I teach -- what is on paper, at least -- a mundane course required of all majors in my department. Few students are excited about being there. I acknowledge that in my opening comments each semester and make it my goal to surpass students’ expectations. My favorite evaluation comment, which I get in some form nearly every term: “I was expecting this class to suck, but it was actually interesting.”
One way that I try to make the class interesting -- or, at least, not suck -- is to allow students to select the topic and partners for their group project. That way, my thinking goes, they are more likely to be engaged with their topic and have a positive group experience.
Of course, the choose-your-own-partner philosophy has its downsides. Friends pick one another rather than going outside their comfort zones. There’s inevitably a please-don’t-let-me-be-the-last-pick-in-PE-class moment when the students who don’t know anyone else scramble to find partners. And once students have formed groups, the room can look like a middle-school dance: women on one side, men on the other. I encourage students to form mixed-gender groups and to select group partners based on shared interests rather than personal preferences, but the pull of familiarity is strong.
I’ve long considered the positive outcomes of open group selection to outweigh such drawbacks. But last semester, I reconsidered for a different reason: racial self-segregation.
On the day when students divided into work groups, I immediately noticed that with a few exceptions, white students were in groups with one another, and black students were in their own groups, as well. Groups formed so quickly that I couldn’t tell which students found each other first and which joined forces out of necessity, given the few remaining openings.
In past semesters these divisions haven’t been so glaring -- perhaps because it’s common for my classes to have so few black students that forming a group of three isn’t even possible. But there I was, on the second day of class, unexpectedly faced with a decision about whether to use this as a teachable moment or to let it pass without comment.
A few facts for context: I am a white man. My university is located in a region with considerable racial tension. Our campus, like many others, has been the site of student protests over lack of diversity and the administration’s handling of race relations. Addressing self-segregation in the classroom -- even in a class like mine that isn’t explicitly about race -- wouldn’t seem out of place at a time when such discussions are encouraged. Pausing to point out group dynamics would, to use a higher education cliché, contribute to a campuswide conversation about race.
On the other hand, drawing attention to group self-segregation could have detrimental effects. Who wants to start off the semester by noting students’ inherent biases? It’s hard to have this conversation without seemingly pointing a finger. Even if students became more aware of their decisions -- a positive outcome, to be sure -- what exactly did I want them to do about it? Re-sort into new, mixed-race groups? Acknowledge the problem and then carry on with their existing groups? After all, I’d just finished telling them to pick whomever they wanted as group partners. Perhaps students, as usual, just picked their friends, who happened to be of the same race (a problem in its own right).
Self-segregation in roommate selection and at cafeteria tables is unfortunately common, but I would never think to intervene in those cases. My decision about whether to do so in this instance came down to this question: Since this happened on my watch, in a classroom setting, did I have a moral obligation to say something?
In that moment, I didn’t have time to process all of these conflicting thoughts. It was noticeable to me and uncomfortable to witness, but did anyone else in that classroom feel the same way? It was hard to tell. I never asked anyone on that day -- or at any other time during the semester. No one brought it up in person, in email or in anonymous course evaluations.
Several months later, I still feel conflicted about what I should have done in that moment. Part of me wishes I had intervened, although I don’t beat myself up too much over my choice: it’s always easier to craft the perfect response in hindsight.
As I will soon prepare for another semester, I’m curious not only what my students thought but also what my colleagues think. How would you handle -- or have you handled -- this in your classroom? What would constitute an appropriate response?
I’d like to know, because I’m sure this won’t be the last time I face this situation. And next time, I want to have thought through my response.
The author is a tenure-track assistant professor at a four-year college.
If you want to know what a society values, look at how it spends its money -- it is hard to imagine a clearer statement of the devaluing of the power and importance of knowledge than the budget proposed last week by President Trump. Many people whose lives are devoted to discovering and applying knowledge of all kinds are no doubt reeling from this extraordinary budget.
As the former principal deputy director and acting director of the National Institutes of Health, I am stunned by the proposed cuts. The NIH serves as the primary funder of biomedical and behavioral research dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans (and, indeed, all humans), and this reduction of support would have an unprecedented negative impact on the health and welfare of this country for decades to come.
