An alarm is sounding: campuses have become asylums controlled by the inmates, professors are afraid of their students and everyone faces punishment for crimes of thought and speech. Yet other observers rebut such terrifying tales with their own stories, which suggest the landscape of higher education is multifaceted, with an array of institutional contexts and voices. As alluring as it can be to view campus protests merely as confrontations between hypersensitive students and fearful campus employees, that perspective elides crucial historical understandings that can help us to navigate these challenges in the months ahead and forge alliances in the work of justice in higher education.
Yet those examples represent just a fraction of American campuses and thus present a selective -- and perhaps intentionally exaggerated -- picture of what is in actuality a diverse landscape of institutions, people and concerns. Students at San Jose State, for example, recently organized in response to a racial harassment incident involving student roommates and racist remarks about Latinas made by a university philanthropy board member. However, those incidents garnered little attention compared to the ones we cited above.
The protesters at SJSU, like the campus’s larger student population, included a high percentage of commuters, transferees, first-generation college students, members of the working class and immigrants. Many work to pay for school and living expenses, and a startling number struggle with unstable housing and food insecurity. In addition, SJSU students routinely face delaying graduation due to rising fees and limited course offerings -- both outcomes of severe state funding cuts. Thus, far from being coddled youngsters who expect the world to bend to their feelings, these students juggle course work, extracurricular activities, employment and family responsibilities, and yet find the wherewithal to speak up against the injustices around them.
At Oberlin, where the snowflake archetype may resonate more deeply, it still benefits no one to paint an entire student body with so broad a brush or apply such dehumanizing stereotypes to individuals. Students here embody varying levels of wealth and privilege. And while for some acquiring an elite education is a means to maintain a socioeconomic position, for others, arriving on the campus is a disorienting introduction to social and economic mores and ways of interacting with others that they are totally unfamiliar with and did not necessarily seek out. Castigating “fragile snowflakes” may offer psychic relief in stressful times, but it gives outsize visibility to certain students and styles of engagement while rendering myriad others invisible.
By and large, the students we encounter at our respective institutions are resilient and hardworking; as young adults, they can also be self-doubting and anxious. The special snowflake archetype not only flattens the ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity of the college student population but also dismisses and silences students’ legitimate concerns, while shifting any blame onto them (albeit sometimes their parents). It is easier to bemoan the shortcomings of a generation of students than it is to critically examine systemic inequities and blind spots in higher education that might be producing the problems those students highlight.
A Disconnection From History
Although higher education’s present challenges seem unprecedented and intractable, it helps to situate them historically. One thread in the “what’s wrong with colleges today” conversation brings attention to the sources deemed responsible for indoctrinating activist students. These include feminist and minority professors, who wield strange concepts like intersectionality and microaggressions and whose presence stirs nostalgia for an ivory tower that was once objective and unburdened by identity politics.
As tenured minority women faculty members in ethnic studies, who are also first-generation college graduates, we are struck by such notions’ disconnection from history. Our paths were paved by developments including affirmative action, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Pell Grants, the feminist and civil rights movements, and the San Francisco student strike of 1968 -- turning points that expanded the boundaries of belonging and legitimacy in America writ large and the academy writ small. In the latter, the assumed supremacy of Western thought and white male authority also came under intensified contestation, with (we believe) salutary effects. In ethnic studies, for instance, scholars examined “America” through previously unconsidered or explicitly excluded voices, while applying frameworks like racism and empire next to or in place of American exceptionalism. In turn, new opportunities and niches permitted a wider scope of participation in higher education and the life of the mind.
Seeing continuities between past and present, we note that student demands still invoke principles like inclusion and diversity. Their concerns go beyond race and gender, however, and encompass many more identity groups -- all in constant flux. As our understandings of how power works evolve, so do our expectations for reform.
It is not enough, for instance, to simply enroll more students from underrepresented groups. Calls are made to also adopt anti-oppression practices that touch every facet of interaction and axis of inequality. Some of those practices (say, using the nongender binary “Latinx” or introducing oneself with “preferred gender pronouns”) might seem silly in their novelty, impracticability or sense of proportion. But we should also recall some of the outlandish demands of earlier generations: radicalized youths in the 1960s rejecting “Oriental” for “Asian-American” or feminists fighting patriarchy with terms like “herstory.”
Not all of those gestures stuck, and we ought to debate efficacious and collaborative versus misguided and alienating strategies for effecting broad change. But this Pandora’s box was opened long before the current generation of college students. It behooves us then to seek them out in their discontent -- even when wrapped in petulance and youthful arrogance -- if it springs from a yearning for inclusion, dignity and fairness.
