Mike Brody, Vice President for Student Services and Title IX Coordinator, Reed College
October 12, 2018
For the last eighteen years I have worked at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where demonstrated skepticism of authority might as well be a prerequisite for admission, and intense scrutiny of any decision made by “The Administration” is a (the) competitive sport. That said, underlying the dynamic tension between campus constituencies there has always been a foundation of shared purpose (rigorous academics in a community of scholars) and values (honor, self-governance, mutual care and concern). Over the last two years, however, conflicts have become more intense; interpersonal animus and reciprocal harm abound.
Clearly this is not just a Reed thing. I know there are many student affairs professionals (maybe even some of you?) experiencing similar challenges. And of course, this is not just a higher ed thing, either.
Regardless of one’s political predilections, most people would agree that the United States of America in 2018 is anything but united. The fact that we are so deeply divided may be one of the few things about which people with disparate political views can actually agree, except of course that the division (and everything else that’s going wrong) is the fault of the other, of the “them” that is positioned in diametric opposition to “us”.
Though we might be tempted to think of current conflagrations as acute symptoms of some contemporary malady, it seems clear that present-day events plainly and painfully expose a deeply-rooted national disease. Longstanding systems of oppression constantly and often imperceptibly perpetuate themselves, fueled by the interests of those whom the systems serve (in the spirit of transparency, I consider myself among those who benefit from and perpetuate these systems). The clandestine ubiquity of this process makes it exceedingly difficult to envision let alone pave an accessible path to preferable alternatives. Meanwhile, these systems extend historical inequities and amplify suspicion and acrimony between individuals and groups who often go to great lengths to dehumanize the other.
During this period of national discord, it is no surprise that individuals are suffering and many of our campuses feel fundamentally fractured.
Over the past two years the national political climate, along with Reed’s traditions/habits, policies, and practices, have provided a backdrop for nearly continuous campus protests. We have seen positive change, progress that is irrefutably attributable in large part to student passion and pressure, along with extraordinary effort from dedicated staff and faculty to translate that raw energy into institutional impact. But the stress and strain of this effort and the constant conflict have driven individuals into opposing camps, the parts of our community detracting/taking from each other rather than coming together to form a whole greater than their sum. This toxic alchemy has taken a toll.
As the conflicts persisted through one academic year and into the next, empathy and compassion became increasingly scarce. In myself, I saw lifelong tendencies toward optimism and levity, upon which I had come to depend even in the midst of very difficult personal and professional ordeals, evaporate. I wondered whether I could continue this work. Even worse, with a chorus of the very students I endeavor to serve calling for sweeping change, I began to doubt whether I had anything to contribute.
And then the clouds began to part, and I am very happy to report the sun has risen once more.
This internal shift stems at least in part from the mystical healing powers of the academic calendar. Summer provided a modicum of much-needed distance, giving us all some room to breathe. But I am convinced it’s more than that. Staff and faculty colleagues spent the summer digging into the issues that have so confounded us all. Gradually we began working together again. We have moved from reaction to reflection, and I can see the early signs of positive, sustainable change. We have started to heal and even dare to envision a brighter future.
As I joined my colleagues in welcoming the class of 2022 to campus this August, our students and their families reminded me how much Reed has to offer, how much we have to be grateful for and proud of, and how capable we are both of offering these amazing young people a truly remarkable educational experience, and of admitting that we have room to grow and learn ourselves. It wasn’t just the curated glow of O-week first impressions; our returning students also seem to have returned with a renewed sense of positivity and optimism.
We are in the early stages of a presidential search at Reed, and there is a pervasive sense of possibility in the air. Intense feelings of fear and frustration that seemed potentially permanent not so long ago have finally faded, and that it is this experience of emerging from the dark that I wanted to share with all of you.
To any of you who might encounter difficulty this coming year, challenges that test you and your staff, I offer this reminder that nothing lasts forever. In so doing I acknowledge that it’s easy to say and can be exceedingly difficult to believe when you’re “in it”. And I recognize that I may well need this reminder myself, because as we all know, the issues that animate campus unrest and underlie the struggles that permeate so many communities beyond our campuses do not magically disappear; racism, misogyny, economic injustice, festering fear of the other, these foes are as are obstinate as they are pernicious, and they will continue to demand our full attention. We cannot take for granted a single moment of light, and at the same time we must not defend, deny or flee from the challenges that lie ahead. Instead, we strive to nurture gratitude and cultivate a positive perspective. Division and discomfort may be the order of the day for the foreseeable future, but we need not, and in fact we cannot give up hope. At this moment, and for as long as we are engaged in this crucial work, we will be called upon to be and to bring our best selves. Onward, into the light…
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