• 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.

Title

The Knock at the Door

Students' legitimate fears that we are in a new era.

 

November 11, 2016
 

On Thursday I got second-hand reports (via the dean of an area) that some faculty reported students having meltdowns in class. The students in question were either undocumented themselves, or children of undocumented parents, and they were terrified that the “deportation force” that the president-elect promised would send them, or their parents, out of the country. The students didn’t know what they were going to do.

Later that afternoon, I had some errands on campus that involved walking outside between buildings. In the course of maybe ten minutes outside, I saw more students smoking than I’ve seen in the last year.  It was enough to be noticeable.  

They’re scared.

College is stressful on a good day. It’s relatively unstructured, compared to most jobs, but with high expectations. Most students work significant hours for pay, which compounds the stress. Low incomes often bring with them unreliable transportation and its attendant side effects. Many students are in the mate-seeking time of life, which brings stresses of its own. And the constant awareness that college is just a brief stopover on the way to a destination that isn’t always clear adds some tension.  

Those are normal. Those stresses are the background noise. I wish the economic pressures weren’t so bad, but some amount of anxiety around impending exams or projects just comes with the territory.  

Some students -- more than many of us would like to think -- carry harder burdens. They’re dealing with abusive relationships, medical issues, or substance dependency, either directly or indirectly.  Some are homeless or very precariously housed. Many are hungry. These stresses are signs of larger issues that I wish weren’t there. They wax and wane, but never entirely go away. We deal with them as we can.

But until this week, I never saw students afraid of the government. That’s new.

I’m told that when the draft was last in effect, college enrollment was a way to escape it. College was a shelter, a safe space. This time it isn’t. What Justice Frankfurter called “the knock on the door” can come at any moment.

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Community colleges in particular are based on inclusion. It’s in their DNA. The entire point of a “community” college is to serve the community. The point of open admissions is to allow everyone -- even the young, scrappy, and hungry -- a shot.  

That openness that flies in the face of current fashion. Years of talk of “accountability” and “performance” and “run it like a business” push in the direction of maximizing bang for the buck. Being open to those who have limited preparation, or limited time, or limited direction brings costs. It brings incredible cultural and economic benefits, but those benefits aren’t free. If we want to benefit the entire community, we need to supply the services that actual students need.  That means faculty, of course, but it also means financial aid staff, and tutors, and counselors, and advisors, and coaches, and the people who run the back-office functions that keep it all running. Now it also involves all sorts of equipment and technology, so students can be prepared to deal with the equipment and technology they’ll encounter when they get out. IT isn’t free.

When my college was founded -- and this is true of many -- the cost of providing those services was heavily subsidized. The idea was that a community college wasn’t just a factory for producing workers; it was a monument to the idea of equal dignity. Over time, the commitment to that idea has frayed around the edges, which is why now students supply a majority of the college’s operating revenue. But the idea is still there, and we’re at our best when we act on it.

Most of the people who work at community colleges -- adjunct faculty most spectacularly, but most full-time employees as well -- make less money than they could elsewhere. They work here because they believe in the mission. This is the sector of higher education with the highest proportion of female faculty, deans, and presidents. This is the sector with the highest populations of students with disabilities. This is the sector that was born “coed.” This is the sector with the greatest racial diversity of students, faculty, and leadership; the greatest focus on teaching; and the most intense and unapologetic focus on local needs.  

We take students nobody else would. We charge them less than anybody else would, and commit to meeting them where they are and getting them where they want to go. We don’t do it perfectly, heaven knows, but we don’t stop trying to do it better.  

Students come to Brookdale, or to their own local community college, seeking welcome and opportunity. It’s where they know they can try on the next phase of life.

That can only happen when they have the confidence that it’s safe to try.

Economic pressures have slowly squeezed that sense of safety.  We’ve had to work harder to compensate, with partial success. But this threat is new. It’s fundamental, it’s overwhelming, and it’s corrosive of our daily work.  

Community colleges are uniquely American. They’re about giving the underdog -- who maybe speaks a different language, comes from a different place, and practices (or not) a different faith -- a fair shot. They do the things that our country is at its best when it does.  

They are not about exclusion. Unlike many other sectors, they never were. They were born egalitarian. That’s their historic strength, and it’s their single best trait.

--

Community colleges have faced a difficult political climate for some time. They’re publicly funded when taxes aren’t popular. They’re complicated when simplicity is in vogue. They’re inclusive when exclusivity is the direction of things.  

But this is new. This is different.

I have worked with people from both parties, and have done so happily. I’m eager to make common cause with anyone who shares the basic value of giving everyone a fair shot. I’ve worked with private employers and public agencies, committed leftists and rabid conservatives.

But the commitment to equal dignity is not negotiable. Violating that commitment is breaking a ground rule.

We, as a country, are at our best when we expand the circle of who is included in “we.” That has always been true. We aren’t always at our best -- no argument there -- but the direction of history is clear. Inclusion ennobles on both sides. Reaction doesn’t end well.  

The job of administration is creating the background conditions in which people can do their best work. Students can’t do their best work looking over their shoulders, or crying in terror. They can’t do their best work when they’re wondering if the counselor who is trying to help them will report them.

As educators, we may need to expand our reach to the highest levels of government.  I’m game. The students are worth it. They’re why we’re here. They should fear midterms and presentations, job interviews and bad dates. They shouldn’t have to fear the knock at the door.  

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