Mindful of a generational divide separating us from our students, their protests and expressions of alienation resonate with us. We were once in their shoes, seeking “safe spaces”-- to use today’s parlance -- in academe, uncertain but hopeful that we might eventually find them. Now as tenured faculty, we find ourselves navigating a crossroads, or duality of identity, with embattled colleagues and administrators on the one hand, and concerned students of color on the other.
Indeed, another important although largely overlooked discussion in higher education concerns faculty of color -- women of color, in particular -- shouldering a disproportionate share of emotional labor only to encounter an “ivory ceiling” that demoralizes the spirit and impedes advancement. It can be discouraging when our efforts to bring greater diversity and equity to the academy go unrecognized or are even deemed antagonistic. How we navigate our jobs as professors is guided by our histories, our professional responsibilities and ethics, and an abiding belief in the power of education. Usually that makes for a rewarding and exhilarating mix, and our present challenges call for more, not less, engagement. To opt for the latter will only leave us further adrift.
Wringing our hands over college students’ behavior and the state of higher education might appear unseemly against the backdrop of national tragedies: the nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the Dallas sniper attack. While the ivory tower seems removed from the real world, we see as our mission in it the production and dissemination of ideas to better understand and address the problems of our world today. In our work and teaching, issues of bigotry, inequality, injustice and racism are especially salient. Seen this way, campus tensions and the conversations about them are not a sideshow, but part of the broader social and political landscape and, indeed, efforts to create a better world.
As we prepare to resume classes, we hope that all campus players -- students, faculty, staff members, administrators -- proceed with care and purpose about when to debate versus when to go to war, how to recognize allies, and the various ways that working for justice can manifest. We hope that more voices are considered and invited to the table.
And to our students, we have been long at work on many of the things you seek. Let’s find ways to work together.
Magdalena L. Barrera is an associate professor of Mexican American studies at San Jose State University. Shelley S. Lee is an associate professor of comparative American studies and history at Oberlin College.
In addition to its major decision in favor of graduate student unions, the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday ruled that instructors of religious studies may be excluded from part-time faculty unions at two Roman Catholic institutions. The two decisions, concerning St. Xavier University and Seattle University, respectively, reverse earlier regional board rulings that adjunct instructors in all disciplines at those institutions may form unions because they don’t perform specific religious functions. The regional board decisions were made in light of an earlier NLRB decision concerning Pacific Lutheran University, which paved the way for adjunct faculty unions at religious institutions.
William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said Tuesday’s decisions were notable because the exclusion of some faculty members but not others from collective bargaining had never previously been argued in relation to NLRB vs. Catholic Bishops of Chicago. That 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision asserts that faculty members at religious institutions aren’t entitled to collective bargaining under the labor relations act. “Nobody’s ever articulated that before,” Herbert said of the distinction.
“We find that the university holds [adjunct faculty in the department of religious studies] out ‘as performing a specific role in creating and maintaining the school’s religious educational environment,’” reads the NLRB’s decision on St. Xavier, quoting the board’s 2014 decision in favor of adjunct unions at religious colleges concerning Pacific Lutheran. Tuesday’s decision concerning Seattle used similar language and logic, but it applies to adjuncts in the institution's Department of Theology and Religious Studies, as well as the School of Theology and Ministry.
St. Xavier adjuncts are affiliated with the National Education Association, while those at Pacific Lutheran and Seattle University are affiliated with Service Employees International Union. A spokesperson for Seattle said the university was reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment. A spokesperson for St. Xavier was not immediately available for comment.
The faculty at the American Film Institute Conservatory voted 35 to 8 to express no confidence in Jan Schuette, dean, and requested that he resign, the institution’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors announced Tuesday. Aggrieved faculty members say the vote follows a year of tensions over matters of shared governance, academic freedom and instruction. They allege that Schuette has canceled faculty meetings, unilaterally imposed changes to the curriculum and admissions process, and fired several instructors without due process.
The conservatory said in a statement that it “embraces change to ensure its peerless educational experience evolves with the art form,” according toVariety. “This march to the future is often driven by passionate disagreement, and we have received conflicting opinions from within the faculty and are currently ensuring that all voices are heard in this process.”
Besides understanding whether a postdoc is required for your intended career field, you need to think about the financial implications as well as how you'd like to spend the next few years of your life, advises Melanie V. Sinche.