I know that many scientists will be motivated by the proposed budget to engage with the political process and wholly fight those devastating proposed cuts. But as a physician and scientist turned president finishing my seventh year at Grinnell College, a liberal arts college in Iowa, I want to add my voice to those who are equally appalled by the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
When I was completing my postgraduate medical training at the University of Pennsylvania, I met with one of my mentors, Dr. Samuel Martin, a renowned leader in 20th-century medicine, to tell him that I had decided to obtain a Ph.D. in the social sciences and to start a career in academic medicine largely motivated by a desire to study and ultimately improve the health status of poor people. I will never forget his immediate response. He told me, “If you really want to get people to care about that, you would be better off writing a great novel on the topic.”
He was not challenging the importance of science in addressing any health problem; rather, he was simply nudging me to consider that a big part of the challenge of addressing the problem was in helping those who are far removed from the lives of poor people to understand the actual lived experience of bad health and to acknowledge the distinct ability of fiction to enable us to encounter experiences other than our own. Perhaps a novel would do for this topic what Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with all its flaws, did for the abolition movement. The proposed Trumpcare replacement of Obamacare suggests that there exists a continued need for such a novel.
Over the past decade, there have been ongoing discussions and concerns about the importance of educating more young people in the STEM fields. Only recently have leaders begun to talk more about supporting and encouraging education in the humanities and social studies -- both as important contributors to our society on their own and also as vital elements in the education of students in the STEM fields. The sciences tell us what we are and how we are as individual humans and as a society; the arts and humanities tell us who we are.
Our students majoring in the sciences see the humanities and social studies as essential parts of their education. They will benefit as scientists from knowing how to write persuasively and think clearly about complex issues and to understand the humanistic implications of their work. It is precisely because of the importance of the humanities to the liberal arts education that we are embarking on one of the largest building projects in the history of Grinnell: a complex that will house and connect the teaching and scholarship of the humanities and social studies to complement our existing center for the sciences.
The humanities also play perhaps the lead role among scholarly disciplines in fostering the imagination. Before any scientist can dive into an important problem or question, she must first be able to imagine a world in which the problem is addressed or the question is answered.
Sometimes great art and literature can help us all to better understand a complicated social problem, like health inequities, and even motivate us to find solutions. I serve on the advisory committee for a wonderful program, Culture of Health: Toward Health Equity, at the National Academy of Medicine. The program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is grounded in the recognition that health is determined by complex and deeply rooted causal factors that span the full range of dimensions of our society -- biologic, economic, social, educational, cultural. It aims to accelerate the elimination of inequities in health by fostering, expanding and synthesizing the evidence base and promoting its application toward a comprehensive approach to attacking the root causes of health inequities.
A recent planning meeting of the program began with a performance by the accomplished Appalachian storyteller Adam Booth, whose career has been supported by organizations funded by the NEA and NEH. To be honest, I was not sure what to expect, but I ended up deeply moved -- and even fired up -- by a spoken performance that focused on the challenges of a single working mother in simply caring for her family and getting to work one night. During the performance, the audience of mostly health-care professionals and academic researchers was mentally and probably unconsciously checking the boxes for all the ways the character’s choices and decisions would directly affect her health and the health of her family.
As a scientist whose research focused on health inequalities, I doubt that any other presentation could have driven home so effectively the complex web of factors that need to be addressed if we truly want to eliminate health disparities. It framed and motivated the entire rest of the day of more traditional medical- and science-based presentations.
The National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts play essential roles in the creative life of this country. The NEA and NEH make especially vital contributions in supporting arts and humanities work in underserved populations, including the poor and veterans. The agencies have funded countless projects that have deeply and permanently enriched our country.
Yet the proposed budget suggests that collective society as represented by the federal government has no need to support the arts and humanities -- that we place no value on a federal role in supporting the exploration of our humanity through these disciplines. To eliminate the modest budgets of those agencies is shameful and reflects a failure to understand the importance of supporting such fields in advancing knowledge and understanding of the human condition.
The federal government must support the entire knowledge enterprise of our country in all its manifestations. The NEA and NEH are necessary and important complements to the funding of the biomedical, social, behavioral and natural sciences and scientists. America needs, perhaps most importantly, them to continue helping all of us imagine that a better world is possible.
Raynard S. Kington is president of Grinnell College.
Andy Warhol’s prediction about fame merits the occasional update. One that popped into my head not long ago after crossing paths with a gaggle of tourists holding their cellphones at arm’s length and smiling: “In the future, everyone will take a selfie every 15 minutes.”
