role as mediator when there are controversies related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. You support faculty and other colleagues who create a space for dialogue and conversation about sensitive and controversial issues.
Times demand you shift focus solely from students within the bailiwick of Student Affairs to the entire campus. No one office, division, unit or person can create an inclusive and equitable campus climate. Wrenching change demands a new approach to collaboration.
Collaborate with your Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Office. You are in an optimal position to help faculty, staff, students, and administrators contribute to a climate of inclusion. Who more than professionals in Student Affairs understand how important it is for every member of the community to feel a sense of belonging? Extend your reach. Actions speak louder than words. Equity and inclusion must permeate a diverse institution at every level, every position, and every role. All stakeholders are responsible for identifying who is marginalized and in what circumstance.
Executive leaders have important visible and symbolic roles to play when there are demands for a shift in the focus of the institution. With your support, your campus leaders will understand and address what students need in order to feel a sense of belonging, to be assured they are getting the quality education expected, and to believe their opinions matter. You can help these leaders become more knowledgeable about campus climate and help make inclusion the norm.
As a professional in Student Affairs, you also have skills that support faculty, but not all faculty may be aware of these skills. Help faculty identify common experiences for students to share that both support curricular objectives and allow for the expression of differing opinions and emotions in a facilitated academic environment. This kind of environment will help students experience deep learning and discover the core of who they are. Offer your help to facilitate these discussions. Be the champion of intellectual learning coupled with personal development.
Likewise, staff who employ or mentor students may need your help to ensure they take advantage of teachable moments.
It is during these times that you need to shift your focus to the community at-large. Your education, training, and access to students have prepared you to do this work. During times that are both propitious and unfavorable, you must increase your communication and visibility with all stakeholders. To play a major role as mediator, mentor, teacher, and leader in an educational environment during uncertain times is why you went into Student Affairs. This is it. This is the time for you to assume your role with confidence and to ask for what you need to do your job.
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.
With tongue in cheek, we used to say that if a college or university president wanted to strongly encourage one of its administrators to consider employment at some other institution, the president need only assign the administrator the responsibility of determining when to close because of inclement weather. These judgments and decisions were always no-win propositions, and they never created heroes.
Similarly, there are few heroes in what some see as the unenviable position of chairing a task force on diversity. Twenty-two years ago, I was asked to chair a diversity committee and I declined. However, in this instance, I do not think that I was asked to chair the committee and become the sacrificial lamb; I just happened to be the only administrator of color.
If I were in a campus position today and was asked to chair or facilitate a committee or task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion, my first question would be about the intention of the endeavor. Are we looking for a task force for transformation of an institution’s culture or are we creating a task force to determine terms of engagement with an aggrieved constituency? The reflexive response is that the intention is to accomplish both. This expectation may be unrealistic in the short term, and I encourage anyone who takes this role to proceed with caution.
I suggest that before you take any approach, you should insure, as is feasible, that you have support regardless of the outcome of efforts. Go into the situation knowing that whatever you do, everyone will not be happy and you will be second-guessed and criticized.
If you report to the head of the institution, have the conversation about the extent of your powers to enter into negotiations with aggrieved constituencies. If you are the president, get the support of the Board of Trustees in regard to the actions you may take on their behalf.
Attempt to get confirmation that, to the extent possible, your decisions will not be reversed while you are in negotiations. Outline as best you can what some of the alternative responses might be to demands and ask for latitude to respond based on your best judgment.
With support, I believe that you are ready to not only listen but hear what students say they want rather than impose what you or others think is the ideal strategy to move forward.
Optimistically, we hope the ultimate outcome of our current confrontations between students – mainly Black students – and their college or university is transformation of a culture that has historically not been open and accommodating to students referred to as minorities.
Think of the term minorities in every aspect of the word, including race, sexual orientation, and privilege. When you listen to students, think about how their common experiences make them different than you and your colleagues were when you were students, and think about how they are even different from students you had a decade ago.
