Learning to Listen in Public Policy and Advocacy

naspa divisions groups public policy division

Dr. Lawrence P. Ward, Vice President for Student Affairs, Babson College

August 29, 2018

This summer, I was very pleased to participate along with a dedicated group of student affairs professionals in the inaugural NASPA Hill Days and the Student Affairs Day of Action in Washington, DC. In preparing to be effective advocates during our time on Capitol Hill, we benefited from a comprehensive orientation designed to clarify talking points and help us to employ best practices when meeting with US Congressional representatives or their legislative staff members. Without question, the entire experience was a remarkable civics lesson.

A Civics Lesson

As a representative of NASPA’s Public Policy Division, I take seriously our responsibility to monitor federal legislation, share policy updates with various constituencies, and generally keep abreast of how policymaking in Washington, DC is likely to impact student outcomes and success on a college campus. Yet, nothing underscores the essential role that public policy plays in student affairs more than a Congressional office visit. Whether you follow higher education policy closely or not, I want to recommend strongly that you invest in your own professional development by visiting Capitol Hill and experiencing firsthand the people’s business being done. Walk the halls of the House and Senate office buildings. Pay a visit to your member of Congress and share what is on your mind with the people elected to represent your interests. It does make a difference.

As participants in NASPA Hill Days, our purpose was to bring to life and add context to the challenges and stories of the students that we serve. We focused on how certain proposed components of the PROSPER Act (House Republicans’ Higher Education Act Reauthorization proposal) may limit the ability of federal financial aid programs to expand access and increase attainment. We shared concerns on behalf of Dreamers about the troubling uncertainty of DACA. We also asked our Congressional representatives to reaffirm their commitment to Title IX, particularly the goal of increasing safety by reducing the incidents of gender-based misconduct and sexual violence on campus.

Regarding Title IX, I also was fortunate to be part of a small NASPA delegation that visited the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR). We had an important listening session with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education and key members of the team that is responsible for producing new Title IX guidance for campus decision-makers. At the outset, I was not sure what to expect but walked away satisfied with what I believed to be a genuine effort on their part to listen to our experiences and recommendations. In an hour-long discussion, OCR staff asked thoughtful questions and listened intently to those of us who are actively engaged in the addressing gender-based misconduct at our institutions. And, we will see if our recommendations or admonitions are reflected in forthcoming guidance, as a proposed rule has been promised for public comment this fall.

Reasonable Middle Ground?

Given the divisive and increasingly acidic tenor of our national politics, I was curious in each of my conversations on the Hill and at OCR about the following question, “Is there a reasonable middle ground legislatively?” Almost unanimously, I received the same response no matter who I asked, “That is a really good question.” Irrespective of political party, there was universal agreement about the fundamental importance of higher education and also a fair amount of overlap around common goals of education policy, particularly with respect to student success.

The problem according to the legislative aides that I spoke with is the highly polarized current political environment. We allow the 15% of the solution where there is no agreement to outweigh 85% of the solution where there is. Compromise, which once was part of the regular order of legislative business, is viewed as a dirty word and an illegitimate outcome. Yet, compromise is not a threat to progress, but recalcitrant politics most assuredly is. Imagine if we put the collective interests of students first. It would require a focus on key outcomes like expanding access, increasing retention, and improving attainment and degree completion.

Reasonable people may disagree about how best to achieve those goals, but rarely do reasonable people disagree about the ideal outcomes. I do not believe that is limited to higher education. Reasonable people also want their schools to be free from gun violence and support a more sustainable solution to immigration reform. Our lack of progress toward shared outcomes is not hindered because the outcomes are unworthy, but rather because we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that a legislative win can only happen if or when the other side “sees it my way.”

When it comes to college student success, expanding federal financial aid programs, or reducing the incidents of gender-based misconduct, progress can be incremental. In other words, let’s enact legislation that solves 85% of the problem and come back the next day to argue about the remaining 15%. Being reasonable does not necessitate that you compromise your principles or abandon your priorities. Similarly, reasonableness is not about preventing the other side from gaining momentum on their agenda. The hard part is building a coalition of reasonable people willing to engage one another in an outcomes-based discussion.

An Ear for Advocacy

Finally, let me also suggest that reasonableness is not just a consideration for legislators and policymakers, but equally important for the student affairs professional. If I am being completely honest, I see a certain tension on many campuses at the intersection of free expression, social justice, and the stated desire for more students, faculty, and campus communities to engage in “difficult” conversations around diversity and inclusion.

I am concerned that too many student affairs professionals are not prepared to lead authentic conversations, particularly if it means thoughtfully engaging with someone who has a very different perspective on social justice. I worry that rather than creating brave (not safe) spaces for difficult conversations and free expression, we are more committed to convincing others to think the way we do and share our preferred world view.

Indeed, one of my key takeaways from participating in NASPA Hill Days is that effective advocacy is as much about listening as it is about talking. So, rather than being in a hurry to persuade, convince, or defeat the opposition, I want to recommend that a better first step in being a more capable advocate is to become a better listener and observer.

Be careful of those who lead with their mouth and not with their ears. In my career, I have found that listening and observation have served me well. Listening and observation have allowed me to avoid common mistakes and also helped me to become a pretty good problem solver. Listening and observation have helped me to identify both wonderful mentors and promising mentees.

I am persuaded that the most compelling student affairs professionals have constructive, insightful, and reasonable things to say in support of social justice only after listening carefully and respectfully to what others have to say. Ultimately, they understand that being an effective advocate and leader is not about how good you sound but rather about how well you listen (even to people with whom you disagree).

Lawrence P. Ward, Ed.D.

Vice President for Student Affairs, Babson College

Public Policy Division Director, NASPA

Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASPA. If you agree or disagree with the content of this post, we encourage you to dialogue in the comment section below. NASPA reserves the right to remove any blog that is inaccurate or offensive.

To comment, you can login to your preferred social network. Comments are lightly moderated and we do provide the option for users to flag a comment as inappropriate.

Get in Touch with NASPA