After launching this random thought into the world via social media, I realized almost immediately that it wasn’t much of a prophecy. A poll in 2013 found that almost every third picture taken by someone between the ages of 18 and 24 was a selfie. The following year, participants in a Google developers’ conference heard that the users of one type of cellphone were snapping 93 million selfies per day. My reworking of Warhol’s point might not literally describe the status quo now, but it could certainly be taken for evidence of aging, as in fact my friends were not long in pointing out.
No longer a fad though not a tradition quite yet, the selfie is one of those cultural phenomena that almost everyone can recognize as probably symptomatic -- the result of social, psychological and technological forces too inexorable to escape but too troubling to think about for very long. (Other examples: reality television, sex robots, cars that drive themselves.)
Even the most ardent or compulsive selfie taker must have moments of uneasiness at how tightly the genre knots together self-expression and self-obsession, leaving not much room for anything else. A recent paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology identifies a selfie-specific form of ambivalence unlikely to go away. It is called “The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them. An Exploration of Psychological Functions of Selfies in Self-Presentation.”
More on that shortly. But first, a quick look at a book with a more compact and less literal title, I Love My Selfie, by the critic and essayist Ilan Stavans (Duke University Press). A few of the author’s selfies appear in the book, along with reproductions of self-portraits by Rembrandt, van Gogh and Warhol, but it would be an irony-impaired reader indeed who took him to be making any claim to equivalence. The book’s spirit is much closer to that of the Puerto Rican multimedia artist Adál Alberto Maldonado, whose work appears throughout its pages and who titled one photo series “Go Fuck Your Selfie: I Was a Schizophrenic Mambo Dancer for the FBI.” The seed for Stavans’s book was the preface he wrote for a collection of photos by Adál, as he prefers to be known. (Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College.)
“Richard Avedon once said that a portrait is a picture of someone who knows he is being portrayed,” writes Stavans. “… The self-portrait is that knowledge twice over.” Combined with the highly developed skills of a painter or a photographer, that redoubled awareness can reveal more than the creator’s idealized self-image. The late self-portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance, “emit a stoicism that is frightening … as if his statement was ‘The world around me is falling apart, but I’m still here, a chronicler of my times.’” Adál’s quietly surreal photographs of himself posing with various props are an oblique and sometimes comic reflection on being a Puerto Rican artist obliged to deal with whatever assumptions the viewer may bring to his work.
Selfies, by contrast, are what’s left of the self-portrait after all technique, discipline, talent and challenge are removed from the process. They exist to be displayed -- not to reveal the self but to advertise it. Stavans calls the selfie “a business card for an emotionally attuned world” and describes life in the public sphere of social media as “a mirage, a solipsistic exercise in which we believe we’re connecting with others while in truth we’re just synchronizing with the image we have of them in our mind.”
And as with other forms of advertising, too much truthfulness would damage the brand. Most selfies never go out into the world. “The trash icon in which we imprison them,” Stavans writes, “is the other side of our life, the one we reject, the one we condemn.”
The authors of “The Selfie Paradox,” Sarah Diefenbach and Lara Christoforakos, are researchers in the department of psychology of Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. The participants in their study were 238 individuals living in Austria, Germany and Sweden between 18 and 63 years of age, recruited from email lists and at university events. They were asked about the frequency with which they took selfies and received them from other people, as well as a series of questions designed to elicit information about their personality and feelings about, and motivations for, taking and viewing selfies.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, people who stated that they were open about their feelings and prone to discussing their accomplishments also tended to enjoy taking selfies. And consistently enough, those inclined to downplay their own successes also tended to report “negative selfie-related affect” -- i.e., were decidedly nonenthusiastic about selfies.
The researchers found broad agreement with the idea that selfies could have unpleasant consequences (inciting derogatory comments, for example) but much less regarding what the positive effects might be. “The only aspect that reached significant agreement” the researchers found, “was self-staging, i.e., the possibility to use selfies for presenting an intended image to others.” Positive benefits such as expressing independence or connection with others were recognized by far fewer participants. And those who took selfies more often were more likely to identify positive consequences for the activity:
In a way, taking selfies may be a self-intensifying process, where one discovers unexpected positive aspects (besides self-staging) while engaging in the activity and this positive experience encourages further engagement. Nevertheless, the majority showed a rather critical attitude, and among the perceived consequences of selfies, negative aspects clearly predominate.