U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, Republican in a tight re-election battle, says quality documentaries could replace many instructors, and blames tenured professors for preserving the "higher education cartel."
Much of the conversation about career exploration focuses on the importance of identifying our skills, but we often don’t take the time to think about our core values and how they connect to our skills, argues Laura N. Schram.
“I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science … because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world …”
This quote from Secretary of State John Kerry has been posted to my office door since last fall, when it appeared in an op-ed he wrote in America: The National Catholic Review. Of course, the idea of understanding religion and religious individuals resonated strongly with me, a professor of religious studies at a liberal arts college. But I believe the reasons for this sentiment are lost in the public discourse around both education and religion in the contemporary United States.
Turn on the evening news, open the morning newspaper or log on to any news page online and you will find a wide variety of stories that have some reference to religion. Syrian immigrants, evangelical voters, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, neo-Catholicism under Pope Francis -- all of these recent stories and more would be fundamentally illuminated if viewers and readers had knowledge of the religious actors. Contemporary discourse in America, both in the public domain and in academe, is often quick to posit that these stories are “really” about politics, power, class, social standing and the like, and people often refuse to take the religious aspects of the narrative seriously. Yes, of course, any of these issues can be understood within a broader context of social and cultural concerns. Nevertheless, this contextualization does not give license to disregard the religious angle as superficial or otherwise unimportant.
Whether we like it or not, individuals and communities are inspired by their religious identities to take action in the world. Those actions can have positive effects on the world, such as social outreach or providing a sense of community to adherents, or negative ones, including violence against rivals or intolerance for others. The fact remains, however, that their actions are often rooted in religious ideals, or their worldview. The principal concern of religious studies is to expose differences in those worldviews so that we might understand the beliefs and practices of a wide variety of cultural actors. Different religious groups imagine the world differently, and that affects how they respond to contemporary concerns.
The academic discipline of religious studies does not train students to be Catholics or Buddhists or Jews any more than political science trains students to be Democrats or Republicans. Even though I teach at an institution that is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my department is not wedded to Lutheran doctrine or even Christian identity, but to a scholarly desire to understand the world’s inhabitants and cultures. We train our students to read closely, think deeply, write cogently and, above all, analyze carefully the important -- and sometimes decisive -- role that religion plays in the lives of cultural actors across the globe. I often tell my students that it is our responsibility to use a “dispassionate third-party perspective” when viewing the religious phenomena, to understand and analyze while withholding judgment.
If the only people who understand Christianity are Christian, or Islam are Muslims, or Hinduism are Hindus, we are condemned to a world of misunderstanding, conflict and sectarianism. If we cede understanding of religious ideas to religious individuals, we lose the capacity to comprehend the motivations behind the thoughts and actions of anyone beyond our own religious tradition.
Don’t get me wrong, the discipline of religious studies is not imagined as a substitute for religious training. Faith communities will always have a strong desire and need to train members and leaders for service in their own religious communities; that enterprise is a permanent fixture in traditional religious practice.
However, for those aspiring to leadership in the 21st century, knowledge of the religions of the world from a nonconfessional perspective is not a luxury but a necessity. Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.
That distinction between the discipline of religious studies and training within religious communities is often lost when considering the topic of religion in an educational setting. But, as Thomas Clark, a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in the majority opinion of Abington v. Schempp, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion …” This sentiment is, perhaps, more true now than when Justice Clark wrote it in 1963.
This “complete” education that Clark mentions includes the habits of mind that we cultivate in our students. By combining the ability to understand motivations beyond ourselves with other disciplinary perspectives within the liberal arts, we train students to interact with the world in a responsible and informed way. The broader context of this type of education opens our students to a wide variety of skills, including language study, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and the various perspectives offered by the social sciences. All those tools and disciplinary lenses contribute to a nuanced view of the world that goes beyond vocational training. It also equips our graduates with agile minds that can solve problems and understand perspectives that we are yet to encounter.
In an environment that increasingly stresses skills that are immediately marketable, humanities departments often feel that we must justify our existence and our usefulness to employers. Consequently, you see the publication of brochures and the creation of websites that emphasize problem solving, critical thinking and cogent writing. Those are fine goals and, I would argue, our curriculum equips our graduates with these skills.
But the most important attribute that the academic study of religion offers to our students is even more vital and far more concrete: the ability to understand others. In a world in which we are increasingly exposed to difference of all types, what could be a more vital skill for navigating the future?
William "Chip" Gruen is an associate professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College.