• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Dobbs, ‘Divisiveness’ and Ducking

Why college leaders shouldn’t duck this one.

June 27, 2022

A friend from grad school once commented that she and I follow the Supreme Court the way normal people follow baseball. She was right.

I offer that as context.

College administrators, especially at public colleges, are going to twist themselves into knots figuring out how to respond in public to the Dobbs decision. The Dobbs decision is the one that overturned Roe v. Wade, effectively moving the locus of authority for reproductive decisions from individual women to state legislatures. Although the majority decision denied the obvious implications of its reasoning, Justice Thomas spelled it out, and many of its supporters have immediately moved to what they consider the next step: repealing the right to privacy, which would eliminate protections for contraceptive use and same-sex marriage, among other things. Some have also gone with alacrity from a states’ rights argument to pushing for a national ban on abortion, with no apparent sense of the contradiction.

From a college administrator perspective, it’s crucial to get the response right.

I can understand the temptation to duck the issue entirely. Given how passionately people feel about it on both sides—and the fact that probably every county in America has people on both sides of it—the idea of addressing it directly may seem “divisive.” Public colleges need the support of legislators from both parties, including legislators whose views on this issue may be very different from most students’. Pragmatically, some may make the calculation that any sort of meaningful engagement with the issue would do more harm than good. In some settings, that might be correct.

Still, I think that in most cases, ducking is the wrong move.

Obviously, residential campuses may have student health services that include referrals to family planning. In those cases, neutrality simply isn’t an option. When a student shows up in the health center unexpectedly pregnant, and upset, tabling the issue isn’t going to work. In some states, a student who shows up with a miscarriage may trigger a criminal inquiry, which is about as far from neutral as one can get. Those colleges have to address the question, whether they want to or not.

Even campuses without health centers generally offer mental health counseling. The stress of an unplanned pregnancy can drive a student to see a counselor. When a student is in crisis, a policy of “la la la la I can’t hear you” would be malpractice. Deciding what the counselor can say requires addressing the issue. And we all know that many students reach out to trusted professors before anyone else; asking every professor on campus to duck the question is not a serious answer.

For colleges that aren’t in deep-blue pockets, I’d suggest starting with a few responses.

The first is to acknowledge the magnitude of the change, and the shock that many people—students, employees, families—are feeling. Although he denies it, Justice Alito’s reasoning opens the door to eliminating the recognition of a right of privacy altogether, which would knock out the underpinnings for legal protection of contraception or legal recognition of same-sex marriage. In other words, this may be the first of a series of shocks that will attack the legal foundations on which many people have built their private lives. The dislocations and stresses of that will come out in various ways. Acknowledging real fears, and assuring people that they are valued, can only help.

The second is to do what colleges do best: educate. Colleges have people trained in the study of law, politics, history and sociology; these folks can shed light on the issue more thoughtfully than the typical TikTok or tweet would. For example, just making the distinction between overturning Roe and banning abortion is worthwhile. (Some states, including my own, have already codified abortion protections into statute; repealing Roe doesn’t change that.) Some red states are trying to ban shipments of the pills that can end pregnancies; any political scientist or lawyer could quickly point out that the Constitution explicitly leaves regulation of interstate commerce to the federal government, not the states. I would hope, too, to see honest and thoughtful discussions of the implications of abortion bans for people who have miscarriages. That isn’t usually part of the conversation, but it’s an inescapable reality. And making explicit the connection between the antiabortion movement and the politics of race (and “replacement theory”) can help students understand what might otherwise seem like random connections. Given that we’re educating for citizenship, offering context seems well within bounds.

As a longtime follower of the court, I’ll admit being disappointed that such an important issue was decided in such a sloppy, tendentious and goal-oriented way. As a college administrator, I’d like to see higher education both acknowledge the humanity of its own people and offer some badly needed depth and context for the larger cultural conversation. Neither depth nor context is in fashion right now, but all the more reason to step up.

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Matt Reed

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