To put it another way, participants in the study tended to acknowledge that putting a selfie out into the world could backfire -- while the only broadly accepted benefit of a selfie they recognized was that of self-display or self-promotion. Though the researchers do not spell out the connection, these attitudes seem mutually reinforcing. If the most recognized motivation for posting a selfie is to benefit the ego, exposing its vulnerabilities would be an associated danger.
Another of the findings also seems in accord with this logic: participants were likely to explain their reasons for taking and posting selfies as ironic or self-deprecating -- while showing much less tendency to assume that other people were doing the same. They also expressed a preference for others to post more nonselfie photographs.
Indeed, people who reported taking a lot of selfies tended “not to like viewing others’ selfie pictures and rather wish for a higher number of usual photos.” It seems in accord with one of Stavans’s observations: “Looking at a favorite selfie is like entering into a world in which we, and nobody else, exist in an uninterrupted fashion.” At least until Narcissus falls into the pool and drowns.
If we strike while the iron is hot, this could be an opportunity not just to defend some abstract understanding of “science” but also to advance a much stronger vision of how science can serve the common good. Scientists and others in the STEM fields should make lasting commitments to stand in solidarity with the people of the world most harmed not just by the Trump administration but also by oppression and exploitation in all their forms.
The pursuit of scientific knowledge for the betterment of society has already long been shackled. Ask Marc Edwards. He's the Virginia Tech professor who worked with people in Flint, Mich., to expose the poisoning of their water supply. In an interview titled “Public Science Is Broken,” Edwards criticized the “perverse incentives” offered to faculty members and the risks involved in challenging the people who provide research funding. He concluded, “We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill -- pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index -- and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.”
That treadmill is not the science we need to defend. Nor is the science that profits agribusiness at the expense of impoverished farmers, torments villagers with the threat of drone strikes or otherwise privileges the acquisition of knowledge beneficial to corporate and military interests above that which supports human needs.
We should also be wary of defending science when it is imagined to be the province solely of an expert elite. We can respect the knowledge science produces while recognizing the many people from diverse social backgrounds who contribute to it: not just Ph.D.s but also farmers, members of environmental justice communities, people living with illnesses under research and many others.
The science we should rally to defend is that which people pursue with political consciousness for the benefits it brings to society and the planet. Lest anyone see that as too utilitarian, I would hasten to emphasize that charting the stars, learning the language of dolphins and pursuing a great many other subjects that bring us enlightenment qualify as benefiting society, provided we keep a sharp eye on how such knowledge is acquired and applied.
More than just defending such science, we must create a vibrant movement of STEM workers who see their survival and liberation as tied to the survival and liberation of poor people, people of color, people in the global South and others who are most vulnerable to the disasters our political and economic systems have produced.
This is hardly the first time scientists have organized to engage politically. In the United States today, the Union of Concerned Scientists is perhaps the most familiar organization that continues to promote, mainly through policy advocacy, what it calls “science for a healthy planet and a safer world.” Their work remains invaluable.
However, we should also recognize other groups in different times and places, many of which have adopted more activist approaches and an analysis more sharply focused on wresting science from the oppressive power structures of capitalism, racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism, and placing it in the service of social needs. The British Science and Society Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, the Indian Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad founded in 1962, and the Philippine AGHAM: Advocates of Science and Technology for the People founded in 1999 are just a few examples.
The United States once had its own activist science organization, called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, better known as Science for the People. The original organization formed in 1969 out of the rising tide of opposition to the war in Vietnam. Although it folded in 1989, its members carried their cause forward. Former SftP members have been involved in improving health and safety for factory workers, mobilizing farming communities to document and resist pesticide exposure, working with communities in Eritrea and Malawi to develop sustainable energy technologies, researching and promoting agro-ecological approaches to farming in the United States and Latin America, and many other areas of politically engaged, socially conscious science.
The Science for the People movement is currently being revitalized; chapters are now forming on campuses at Columbia, Cornell and Emory Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Universities of Massachusetts at Amherst, Pennsylvania and Tennessee at Knoxville. Numbers will no do doubt swell as the Trump administration helps make the stakes clearer to STEM workers and students across the country and the world.