While students are generationally diverse, the actors most recognized in interviews about their dissatisfactions and subsequent demands are those students who may be seen as second-wave Millennials. One of the characteristics of this wave of Millennials is their great desire to be connected and part of what is trending. Students have always wanted to be connected to a cause and to contribute to change. Comments from students at the University of Missouri, Columbia, are illustrative of how students want to be part of something that matters:
Reuben Faloughi, third-year doctoral student, said, coming together was a powerful experience; it touched me to the core. It was the first time I saw that many students committed to the cause.
When undergraduate, Corie Wilkins, told interim president, Mr. Middleton, that he was tired and didn’t see much change, Mr. Middleton told him that he had to continue because he (Middleton) had been at this 50-plus years and if he hadn’t given up, neither could Mr. Wilkins. Mr. Wilkins said, I will never forget that. There was nothing to do but shut up and get back to work.
In addition to a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, students are aware that they are participating in a necessary social moment stimulated by the broad reach of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Another characteristic of students participating in campus protests is that they eschew conversations, workshops, and events and demand instead concrete actions.
In other words, they are creating their terms of engagement, and to the extent college and university officials are able to respond to these terms, it should be done in good faith.
Responding to recommendations from students can be the first step in transforming institutional culture. When some characterize responding positively to student recommendations / demands as “caving,” they setting up a zero-sum game for the negotiations, creating a confrontational situation in which there must be a winner and a loser.
When officials are unable to respond because of real obstacles such as lack of resources or the response would infringe on the rights of others, they should communicate what the reasons for not responding are clearly and promptly as they would respond to anyone with whom they desire an honest and respectful relationship.
At the same time that legitimate responses are addressing the terms of engagement, facilitators for faculty, staff, administrators, and student groups should be bringing people together to take a fresh look at their culture through the lens created by protesting students.
Discussions should include questions such as, “What do we see now that we did not see before?” “What can each of us do to insure that all students know that they belong here?” “What needs to happen to recruit and retain faculty and staff of color?”
If these discussions are going to have the potential to contribute to transforming campus culture and climate, the entire academic community must become a community of learners.
As learners, all will need an understanding of the history of race in this country and how it influences culture and society today. All will need opportunities to practice the skills of talking about race and other controversial topics. All will need to hear opinions different than their own. All will need to practice expressing thoughts and feelings in a facilitated environment where the purpose is transformation through learning and understanding.
Chairing a task force or committee on diversity, inclusion, and equity needs to be a labor of love for the ideals of higher education in a diverse and democratic society. Chairing such an endeavor is no place for heroes or Lone Rangers, and credibility and humility may be the most salient characteristics of those who have this role.
One of the photos accompanying the lead article, “Graduating, but to what?” in the Sunday, October 18, 2015, edition of The Washington Post shows a broken-down, rusted-out, and faded brick store front with gaping square holes where windows used to be. In the space above what was the entrance to the store in large faded white letters was a sign—“FOR COLORED.”
It seems superfluous that the store would have had that designating sign since Sunflower County in Mississippi has been close to 80 percent Black since the Civil War, when many Black people migrated to the county in search of jobs and often became share-croppers. My mother was born in Sunflower County in 1924. She told me stories about the hopelessness and poverty of this County and other similar places she and my grandparents lived in the Mississippi Delta. She said she was afraid to stay in Mississippi where there was no hope, so her major goal was to move her parents out of Mississippi.
The young Black man I read about in Chico Harlan’s article seems to be living in circumstances too similar to what my mother described so many decades before. He graduated from a high school that has been given a grade of F by the state, the poverty rate in Sunflower County is nearly three times the national average, and Sunflower County has the lowest median income in the nation.
The personal story of the young man is as devastating as the grade assigned to the school and the statistics about the state. He has no roots, no home, no anchor. He is like so many of our students, wherever we might be located, who are struggling to survive. They, too, are living from house to house with relatives and acquaintances, all trying to scratch out a living.
How many of our students are searching for a place to sleep? Your school may not be in Sunflower County, but your students could be facing similar challenges as the young man Chico Harlan followed on graduation day.
Like the young man in the article, some of your students are marginal students because they do not have the luxury of places to study outside of school; they do not have the richness of foundational knowledge and skills upon which to build new knowledge, and they do not have the gift of someone who cares that they reach a satisfying destination.
