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Leveraging Student Affairs to Heal the Social and Political Divide Within Our Campus Communities

Supporting the Profession Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement
May 14, 2019 Brandi Hephner LaBanc University of Massachusetts Amherst

THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS AN EXCERPT FROM "Leveraging Student Affairs to Heal the Social and Political Divide Within Our Campus Communities" ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE JOURNAL OF COLLEGE AND CHARACTER, VOLUME 20, ISSUE 1. 


I had the honor of serving as a keynote speaker at the 27th annual Jon Dalton Institute on College Student Values. The participants attending the institute were asked to think about how institutions of higher education address contemporary issues that create conflict, especially given the numerous identities that populate our campuses. Being asked to speak gave me an opportunity to reflect critically about the role of student affairs in the academe and what is required to live up to our professional tenets and responsibilities.

We are working in challenging times. There is clear evidence the political and social divide being experienced by a broader society has impacted our campus communities. As students step foot on campus for their first time, they are likely to experience this divide differently than at previous points in their lives. The divide becomes amplified because they are more likely to hear a new and different perspective from a professor, classmate, roommate, or a protester on campus. For example, although they may have previously read alternative, possibly controversial, positions in a headline or posted online, when they experience such new information first hand, the information can seem more personal and pressing. This amplification may encourage students to think more deeply about their own beliefs, values, and position on the topic; they may also begin to think they must pick a side or feel pressure to do so.

This conflict intensifies cognitive dissonance and will likely result in learning for students. These moments require student affairs staff to remain focused on their academic training and be available to facilitate learning. Being scholar-practitioners prepares us to capitalize on these moments by asking probing questions of these students and assessing the full human condition. In light of our roles, it is incumbent that we help facilitate cognitive, moral, psychosocial, and identity development within that student. But the situation is complex: A student’s development may not always be informed by value sets or beliefs that are shared by the practitioner or the greater campus community. In these moments, it is imperative student affairs professionals lead with the goal of education in mind and engage students in a way that asks them to consider their personal views in a broader context. This task can prove uncomfortable for many in our profession. Our responsibility is not to tell students what to believe or what position they should take, but it is to help them consider all aspects of those beliefs and positions so as to purposely define themselves. That becomes difficult work when the student’s and practitioner’s political or social perspectives are not congruent but can be navigated if we rely on our academic training in order to make educating the student the objective. We must be scholar-practitioners to effectively reduce the political and social divide.

I believe the professional preparation required to work in the area of student affairs uniquely qualifies us to help guide our colleges and universities during these tumultuous times because it addresses the flourishing of the whole student. But I am not confident we are living up to our full potential, and some in the field may have lost sight of their educational responsibility. Simply put, we need to ask ourselves the following question: “Are we contributing to the rhetoric that divides our communities, or are we working to reduce the conflict by helping students find their true selves?” The increasing social and political polarization of personal perspectives and related incivility makes the work of student affairs especially daunting; we are allies and advocates, yet we are in the business of facilitating the development of humans and encouraging them to make appropriate decisions to discover their unique identity. To that end, this article focuses on student affairs professionals working on college campuses and their role in developing students during tumultuous times. This article challenges student affairs professionals to utilize their academic training and qualifications to help address the divides that exist on all of our campuses.

Myriad Challenges

Free Speech and Expression

Whether it is managing campus protests or planning for controversial speakers, free speech on campus is a prominent issue for institutional leaders. For those working at public universities, it can be an especially challenging landscape. State-funded institutions have a legal obligation to uphold the First Amendment, an educational responsibility to expose students to alternative perspective and facilitate civil discourse, and a right to define and express institutional values and demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion. To that end, publics cannot legally limit speech, but institutional values can be used by campus leaders to express opinion or positionality on a topic. This approach does not always bode well when a growing community of students accuse college administrators of supporting a system of oppression by upholding the First Amendment, especially in cases when messages of speakers are hateful and in direct opposition to institutional values of inclusion and diversity. In most of these situations, campus leadership did not invite the speaker to campus; controversial figureheads realize that public campuses are a great venue as costs are low and content cannot be censored. Due to these competing perspectives and increasing incidents on campus, student affairs professionals often find themselves in a conflicted position supporting the logistics of hosting a speaker or guest whose position does not align with institutional values.

