Identity and Decision Making

naspa avp steering committee

Dr. Art Munin, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, Illinois State University

October 11, 2016

            I have always loved the notion from Anaïs Nin that "We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are."  As such, I was drawn early in in my academic career to the study of psychology, counseling, and communications because I am fascinated by the worlds we create for ourselves.  I believe strongly in the social construction of reality, that what we call reality is constantly changing and being negotiated.  This is a topic worthy of reflection because we are leaders charged with making vital and important decision on a daily basis.  Our understanding of ourselves and reality must be scrutinized.  If we are not careful, we may fail to realize how our sense of self, how our identities, affect the decisions we make and the campuses we serve.  I believe Kurt Vonnegut said it best - "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

            Earlier in my career I had a request submitted to install an art installation in the lobby on first floor of the student center.  This installation involved pictures of nude female students with the goal of raising dialogue and awareness about misogyny and who the media deems to be beautiful.  All of the students involved participated freely.  When considering the request I consulted with partners across campus.  But, it was a chance hallway conversation with a colleague in university ministry that caught me off guard.  She asked me if I had considered the Muslim prayer space that was also located in the student center; this was the only Muslim prayer space on-campus.  I had not and asked why it was important.  After all, the prayer space was on the third floor and this installation would be in the lobby on the first floor.  She explained that the viewing of a naked body in such a manner could be considered an act of sin.  Therefore, for a Muslim student to pray, in the only location identified on-campus, they would first have to walk through this art installation. 

            I think back to this situation whenever I am making a tough decision and it helps spur two reflections.  First, it causes me to ask the question, "What do I not know?"  It is impossible to see all ends and that is why it is vital that we involve colleagues in decision making processes so that we can be challenged.  Second, it causes me to think critically about my identity and how that identity influences every decision I make.  In this case, my religious identity and knowledge (or lack thereof) almost marginalized a group of already marginalized students. 

            My identity is a social construction, one that influences how I see and navigate the world.  As a leader in higher education, I need to challenge myself to ask very uncomfortable questions such as:

·      How does my whiteness affect my decisions?

·      How does being cisgender impact my viewpoint?

·      How does being temporarily able bodied skew my opinions?

As AVPs, this self reflection is crucial in being the best versions of ourselves for our campuses.  The answers we uncover will, at times, show our ignorance as exemplified in the case study I shared.  However, ignorance exposed early, corrected, and learned from is always better than the alternative. 

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