All of the strategies we implement for persistence and graduation rates will not be sufficient if we are unable to know who our students are, to know how they live, and to know if they have a destination in mind. There are reasons why some students seem immune to the efforts to engage them in everyday college activities including dedicating time to study.
“Graduating, but to what?” should give us all pause and cause for soul searching.
After graduation, the young man in the Harlan article had disastrous results seeking employment. He was even fired from a part-time job pulling weeds. He was unable to get hired at a factory “known as a place that hires most who show up.” He had no practical knowledge on how to be an adult in the world.
When young adults seem to have a deficit in executive functioning skills, it is usually because they have not seen these skills modeled at home. Part of the requirements for college graduation, then, must be preparing graduates to seek, attain, and retain employment. Our graduation rate is a priority, but if our graduates do not have practical skills for planning, time management, and how to present themselves for consideration for employment, among other practical skills, the graduation they achieve is a counterfeit.
After graduating and failing to get any kind of employment, the young man in the excellent Harlan article, is told about a technical school in Nashville. Desperate, he burdens himself with $30,000 of debt in order to train to get a certificate as a diesel mechanic where he might make $42,000 a year if he is lucky enough to complete the training and get a decent position.
Just when I think that this story can’t get any sadder, I learn that the struggling family is betting all they have (his aunt signed for him to get one of two loans he needed for tuition, his grandmother gathered donations from relatives and cut back on groceries and did not pay her phone bill in order to raise money for him to travel to Nashville) on the success of this young man who has not yet demonstrated that he can succeed as an adult. I root hard for him because just like my mother who escaped to Tennessee, he said, “I was scared of staying in Mississippi.”
(Note: The situation described here is not about the entire state of Mississippi.)
On the HERI Freshman Survey (2014), where students rated themselves on particular skills or competencies, they gave themselves high ratings on their ability to interact with diverse peers and on their tolerance of others with different beliefs. They are less certain about their knowledge of people from different races or cultures or about their willingness to promote racial understanding. Students rate themselves lowest on openness to having their views challenged, and they are less confident in their ability to discuss and negotiate controversial issues.
The high self-ratings may indicate that students think that sharing space with a diverse group warrants points. They live in a multicultural environment and they may be satisfied with the adage “Live and Let Live.” However, I applaud the self-raters in their discernment when they make a distinction between their ability to be in the same space with people different from themselves in race and culture and being motivated to learn more about the people with whom they share space. I am particularly impressed with these students because they are aware that they have difficulty in knowing how to have conversation or dialogue on controversial issues especially in regard to race and culture.
With approximately 320 million Americans in this nation with projections for that number to increase primarily due to immigration, our students will need to be prepared to function in a world where their opinions are not always reinforced. I sincerely believe that colleges and universities should make students’ acquisition of facilitative and adaptive skills a priority and that we, in student affairs, should begin immediately to reorient our work to give focused attention to helping students acquire adaptive skills such as interpersonal communication, cultural intelligence, and social responsibility.
Social responsibility is broad and includes civic learning and democratic engagement; practical competence; humanitarianism, and ethics. Reorienting our focus in student affairs brings us back to our roots of helping to prepare students to make a contribution to the betterment of society and to assist students in developing to the limits of their potentialities.
I would like to have been a fly on the wall when the course on Beyoncé Knowles was proposed at the University of Victoria in Canada. On further thought, there may not have been as much of an uproar as one would think because I understand that there was a course titled Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame offered at the University of South Carolina, Skidmore College is offering a course on Miley Cyrus, and Keanu Reeves has been the subject of college courses since 1994.
If the idea is not completely out of the realm of what is going on throughout higher education, then, what does it all mean? I think it means that there is credence to the following comment about higher education:
“The 19th century belonged to the university president; the 20th century belonged to the faculty; and the 21st century belongs to the student.”
Bernard Shapiro, then head of McGill University, and Ann Dawsett Johnston declared this summation in Maclean’s, a Canadian weekly magazine, in 1998. We may be coming to an understanding of the pronouncement now.
Some of the most innovative educational practices are clearly adapting to students rather than the other way around, and it’s not all about pop culture, but pop culture may be a large part of it if this is what is important to your students. Getting students’ attention and motivating them to want to learn what we think is important should be done “by any means necessary.”