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Focus Author Gage Paine Talks About Her JCC Article

August 22, 2014 Gage E. Paine

Focus Author: Gage Paine, Vice President for Student Affairs, University of Texas at Austin
Article in Journal of College and Character:  “Caring About Students – The Work of Student Affairs,” 14(3), August, 2014
More About: G. Paine

In my article in the Journal of College and Character, I wrote that creating a caring campus community is a challenging task, but it may be the most important task we have as student affairs administrators. An ethic of care supports learning at all levels and is especially important for making it possible to have difficult conversations. I hope you will join me in exploring these questions and I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

It's easy to talk about caring for students, and I love Carol Gilligan's definition of an ethic of care as "an ethic grounded in voice and relationships, in the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully (in their own right and on their own terms) and heard with respect (http://ethicsofcare.org/interviews/carol-gilligan/).

But how do we express caring when the words and ideas expressed by one student are hurtful, possibly even hateful to another student? What about when the words are hurtful to us?

Last year on our campus a student group advertised an event that was ostensibly designed to create discussion on the topic of illegal immigration. It created an uproar on campus and in the community. What does caring look like in this circumstance?  Is caring issuing a statement condemning the actions of the student group? Is caring supporting the student group in exercising their first amendment rights on campus? Both of these reactions seem to me to be caring for one group of students at the expense of another group. Is it caring to do our job and hold the space for both groups of students to express their ideas—to have a voice?  What about when that voice is hurtful to others? 

I believe that many students, and some faculty and staff, feel that they do not have a voice on our campuses. A former student, now professional colleague, once asked me to be involved in a panel discussion around the question of whether or not it was possible to be “conservative” and work in student affairs. Clearly she felt that the answer was no—and she worked on what was considered a conservative campus. Her experience told her there were ”conservative ideas” that were not okay to express in her division. She was not experiencing an ethic of care; she felt her voice, her beliefs were not valued.

How do we create campuses that feel safe and welcoming to all students that also affirm the challenging realities that come with the exercise of our freedom of expression. How can students learn to be open to new ideas and ways of thinking if their voice isn't heard with respect?  

There are times when one person's legitimate expression of a deeply held-belief will make another person feel unwelcome on our campus. 

A colleague reminded me last week that a safe space isn't necessarily a comfortable space, but I think many of us and many of the students we work with have difficulty with that conundrum. This brings me back to caring. Finding ways to care, to express care, to help students be caring seem to be ways to make discomfort safer. And one of the best ways to care is to listen with an open mind and an open heart.

One of the realities during the student issue last year was that many people were working on "having a voice" and very few were practicing the 'listening carefully and with respect." I am more and more convinced that one of the ways we need to express care and create caring communities on our campuses is to help students (and faculty and staff) stop talking and start listening, really listening.  

We create more allies by listening, learning what is important to others than by talking, telling others what is important to us. In Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, Margaret Wheatley writes, "I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again. Simple, honest, human conversation.  Not mediation, negotiation, problem-solving, debate, or public meetings. Simple, truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard and we each listen well."

Is it possible to create a campus environment that feels safe for everyone or does our responsibility to support freedom of speech make that impossible?  What do you think about Wheatley's comment? Is it that simple? And if it is, how do we help members of our communities begin having conversations?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas.