Post-2016 election challenge and opportunity for higher education

Fifty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy introduced the phrase that “one may live in interesting times”.  He stated that “like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history…” (speech given in Cape Town, June 1966).  It appears to me that today, we are also living in ‘interesting times’.  For most, uncertainty and danger for many are clearly perceived for 2017 and beyond. There is so much that is unknown at the moment that it becomes unsettling. But perhaps these post-2016 election times might also challenge us, the words of RFK to be “creative”. That is, to ponder, reflect and act.

In her book entitled Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit (2015 reissue of 2004 book) writes  about ‘hope’ but not as optimism per se but rather that “hope locates itself in the premises that we d9781608465767-f_mediumon’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes.” (from her Facebook page in November 2016).    “Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things you can know beforehand.”   As she proposes, recognizing uncertainty allows us to recognize that we might be “able to influence the outcomes”.  Thus, it appears that now is the time to take action.

Although a rather simplistic statement, the 2016 elections revealed so much more about the current state of U.S. society and higher education’s connection (or lack thereof) to that reality for many. Higher education has been often accused of being elitist and out of touch with society and I would argue that sometimes we have been. University towns are sometimes called a ‘blue bubble’ in an otherwise red state. A recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the phenomena of “blue bubbles”  and provided some perspective on why universities are sometimes isolated from the surrounding communities. And this is where change must begin.

From the perspective of higher education, I would argue (along with many others) that higher education has not only a role to play but a responsibility to get involved and even to assume a leadership role.  As educational institutions, colleges and universities must continue to educate our students as well as our faculty, staff and administrators about social justice, equity and civil discourse.  We must be intentional about engaging with the dialogue around difference, encouraging all to speak up and speak out and to do so by understanding difference and through listening and hearing the voices of others.  It is also important that we focus our attention to communicate with clarity and to enhance our skills and ability to determine the accuracy of information and seek truth.  Articles about programs, strategies and workshops as well as analyses, opinion pieces and reflections are found frequently in publications including the Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHigherEd, and Times Higher Education to name only a few.

Let me offer a few examples.

In the days following the 2016 election, an increase in hate motivated campus-climate incidents occurred and was reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The data were compiled by Southern Poverty Law Center which issued a report including historical context and detailed information about type and location of the hate-related incidents.  I believe that in part these data provided the impetus for the call for higher education to respond and a focus on citizenship was one such response. Although there are many others, recent articles suggest how colleges can teach students to be good citizens and urge colleges and universities not to retreat but rather to teach citizenship.  Examples of programs and initiatives for understanding difference, increasing awareness of micro-aggressions and implicit bias and sustaining affirming campus-climate environment appear regularly in the higher education news and social media.

Given the rhetoric of the 2016 election campaign, it has become very clear that “racism still exists and can appear” on university campuses according to racial-equity scholar Harper (2017) in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.  “The polarizing nature of the 2016 campaign makes improving the racial climate a more urgent matter for higher-education leaders.”  Once again,this speaks to the opportunity and the need to act and educate.

Education is critical and universities must do their part.  Universities can provide opportunity, programs, space (real and metaphorical) for dialogue, and messages that foster inclusion.   A recent example of a timely message is the address provided by Andy Morikawa (Blacksburg, Virginia) at the December 2016 Virginia Tech Graduate School Commencement.  (Note: his remarks begin at minute 35 on the recording).  Morikawa encouraged us to get involved, get engaged in civic life and community engagement, to be attentive, to listen, to have tough conversations with those who don’t share the same views and to do so regularly in community.

As we know education is a primary mission of higher education and for many universities, research is also a primary mission.  Science, discovery and the search for truth are critical and remain even more so in the post 2016 election era.  Besides ‘teaching citizenship’ and encouraging civil discourse, how do we engage our students with determining facts and uncovering ‘fake news’?  A recent article from Times Higher Education (THE) suggests that it is education not regulation.  Seargeant and Tagg (2016)  wrote that “the heightened need for critical literacy skills in tackling fake news and media manipulation highlights the central role that higher education can play for society as a whole.”  Further, Virgo (2017) writing in Times Higher education suggests that the university must accept its “role as critic and conscience of society”.

In this post-2016 election era, faculty and academic administrators have much to contemplate not only about our defined missions in research, teaching, and engagement but also as critic and conscience of society in accepting the responsibility of the university as a social institution and to do so with “intentional and ethical scholar activism“.

