Higher Education is a world where students have enormous power. Often they do not realize the power that they have, but really, if something changes on a university campus, it almost certainly began as a student movement. We’ve seen this quite a bit lately with the commencement speaker changes. Staff members are in a different position all together. They have limits on the things that they can say and do. They can push the boundaries only so far and are taking the chance that they could do or say something that might compromise their job. This considerably limits what staff members will often say or do in the way of inclusivity. The power differential is an interesting conversation to explore the untapped influences we have on our campuses.
For example, the institution I am serving for my VISTA year has closed the Multicultural Initiatives Department. The reasons have not been entirely made clear to the faculty, staff, and the students. The staff members were offered jobs in other departments so they will be able to take some of their multicultural programing with them. The students, on the other hand, have been particularly outspoken in their frustration with the department closing without their input. They have called meetings with the Deans, Vice Presidents, and the President of the college. In full disclosure, I have not been a part of any of those meetings, but the discussions have been heated enough for them to overflow into letters being written and more meetings to discuss the plans for the future.
These students have demonstrated a great deal of courage. From their perspective a safe space is being taken away from them and as tuition and fee paying students they are insistent that their voices be heard. It’s been reported to me that they have more than once used the line, “without students you would not have a job, so we want to be heard.” I’m not sure that is the best way to go about accomplishing their goals, but to some extent, they are correct. They are doing what they can to build their courage and speak to the stakeholders on campus. They would be better served to first seek fully to understand the circumstances that brought the closure of the department. This tactic requires a great deal of willingness to listen more than being heard. The students, I’m afraid, have not made it past their anger.
Thomas Aquinas taught Christians to first seek to understand before being understood. This philosophy works well in a variety of situations where various stakeholders are trying to make their opinions heard. Be the party willing to step back and listen to the other perspective. This grants all parties dignity and honor. Once you are willing to listen to their side of the story it is simply respectful for them to hear your perspective. This tactic will require humility but it will also require courage.
Courage will cost you something. The cost of speaking up often costs us some embarrassment. We have to be willing to feel foolish for just thirty seconds. The payoff is usually worth it. I promise. When you hear a hateful word, when you hear a racist joke, when someone uses a stereotype in front of you, I implore you to ask them to change their words. I like to use several different lines. Either, “please don’t use someone’s identity as a punch line,” or “please don’t use hateful words around me.” It will change your relationship with them, it will. They will think about you in a different way. Hopefully, what we are doing by speaking up is causing them to rethink their speech even when we are not around. Like the students on my campus, if you feel there is an injustice taking place on campus, it is your job to listen and learn and then, speak up. Your perspective of inclusivity and kindness is much more powerful than you often realize.
Staff and faculty members who speak to further inclusivity and diversity on campus also have a powerful voice. Often, staff members are afraid to question or challenge policies in higher education, but those that speak to the needs of the students should be acknowledged for their courage. Student service staff members generally have shorter bursts of contact with students, but see students in their times of need. When staff or faculty members witness students being treated unfairly it is imperative that they speak out. It will require courage, and it will be scary, at first, but it will be rewarding when students are given an environment where they can feel welcome to be themselves.
Those in privilege too often mistake that privilege for (earned) power. Those of us with the eyes to see the difference must find the courage to publicly identify that privilege. Once we speak to the advantages of our own positions then we can begin to acknowledge those who have, by no fault of their own, less opportunities. These are difficult conversations. It is often helpful to first acknowledge our own privilege in a situation. If I am willing to concede that I have been given opportunities that I did not always work to gain, it will open the conversation to those around me to be willing to discuss their privilege.
For example, most of us share the advantage of being American and the many benefits and privileges that come with a country that has clean water, access to free public education, freedom or religion, and rule of law. These are often dismissed, but I can promise you that if you have a conversation with any refugee student on my campus, they do not take these benefits lightly.
What will happen if we ask people to change the words they use, or if you challenge a stereotype used by the institution? How do arguments change when you are willing to fully hear the other party’s viewpoint? How would that challenge us in the argument we are making? What could we change if we were willing to acknowledge our privileges? What would happen if we spoke to those around us about their privileges? What does it feel like to be in the religious majority, and how do we expect others to conform to our morals? What would it look like if we gave up that privilege?
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