Sexual Assault

As in the case of free speech, effective systemic response to incidents of sexual assault is another issue that has received a great deal of attention. There are federal regulations, state laws, and campus policies that campus leaders are required to uphold; many of these relate to sexual assault complainant rights and support. We also have federal regulations and institutional policies that require due process and the equitable treatment of those involved (including respondents). And, there are situations where the guidance and laws conflict, creating another type of divide on campus. This conflict creates a challenging space for those navigating very personal and difficult conduct. This professional terrain has shifted in recent years, and the national narrative related to sexual misconduct and the treatment of women has amplified. Comprehensive dialogue related to these issues has been long overdue, but sadly it has resulted in polarization of perspectives and conflict over “right” and “wrong.” Although this is a critically important discussion from which everyone can benefit, it has now become dicey, politicized territory for student affairs professionals simply wanting to support and care for students.

Alcohol and Other Drugs

When I am asked about the most difficult issue to address on campus, my answer is always alcohol and drugs because the vast majority of campus conflict is created or escalated by this kind of misuse. The confluence of alcohol and other drugs is an age-old problem in higher education, and contemporary twists complicate things further. To begin with, we are finding parents are not always helpful allies. Some do not seriously consider the legal consequences of underage drinking, and their naivety related to the rampant mixing of drugs is commonplace. Students arrive on college campuses possessing previous (often frequent) experience with alcohol and other drugs, and many of them already unknowingly struggle with addiction. Student affairs practitioners know that alcohol and other drugs are an undercurrent to the vast majority of student success and retention issues on our campus. Ironically, we do not always feel we can freely discuss these issues in a meaningful way because it can be conceived as a reputational risk or politically unfavorable to call-out campus party culture or to confront a parent denying high-risk behavior. An example of calling out high-risk behavior is hazing; the cause of such risky behavior is more likely than not alcohol and/or drug use. Hazing is not exclusive to fraternities and sororities, but the unprecedented number of hazing deaths in 2017 appro- priately made this a focus for those communities. Because hazing is found deeply rooted in organizations situated locally on a campus but managed externally by national offices and alumni boards, the issue can be highly politicized. Responses range from shutting down the organization immediately to attempting to rationalize brutality due to the lack of maturity of those involved. And, there is often public critique, alumni or legislative involvement, or lawsuits. These are daunting barriers for a student affairs professional looking to enact change aimed at facilitating student well-being and success.

Racial and Cultural Clashes

Another major concern is the ongoing racial divide and the escalating, related political rhetoric. Many with different identities, backgrounds, and opinions in America have still not figured out how to get along, and some still dispute the fact that civil rights are human rights. The social constructs of race and related bigotry perpetuate such disputes. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken, but higher education professionals do not have an opportunity to assess a student’s awareness of their racial identity until they step foot on campus. More to the point—when racist behavior occurs on a college campus, it typically has been years in the making. Racism is learned behavior yet higher education leaders are almost expected to anticipate students’ racial consciousness in advance, address existing racism, and prevent offensive and hurtful incidents from happening. Individuals calling for expulsion cannot always see a better solution, but yet kicking a student out of the learning community may not be the best answer because students come to us to learn from their mistakes. Can we effectively educate if we cast all wrongdoers aside? I certainly understand that sometimes expulsion is warranted in the educational process. I also understand that systems, structures, and climate can facilitate biased behavior—that too must be addressed. My wish is that instead of demanding a quick-fix solution, student affairs professionals be given the space to appropriately diagnose the complexity of the situation and determine the most appropriate educational outcome.

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