In times of political crisis, some people may be tempted to embrace science as an apolitical force of reason. While science does offer reason, it does not do so in a political vacuum. We have political choices to make. We have to decide what kind of science is worth making and worth fighting for. We have to make that science. And we have to fight for it.
Sigrid Schmalzer is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-editor of Science for the People: Documents From America's Movement of Radical Scientists, forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press.
I spent a recent weekend interviewing blow-your-socks-off-smart applicants for my biology department’s Ph.D. program. I was uncertain how to respond to their need for reassurance about the future of American science. Since then, I’ve continued to reflect on what to say to the next generation of scientists, and what their collective decisions mean for the future of science and the economy in the United States. How do I reassure such bright young people as they decide whether to start their careers during an administration hostile not just to scientific integrity and independent inquiry, but seemingly to science itself?
How will we keep America’s reputation for scientific innovation if aspiring applicants to Ph.D. programs decide to forgo science or find that opportunities are reduced or constrained because of new federal policies? The anxiety I see in them is the first nick to the reputation of American universities and national laboratories -- regarded by most people as the best in the world -- a reputation that is now being harmed, as is the country’s economic competitiveness. Unless the statements and actions from the new administration change quickly, such weekends at universities across America this spring will, like our recent weekend, be overshadowed by dismay, disorientation and fear instead of the usual mix of optimism and excitement about future careers in scientific discovery.
Ordinarily, I am cautiously optimistic when confronted with potentially troublesome news, but continuing pronouncements from the Trump administration imposing gag orders and grant freezes on scientific government institutions have left me rather pessimistic, at least for the near future. Never in my 32 years as a university scientist have I experienced such high-level disregard from our government for expert information -- indeed, for facts of any kind -- and for the contributions of foreigners to the economic engines driven by scientific and technological research. This disregard, this disdain, for facts is troubling enough on its own. But for scientists it strikes at the very heart of our enterprise: working within constraints that require rigorous, logical evaluation of information before any conclusions are published or promoted.
A generous interpretation of what’s been occurring in these first months of the new administration is no longer possible. While it is normal for new administrations to issue gag orders for a temporary settling-in period so that new priorities for programs and external communications can be set, it is obvious that the new policies coming out of the Trump White House are lining up with base and baseless campaign rhetoric denying the strong scientific consensus on climate change, the values of environmental protection and the contribution of immigrants -- including Muslims -- to our nation’s scientific enterprise and economic innovation.
It is imperative that university faculty and the public are not distracted by the reckless stream of pronouncements coming from the White House. Behind the tweets, substantial long-term damage is quietly being inflicted on the integrity of science and therefore on the formulation of effective policies for improvements in medicine, technology and environmental management -- with negative long-term consequences for human welfare and our economy. Those potentially staggering changes are occurring by both omission and commission and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, thanks to similarly minded congressional GOP leadership.
The strong bipartisan support for environmental protection that prevailed for most of the last 50 years -- which gained the greatest momentum under President Richard M. Nixon -- is giving way to the fictions that environmental quality is not linked to human health and that environmental improvements always come at the cost of economic activity. Of course, policy making requires always requires balancing competing priorities, but what is being set in motion by the new administration can hardly be described as a rebalancing of trade-offs.
For example, House Bill 589 would limit funds for climate research at the national laboratories where some of the world’s greatest advances occur in understanding how our planet’s climate works and relates to the extremes of weather that pose such an increasing threat to our coastal cities and infrastructure. Think of the experience of California in the last year -- switching from the worst drought in recorded history to some of the worst flooding.
House Bill 673 would prohibit American contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been a model of global scientific consensus building, and which has in turn fostered international policy cooperation vital to future human welfare. That same bill would prevent future contributions by the United States to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund, which could be the most economically efficient way to adapt to changing climate globally. We can help vulnerable countries prepare for continuing climate change now, or we can deal with climate-driven conflicts and refugee crises later. The relentless civil war in Syria has its roots partly in drought-induced internal migrations of farmers and in food insecurity.
