The Moment We've Waited For?

The recent protests on campuses have made it clear that we in higher education have students' attention and engagement, writes Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt. Now we have to decide what to do with it.

January 12, 2016

From angry student protests to the backlash that paints them as coddled and pampered, we have reached a watershed moment on college and university campuses across this country as we begin 2016. Empowered and emboldened by their peers at the University of Missouri and many other institutions, students have presented college presidents, faculty members and administrators with lists of demands meant to address discrimination, racism and sexism, and to create more inclusive environments.

Those requests have been wide-ranging: hire more minority faculty, remove the names of donors and patrons implicated in colonialism and racism from buildings, include questions about microaggressions against students in faculty evaluations. And that’s just the short list.

The pushback against these students has been equally lively and includes outright mockery and ridicule -- citing the grammatical errors in a list of demands, for example. Some observers have criticized the students for being too sensitive. The president of one university accused some of them of wanting to “arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn.” Unfortunately, those are precisely the responses we would expect when those with power are being challenged.

But some of the reactions of college administrators and faculty members are well reasoned. Certain things can’t be accomplished within existing faculty governance structures -- or if they can, they will take time. For example, much of the faculty hiring process is well beyond the jurisdiction of students. Colleges and universities have a duty to protect not just students but also faculty members.

Those are, in fact, reasonable responses. But sometimes administrators, faculty members, and other campus leaders have undercut those responses with an air of impatience and frustration: students just don’t get it. They don’t understand how the college or university works. They don’t understand the role of faculty. They don’t understand history.

All of which prompts me to ask, as students return to classes: Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for? Until this past year, our hand-wringing about students focused on their apathy and selfishness. We criticized Millennials for their passivity and lack of empathy. But lately they’ve been standing up, asking questions, criticizing the system and arguing not just for themselves but also on behalf of others. Isn’t this precisely the behavior we wanted?

Certainly, their responses are sometimes naïve, sometimes overly ambitious. They haven’t always reflected the complexities of the higher education environment and its management. But that’s OK. They’re college students. College should be the place where they try on controversial ideas, push the envelope, make demands. And get things wrong sometimes.

What if we -- administrators and faculty members -- leveraged this moment? There is an opportunity here. We have the students’ attention -- perhaps for some less than ideal reasons, but we have their attention nonetheless. The question is, what are we going to do with it?

We could simply rebuff them and say that they need to “humbly learn.” What if, rather than rejecting their ideas outright and saying they just don’t understand how things work, we taught them how the university works, acknowledging that it doesn’t always work well? What if we engaged their demands and told them to bring their critical-thinking skills (which we say we are teaching them in every curricular assessment report I’ve ever read) to bear on the situation?

To take just one example: the historian in me can’t help but wonder what would happen if we harnessed the student critique of donors, patrons, named buildings and the like to examine our institutional histories. I’m envisioning a series of conversations among faculty members, students and administrators that explored the lives of the historical figures whom students find controversial and whose names they want erased from the institution. Rather than dismissing such demands out of hand as too sensitive or misinformed, we should use students’ demands and critiques to further their education and the cultivation of critical-thinking skills.

What if professors and students engaged in the process of curricular design to increase the diversity of course offerings? We could harness student enthusiasm for particular issues and topics and involve them in the research and work necessary to guide curricula in new directions.

What if we pulled back the curtain and let students see what shared governance and the administration of higher education looks like? I’ve mentioned a university’s obligation to protect its faculty members -- which to students often sounds like an excuse for inaction. But what if we invited them to participate in a series of conversations about academic freedom and what it protects?

Even as I pose these questions, I know why we haven’t done it yet. Digging deep into the past of our institutions’ donors and patrons might result in some uncomfortable discoveries. It might even incite the removal of those names from our campus buildings. Involving students in curricular design would mean exposing our teaching and pedagogy. And a conversation about academic freedom? I can’t even get my colleagues to have such a discussion among themselves, much less with students and administrators.

The reason we hesitate is because these protests and these demands, even when they are naïve and even when they overreach, challenge our power and authority. But that’s just it: we have the power and the authority in this situation. And without perhaps fully realizing it, our students may be asking us to use it in the service of their education. Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for?


Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Honors College and Mandel Professor in Humanities at Cleveland State University and vice president of the teaching division of the American Historical Association. She blogs at Tales Told Out of School.


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