Today’s Student Activists Illuminate Path to Progress

Our venerable and often somnolent higher education institutions will be markedly different in the next era of higher education, thanks to a new wave of student activism.

As higher education leaders and administrators, we must replace our current paradigm of multiculturalism with a new approach, polyculturalism. Multiculturalism, a transitional move away from our society’s historic oppression of marginalized groups, defines individuals primarily by race, religion, ethnicity, or similarly narrow criteria, placing each of us in categories that too often disregard our other identities and overlook our shared humanity.

However, today’s activists and other students are growing up in a wonderfully diverse, polycultural global society that increasingly acknowledges and embraces our individual “multidimensionality” as complex beings with many identities. In doing so, polyculturalism opens the doors to what today’s student activists demand – greater inclusion, collaboration, transparency, and accountability.

Multiculturalism vs. Polyculturalism

Administrators often struggle with providing both a sense of belonging on campus for groups that may feel marginalized and “procedural protection” for community members related to open expression and other policies. This is a result of outdated student services models built on a multicultural framework.  Students often find themselves living within an outdated bureaucratic multiculturalism that apportions inadequate resources to minority groups to mollify them and insists that the community tolerate underrepresented groups through heritage months or awareness weeks. This paradigm has stymied debate, dialogue, and change on our campuses leaving students without the necessary tools or environment to help us build a polycultural community.

Until recently, the millennial generation has been spared the culture wars of the past because they embrace their own polycultural identities and those of others. They recognize that each of us is a composite of many identities, and that we cannot be defined solely by traditional criteria like race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other single aspect of the complex beings that we are. 

In addition, the multicultural framework on most of our campuses fails to understand what movements like Black Lives Matter underscore: Systemic racism has grave consequences. Importantly, our multicultural framework affirms some identities, which is an important educational tool in student development. However, this same framework doesn’t allow space for systemic change on our campuses largely because of the limited vision of these departments and/or their limited power and influence within organizational structures. 

A new polycultural framework would recognize that our community members are not all operating on a level playing field, and issues on the global and national stage intersect profoundly with our campus communities. Our own limited framework of multiculturalism, for example, has pushed students involved in the Black Lives Matter movement to exercise their right to open expression. They are occupying intellectual, emotional, and physical spaces where they have been previously marginalized or excluded. At each turn, these student activists are not simply encountering counter-speech; their humanity is being called into question through threats to their safety, as well as microaggressions that chip away at the human spirit. It is important to note that this is not the experience of most individuals who exercise the right to free speech. Clearly, not all groups experience the same consequences when they exercise their right to open expression.   

Social Justice and Open Expression

Social justice and open expression are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, each demands the other. In our daily lives, we may encounter unsettling, ignominious, unpopular, and even offensive and hateful ideas. At institutions of higher education, we have a unique opportunity to foster debate and dialogue to help community members discover new ways of knowing and understanding. If we don’t counter the ideas we disagree with, we cannot possibly create a more socially just community, and we most certainly cannot passionately pursue and discover truth—a hallmark of higher education. 

Following events at Yale and Mizzou, the racial tension on college campuses across the country is palpable. Justice and open expression have been framed as diametrically opposed in the public discourse. Historically marginalized groups are calling for institutional reform such as safe spaces, racial sensitivity training, and greater diversity in the curriculum. Responding to the chants of "Black Lives Matter," a striking vitriol purports that we live in a post-racial society free from systemic oppression, characterizing the movement as oversensitive, misguided, and “spiteful.” However, the vitriol often morphs into a specious argument that tends to mask or deny the persistent and pervasive social justice issues: We must support open expression at all costs even if it means offending others.

When students of color call for safe spaces where they can be heard, they are not excluding others; they are empowering themselves in communities where disempowerment is pervasive. So it is not unreasonable for students of color to seek shelters of empowerment – shelters from which they can rise to a level playing field to counter offensive, hateful speech, and microaggressions.

If majority students feel excluded from these spaces, they can and should co-create spaces with marginalized students to produce opportunities for debate and dialogue. The existence of safe spaces does not preclude opportunities to discuss ideas that make us uncomfortable or explore differing points of view. 

Following the Mizzou senior leadership resignations, we’ve heard over and over again that a few Black Lives Matters student activists shouldn't dictate the future of our campuses and that they are bullying university communities. The voices of students representing the Black Lives Matter movement may be underrepresented on our campuses, but we should not measure the relevance of the issues based on the number of students involved in protest on our respective campuses.

These students are expressing their concerns in the face of threats and racial subjugation; they are leading courageously and giving voice to many others. As a result, they are organizing across institutional boundaries and have created a powerful movement. And even if they don’t represent a majority opinion, they have the right to express themselves without fear for their safety and security. 

Polyculturalism recognizes that we must fight for social justice always and everywhere. It understands that justice is at the heart of humanity on a college campus or in Beirut, Nigeria, Paris, Ferguson, or Charleston. Importantly, polyculturalism also recognizes that cultural humility, debate, and dialogue are necessary components of building a socially just community.

Reshape the Center

Multiculturalism now stands as the great fault line of our society. Melting pots, salad bowls, and stews no longer suffice. As educators, we are in privileged positions to shape a generation uniquely equipped to concoct a new, polycultural dish with cultural humility, social justice, and open expression as the main ingredients. 

  • First, we must redefine our limited notion of culture to embrace the paradigm of polyculturalism. No longer can we ignore the fluidity and permeability of cultural boundaries. We must create frameworks for diversity based on cultural humility that recognizes cultures actively engage and inspire one another.  Polyculturalism understands we need not live in boxes, compartmentalized by characteristics dictated by society.
  • Second, we must promote a social justice agenda. Social justice brings to bear resources that we must use to create personal and social change. As higher education professionals, we must evaluate social and organization processes to unpack unfair historical practices and oppression. At a more basic level, university administrators must become better listeners and build a community of care that appreciates the lived experiences of all students. The cultural humility inherent in polyculturalism can help us here.
  • Third, we must struggle intellectually with our own value systems. We must move from practicing cultural competence awash in stereotypes to embracing cultural humility. We must interact more graciously and authentically with others, and open ourselves to new ways of knowing and understanding. We must practice forgiveness and generosity.
  • And, finally, we must engage seemingly impossible conversations. We must teach our students to share and debate ideas in civil, generous, and constructive ways. However, not everyone feels entitled to the privilege of open expression, so we must enable the creation of spaces where our polycultural world is enlivened through debate and dialogue.  Here again, cultural humility comes into play.

Rather than viewing our work as a balancing act for supporting underrepresented groups and the protection of due process for potential offenders of conduct policies, administrators would benefit by listening carefully and showing compassion for groups that feel marginalized; when the personhood of our students is validated, we can engage as educators, not just administrators, and both affirm identity and teach the great intersectionality among all of us through a polycultural framework

When polycultural experiences are cultivated, a transformed, vibrant, and exciting community can emerge, one that simultaneously affirms individual identities, crafts a social justice agenda, and enables greater inclusion, collaboration, transparency, and accountability.  

I’ve spent my career moving the margins closer to the center. Today, my call is to reshape the center through debate and dialogue as a polycultural community in which cultural humility and social justice are embraced by all – where open expression and justice are interconnected values.