Closer to home, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rick Perry, U.S. secretary of energy, are the antitheses of the scientists, including Nobel laureates, who have led such agencies in past Republican and Democratic administrations. Pruitt, who spent much of his career as Oklahoma’s attorney general suing EPA, is dismissive of overwhelming data on the value to human health of EPA’s efforts to reduce air and water pollution. He and Trump have vowed to reverse the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
Furthermore, a combination of executive and congressional actions have demolished the U.S. Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, as well as its rule to reduce leaks of methane from natural gas wells. Methane is a far more potent cause of climate change than carbon dioxide.
Finally, House Bill 861 would terminate the EPA entirely. Not only do these actions not add up to a recipe for clean air and clean water, which the president purports to support, but they also are in fact a direct assault on human health.
The administration’s disregard for science is also manifest in what has not been done. No one has been nominated for most senior positions usually occupied by scientists, including the science adviser to the president and the administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (an agency that provides most of the weather data used by most news broadcasts in the country). At this same point in most recent administrations, most of these vital positions had been filled. Scientists are being omitted from decision making, even while decisions are rolling back the effectiveness and use of American science.
The lack of leadership on scientific and environmental issues couldn’t make China happier. Currently leading the United States in the use of renewable energies, Chinese competitors of American companies in renewable energy technology see new markets and expanded prosperity opening up to them. The same can be said for European competitors. What the Trump administration fails to realize is that technology doesn’t just build engines; the scientific enterprise is itself an engine that creates jobs from the lab to the land -- an economic multiplier with extraordinary reach. According to a recent National Science Foundation report, “Asia now accounts for 40 percent of global research and development, with China as the standout.” Given the trajectory of the current administration, the United States will not be first for much longer.
Good reputations take a long time to earn but can be destroyed quickly. That is true for individuals, institutions and countries. Intellectual capital and scientific programs take a long time to build. The current candidate pool for faculty jobs in my department has a higher than usual number of scientists with strong careers in national laboratories. The ongoing exodus of prominent, highly motivated scientists from national laboratories and other agencies portends a potentially quick decline for the quality of policy-relevant federal research.
So what should I have said to the worried Ph.D. candidates, and what will I say to the postdoctoral candidates from Australia, Canada and Germany who I am currently interviewing?
Do not let the relentless onslaught of tweets distract you. Do not respond in kind.
Keep your eyes and ears on the people who are being appointed and on what policies are actually being considered. Become engaged in your scientific society to amplify your scientific voice. Advocate for the value of scientific information.
Without anger, with patience and practicing humility, engage in civil discourse about what we scholars have been privileged to spend our lives learning: scientific practice is rigorous and winnowing; facts are hard won; science produces reliable information; and in the long run, human health and happiness depend on effective and efficient environmental protection. Encourage your representative to spend a few days breathing the air in Delhi or Beijing if they seem to doubt that.
Do not pretend that scientific information often leads clearly to any particular policy action. Rather, acknowledge that many other considerations are required in democratic decision making, but that scientists are not merely another special interest. Advocate for science and scientists to be appointed to high positions and sought out for their information and advice.
Make it clear that, ultimately, truth and civility must prevail.
David M. Lodge is the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a professor in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
The most recent Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university presidents illustrates a disconnect between what presidents believe is occurring at their institutions and what is actually happening just below the surface among our student populations. Despite presidents’ impressions of the day-to-day experiences, all is not rosy, and student affairs administrators can provide presidents with a reality check when it comes to the good and the not-so-good circumstances and events that are transpiring.
Some of the issues that concern presidents most -- and those that we who work in student affairs believe should, in fact, concern presidents the most -- are often related to student behaviors and experiences outside of the classroom. Those are the areas of knowledge and responsibility housed in student affairs offices, and we can assist with the topics most associated with our field -- including equity and diversity initiatives, promoting anti-bias on campus, student engagement, and issues tied to student success, recruitment and retention.
The key to mining our expertise, however, is to have a realistic understanding of our areas of responsibility, and a plan for best accessing our expertise and our close connections throughout the institution. This allows presidents to make the strongest and best-informed decisions possible for their campus communities.
For example, the Inside Higher Ed survey found that “the vast majority of presidents describe the state of race relations at their college as either excellent (20 percent) or good (63 percent). More than three-fifths of presidents describe race relations at American colleges in general as fair.”
