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Student Affairs Professionals: Open Expression and Beyond

Supporting the Profession
July 17, 2017 Ajay Nair Arcadia University

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.

– Audre Lorde 

The recent firing of the director of Claremont Colleges’ resource center for LGBTQ students and the controversy surrounding statements by other student affairs professionals addressing critical social issues have raised important questions about the legitimacy of higher education’s espoused commitment to freedom of speech/open expression – and, specifically, whether that commitment extends beyond faculty and students to include student affairs professionals. 

Although details of the incident are not public knowledge, we do know that many are speculating that the firing is related to the director’s tweets commenting on police as a means to “serve and protect white supremacy.” The former director also intimated that his past experiences made him wary of “white gays and well-meaning white women.” 

The words are provocative, and provocation is a useful tool to foster debate and dialogue. Many authors and speakers, myself included, use it to test ideas and push the envelope beyond normative discourse. The purpose is to create a jarring experience that pushes the audience to think critically. That said, institutions, community members, and the public have every right to express their discontent with any provocative idea, but at what point – if any – does provocative speech cross a line and result in loss of employment or disciplinary action? 

If we truly embrace open expression, we must be prepared to embrace ideas that challenge our sensibilities. Open expression must apply to those with whom we disagree as well as those with whom we agree. It must apply to conservatives who, incidentally, report feeling marginalized on many campuses, as well as to progressives/liberals and everyone else across the political spectrum.

Equal access to open expression

Open expression in higher education must not apply only to faculty and students; student affairs professionals must also be able to embrace open expression in their role as advocates for all students, including those from marginalized communities. That freedom must be shared equally if our intent is knowledge production and engagement with that knowledge through rigorous debate and dialogue as a means of producing new ways of knowing and understanding. Staff in student affairs and in other areas share that responsibility to our students. 

NASPA President Kevin Kruger stated this point concisely in his recent response to an open letter concerning the Claremont Colleges controversy:

It is critical that we support the right of student affairs professionals to express their opinions freely on difficult and challenging issues that may question established protocols and practices. This is a core value of higher education and the student affairs profession. At the same time, across all higher education, we are struggling with the challenging intersection of free expression with the sometimes-competing issues around being an institutional representative.

However, we should also note a fundamental difference between speech from marginalized community members that attacks systems of oppression – white supremacy, for example – and speech that attacks marginalized groups. 

People’s sensibilities may be challenged and they may be offended by controversial speech, but this is a far cry from the pain endured by groups who lack the privilege necessary to negotiate the vitriol. Even with the privileges associated with being an administrator or faculty member, as a person of color or other marginalized identities, our speech against white supremacy does not reify the system of oppression. 

While, as responsible professionals, we agree that espousing violence through speech in any form is wrong, it is important to recognize the disproportionate impact of hate speech against marginalized groups. Speech by people of color and others against white supremacy may at times be offensive to many, but it does not have the same impact that hate speech has against disenfranchised groups such as undocumented immigrants, people with disabilities, LGBTQ community members, and people of color, among others.

For example, the speech of an administrator who is a person of color challenging white supremacy is unlikely to create an unsafe environment for white students on a campus – unlike hate speech from an administrator that targets marginalized community members. Similarly, an administrator condemning bias toward LGBTQ students or students with disabilities is not likely to result in attacks on students who are not members of those marginalized groups.   

Fundamental realities 

Ultimately, as a higher education community, we must recognize some fundamental realities if we are to truly embrace open expression. They include, but are not limited to: 

First, academic freedom and open expression must extend to all community members, including staff and especially student affairs professionals, as noted earlier. Faculty and students have historically enjoyed this freedom more than most, although even their freedom has been called into question through recent events.

Second, for student affairs professionals who hold marginalized identities, there is often a deep tension between their authenticity and advocacy and the politics, culture, and history of the institution. The tension may be irreconcilable for professionals recruited specifically to serve as advocates for marginalized communities. The institution may create a position – e.g., director of LGBT life – to serve students, but as often as not, the advocate must negotiate contradicting mandates from different parts of the institution. Many of us also desire to bring our authentic selves to work. In fact, in advocacy positions, our students expect this from us, leading to even more challenging politics and negotiation for the employee.  

Third, provocation as a tool of open expression to elicit debate and dialogue should be grounded in evidence. That said, such evidence should include among other sources our lived experiences. Too often, lived experiences are denied as evidence, which significantly limits dialogue.

Fourth, regulating some ideas and not others is a slippery slope. Of course, discriminatory harassment of individuals or groups and threats to personal safety should not be tolerated, but ideas – especially provocative ones – must flourish. Speech that we do not agree with must be intellectually challenged so that other provocative ideas cannot be dismissed because of regulations. We hope that, in a society that truly values civility and respect, hate speech will suffer the social opprobrium that it deserves.

Fifth, if our goal is to allow for all ideas to flourish, we must simultaneously recognize that hate speech has a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. Marginalized groups, by definition, lack the power of the majority and, therefore, must live and grapple with hate speech in a very different way than their white counterparts.  The institution has a responsibility to counter the ill-effects of this speech by supporting students most affected. 

Sixth, our higher education communities are ill-prepared for provocation, especially in the form of hate speech. If we follow the principles above and allow for all speech, then we must also create safe (third) spaces for students to freely express their authentic selves, even when such expression differs from the dominant norms of the community. These spaces provide solace from discrimination against or harassment of individuals or groups based on their identities – and to empower community members to engage more fully in academic and social experiences that higher education offers. 

Finally, as a higher education community, we must model civility in practicing open expression as faculty and staff members serving our students in classrooms and across our campus communities. We must promote the idea that we should attack ideas, not people, and strive to have the impossible conversations – the conversations that provide transformative learning experiences.

Institutional authenticity empowers students

Higher education institutions, now more than ever before, must grapple with their climate, culture, and politics. Institutions must be authentic if their staff, faculty, and students are to embrace their own individual authenticity. We must be willing to speak openly about what is good and bad in our institutional climate if we are to shed the oppressive systems that weigh many of us down and continue to deter the progress we hope to achieve in higher education on matters of diversity and inclusion. 

Our students come to our campuses with an idealized vision of what should be. We owe it to them to be candid before they arrive to let them know how much work we have yet to do, so they can enact change in partnership with us. 

To do less is to fail to empower our students to ultimately transform their communities and our world in positive ways and create a better future for us all. 

Ajay Nair serves as the Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life at Emory University, as well as the inaugural Director of the new Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division, a Board-level position with NASPA initiated in March 2017. Learn more about the Division

Follow Ajay Nair on Twitter and Facebook.