Post-election Silver Linings Playbook: Recommitting to Core Principles of Higher Education
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 postgraduation. 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."