I’ve used the analogous data points from last year’s presidential survey when speaking to members of NASPA, the leading association for student affairs professionals, over the past year -- data that, the survey notes, are relatively unchanged from last year to this year. Not surprisingly, I’ve received a mix of gasps and chuckles, with many student affairs professionals hoping their presidents can realistically assess the status of race relations on their own campuses. NASPA’s survey of senior student affairs officers has consistently shown that diversity and race relations are among the top issues and concerns. It would be fascinating to see how students -- especially students from diverse backgrounds -- would rate their institutions, but I can safely bet that the “vast majority” would not rate them as “excellent” or “good.”
It is important to note that a lack of protest on a campus does not mean students and other community members are satisfied about race relations there. We shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security that we are meeting students’ needs solely because we haven’t faced protests. The absence of activism may simply mean those students aren’t activated yet. Student affairs administrators can help their presidents proactively engage with all students so that they have an accurate picture of the true state of the student body and its general satisfaction with the current campus climate.
The ways in which student affairs professionals can contribute counsel to a president are not limited to race relations or underlying diversity unrest. The survey shows that presidents are also worried about attracting and retaining all students, including underrepresented ones, and making dollars from tuition and state appropriations stretch farther than ever before. With only 52 percent of presidents “confident about their institution’s financial health over the next 10 years,” higher education will likely face additional cuts in the future.
If presidents are considering reducing support for student affairs functions, they do so at the potential peril of their retention efforts and to the detriment of their student satisfaction and graduation rates. When cutting costs, presidents should prioritize efficiencies and preserve the core opportunities and experiences associated with a college degree. They should turn to data to determine which experiences are contributing to students’ success and refrain from wholesale elimination of the programs and services that keep students moving toward graduation. Presidents should make changes to increase impact and maintain personal contact and engagement, which are key parts of the institutional experience.
A Gallup survey found that students were 1.6 times more likely to strongly agree their education was worth the cost if they were “extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations,” 1.9 times more likely if they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their “goals and dreams” and 1.4 times more likely if they had a “leadership position in a club or organization such as student government, a fraternity or sorority, or an athletic team.” Student affairs professionals can make a difference in keeping our students on the path toward graduation and satisfied with their investment.
This weekend, the American Council on Education and NASPA kick off their respective annual meetings. With a preponderance of attendees of the ACE meeting holding the title of president or chancellor, I encourage them to think through how they can better tap the expertise housed in student affairs and make use of the experiences of their senior student affairs officer. The survey results from Inside Higher Ed aren’t surprising, but they tell me that student affairs officers need a seat at the table to provide perspective and advice as presidents tackle myriad difficult topics on behalf of today’s students.
Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
Finding himself in prison following the beer-hall fiasco in Munich in 1923, Adolf Hitler had time to put his thoughts about politics and destiny into order, at least as much as that was possible. The United States was part of his grand vision, and not as someplace to conquer.
“The racially pure and still unmixed German has risen to become master of the American continent,” he wrote in Mein Kampf, “and he will remain the master, as long as he does not fall victim to racial pollution.” He was encouraged on the latter score by what he had learned of American immigration policy. With its stated preference for Northern Europeans, its restrictions on those from Southern and Eastern Europe, and its outright exclusion of everyone else, the Immigration Act of 1924 impressed Hitler as exemplary. It manifested, “at least in tentative first steps,” what he and his associates saw as “the characteristic völkisch conception of the state,” as defined in some detail by the Nazi Party Program of 1920.
Revulsion is an understandable response to this little traipse through the ideological sewer, but it is wholly inadequate for assessing the full measure of the facts or their implications. The admiration for American immigration policy expressed in Mein Kampf was not a passing thought on the day’s news (Hitler had been in prison for about two months when Calvin Coolidge signed the act into law) nor a one-off remark. Its place in the full context of Nazi theory and practice comes into view in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton University Press) by James Q. Whitman, a professor of comparative and foreign law at Yale Law School.
Many people will take the very title as an affront. But it’s the historical reality the book discloses that proves much harder to digest. The author does not seem prone to sensationalism. The argument is made in two succinct, cogent and copiously documented chapters, prefaced and followed with remarks that remain within the cooler temperatures of expressed opinion (e.g.: “American contract law, for example, is, in my opinion, exemplary in its innovativeness”).
Hitler’s American Model is scholarship and not an editorial traveling incognito. Its pages contain many really offensive statements about American history and its social legacy. But those statements are all from primary sources -- statements about America, made by Nazis, usually in the form of compliments.