Higher education has the responsibility to be ‘creative’ and innovative in these ‘interesting times’ and to embrace the unknown and act so we can ‘influence the outcomes’.  Let us work individually as well as collectively.

Intentional and ethical scholar activism

The issue of ethics–ethical choices, ethical decision-making, and ethical action–is a longstanding topic of concern for academics, both as scholars and teachers.  When we think about ethics in higher education, we usually think first about scholarly integrity (e.g., plagiarism and scientific misconduct) and then perhaps codes of conduct and standards for professional behavior.  But there are additional aspects of ethics that should be discussed especially ethics associated with teaching and the ethics of service or engagement.  In this blog post, I will share briefly some musings about the ethics of service or engagement and scholar activism (e.g., scholar-advocate, citizen scholar).

Derrick Bell (2002Ethical Ambition), author of Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, wrote that ethics requires us to think deeply about our positions on issues, and to take principled stands as a result of those positions” (p. 50).  In this statement, Bell didn’t reference academia specifically but the application to those of us in higher education (faculty, administrators, students) should be clear.  There are many issues facing higher education in general (e.g., accessibility, affordability, student debt, relevance, null curriculum) in addition to matters that might arise within a discipline (e.g. controversial research topics, methodology), but “taking principled stands” is not necessarily something that has come easily or often to many of us in academe. On the other hand, there are disciplines (e.g., sociology, counseling, Ethnic studies) in which “taking principled stands” is common and perhaps even a foundation for scholarship and teaching/learning.

In addition to the research and teaching/learning missions of the university, “taking principled stands” also applies to the service mission of the land-grant university or more generally the social responsibility of the university.  At land-grant universities, we are quite familiar with the “service” or engagement mission and regularly have employees with strong ties to the community (e.g., extension agents, service learning).  In some disciplines, faculty who engage with society are identified as scholar-activist or scholar-advocate.  But faculty from most disciplines are not and wouldn’t necessarily identify as scholar-activist or advocates but faculty could take “principled stands” on issues.

Whether or not one identifies as scholar-activist (advocate or citizen scholar) directly, I believe those of us who work in higher education have an ethical responsibility to society. In our roles as faculty (and graduate students) or administrators we are often seen as an “expert” and having “expertise”.  And we are sometimes asked to share this expertise beyond academic circles and within the broader society. We need to respond to such requests but acknowledge that acceptance of these requests comes with additional responsibility; that of understanding the perceived and real power associated with being viewed as an expert and to understand the ways in which we can ethically interact and engage the public and with the public. It is a given that there are various ways to solve problems.  When sharing our expertise, it is also important to acknowledge the involvement of others with differing roles and associated responsibilities and explore how best to invite, interact and engage with others to share their expertise.  It is important that we do not intentionally or otherwise allow our academic expertise to silence others.  So where do we begin the process of thinking about “principled stands”, being intentional and taking action, and becoming citizen scholars or scholar activists?  Graduate School provides a good starting place.

Through the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative offered by the VT Graduate School, graduate students have multiple opportunities to compliment their academic disciplinary degree and better prepare themselves for future and perhaps multiple careers. Two examples of many opportunities seem applicable here: Future Professoriate graduate certificate and Citizen Scholar engagement program.  Graduate students who wish to become future faculty gain knowledge and understanding about what it means to and to prepare to become faculty for 21st century universities through GRAD 5104 Future Professoriate course in which ethics and scholarly integrity are addressed.  In this class and in keeping with Bell’s premise above, we discuss what it means to think deeply about issues and to take principled stands as future faculty members.  In advocating for strong connections between academia and society, we have also developed a citizen-scholar program where graduate students can explore, learn and demonstrate their commitment to and be recognized for engagement with society.  These are relevant and fairly straightforward ways to encourage “ethical ambition” and “living a life of meaning and worth” as an integral part of graduate education.

In Ethical Ambition, Bell (2002) offers some reflections and personal stories that can guide us toward success ethically. In particular he challenges us to “live a life of passion” and to have the courage to take the risks for what we believe in.  He shares the importance of community (family and friends) for “support in hard times”.  And he indicates that humility should be our watchword and that we should have ‘humility to know when our best intentions go awry”.

An “ethical life is not a life of sacrifice; it is a life of riches. The satisfaction of choosing ethically enriches the fabric of our daily lives in ways we might have otherwise thought impossible” (Bell, 2002).

Be thoughtful and intentional. Engage honestly and ethically with society.