“The most important event in the history of the states of the Second Millennium -- up until the [First World] War -- was the founding of the United States of America,” wrote a Nazi historian in 1934. “The struggle of the Aryans for world domination thereby received its strongest prop.” Another German author developed the point two years later, saying that “a conscious unity of the white race would never have emerged” without American leadership on the global stage following the war.
Examples could be multiplied. The idea of the United States as a sort of alt-Reich was a Nazi commonplace, at least in the regime’s early years. But it was not just a matter of following Hitler’s lead. The white-supremacist and eugenicist writings of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard -- among the best-selling American authors of a 100 years ago -- circulated in translation in the milieu that spawned Hitler. (I don’t recall Hannah Arendt mentioning Grant or Stoddard in Origins of Totalitarianism, oddly enough.) A popular Nazi magazine praised lynching as “the natural resistance of the Volk to an alien race that is attempting to gain the upper hand.” European visitors noted the similarity between the Ku Klux Klan and fascist paramilitary groups like the Brownshirts, and they compared the post-Reconstruction order in the South to the Nazi system.
But the journalistic analogies and propaganda talking points of the day, while blatant enough, don’t convey the depth of American influence on Nazi race law. The claim of influence runs against the current of much recent scholarship arguing that Nazi references to the Jim Crow system were “few and fleeting” and that American segregation laws had little or no impact on the Nuremberg Laws. (At the Nuremberg rally of 1935, the Nazis proclaimed citizenship limited to those “of German blood, or racially related blood” and outlawed marriage or sexual relations between Jews and German citizens.)
While the Nazis did call attention to segregation in the United States -- so the argument goes -- it was to deflect criticism of German policy. The error here, as Whitman sees it, comes from treating the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson as the primary or quintessential legal component of racial oppression in the United States, and presumably the one Nazi jurists would have looked to in reshaping German policy. But, according to Whitman, “American race law” in the 19th and much of the 20th century:
sprawled over a wide range of technically distinct legal areas … [including] Indian law, anti-Chinese and -Japanese legislation, and disabilities in civil procedure and election law …. Anti-miscegenation laws on the state level featured especially prominently … [as] did immigration and naturalization law on the federal level ….
Even before the outbreak of World War I, German scholars were fascinated by this teeming mass of American racist law -- with a particular interest in what one of them identified as a new category of “subjects without citizenship rights” (or second-class citizens, to put it another way) defined by race or country of ancestry. By the 1930s, the anti-miscegenation laws in most American states were another topic of great concern. While many countries regarded interracial marriage as undesirable, Nazi jurists “had a hard time uncovering non-American examples” of statutes prohibiting it.
A stenographic transcript from 1934 provides Whitman’s most impressive evidence of how closely Nazi lawyers and functionaries had studied American racial jurisprudence. A meeting of the Commission on Criminal Law Reform “involved repeated and detailed discussion of the American example, from its very opening moments,” Whitman writes, including debate between Nazi radicals and what we’d have to call, by default, Nazi moderates.
The moderates argued that legal tradition required consistency. Any new statute forbidding mixed-race marriages had to be constructed in accord with the one existing precedent for treating a marriage as criminal: the law against bigamy. This would have been a bit of a stretch, and the moderates preferred letting the propaganda experts discourage interracial romance rather than making it a police matter.
The radicals were working from a different conceptual tool kit. Juristic tradition counted for less than what Hitler had called the “völkisch conception of the state,” which demanded Aryan supremacy and racial purity. It made more sense to them to follow an example that had been tried and tested. One of the hard-core Nazis on the commission knew where to turn:
Now as far as the delineation of the race concept goes, it is interesting to take a look at the list of American states. Thirty of the states of the union have race legislation, which, it seems clear to me, is crafted from the point of view of race protection. … I believe that apart from the desire to exclude if possible a foreign political influence that is becoming too powerful, which I can imagine is the case with regard to the Japanese, this is all from the point of race protection.
The lawyers whom Whitman identifies as Nazi radicals seemed to appreciate how indifferent the American states were to German standards of rigor. True, the U.S. laws showed a lamentable indifference to Jews and Gentiles marrying. But otherwise they were as racist as anything the führer could want. “The image of America as seen through Nazi eyes in the early 1930s is not the image we cherish,” Whitman writes, “but it is hardly unrecognizable.”