In an essay in The New York Times, Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of political science at Sarah Lawrence College, recently discussed the findings from a survey he conducted on the political leanings of student affairs administrators. In that essay, Abrams wrote that his survey was motivated by his desire to discover what other “disconcerting” programs were being promoted by student affairs administrators after receiving an email about a progressive program at his institution.
Putting aside the thinly veiled polemical bent of Abrams’ discussion of his “findings,” I find much to question about his comments. Abrams posits these data to be inherently indicative that college students are being socialized into leftist ideology. That sentiment is not new, and the ground beneath it remains shaky. In fact, I offer three counterpoints that challenge Abrams’s assumptions about the supposed uniformity of liberalism and the nature of student affairs work. My observations are informed by nearly 18 years of teaching in graduate programs meant to prepare people for work and leadership in student affairs areas.
First, to note that a group is “liberal leaning,” as Abrams does in his survey analysis, says little about the actual attitudes and behaviors of the individuals in that group relative to social issues. “Liberal” and “progressive” are actually not synonyms, as would be evident to anyone -- especially a political scientist taking a serious look at the current contests within the Democratic Party. To be called a liberal says nothing substantive about the methods and means one views as necessary to achieve a certain kind of society. Despite Abrams’s anecdotes about a few programs that seek to educate students about the realities of the structural and systemic biases toward certain social groups, merely being liberal does not mean one is out there recruiting students to one’s viewpoints. Abrams, notably, presents no evidence of that, either -- because there isn’t any to gather. Programs that student affairs units host are usually optional; not to worry, anyone who disagrees with the title of a program without knowing its content is free to pass on by.
Second, and perhaps the most important, educating people about respect for human dignity is not owned by any political or social ideology. Abrams makes it a point to call out college orientation sessions in his polemic. It is chilling to confront someone who thinks providing orientation sessions that aim to prevent incidents of bias, harassment, sexual assault and incivility are: 1) liberal and 2) therefore inherently “disconcerting.” Such sessions are often, in fact, mandatory, and should be. I didn’t realize that educating students not to hang nooses in front of black students’ residence hall rooms, paint neo-Nazi symbols around campus or post signs telling duly admitted students to “go home” were the sole terrain of a liberal elite that must be reined in. Yet that is what Abrams would have us believe.
Perhaps conservatives as a whole -- to paint with the same broad brush as Abrams did -- believe such things are OK and would tolerate the converse happening to their college students in the name of … what, free speech? Perhaps educating about sexual consent is inappropriate, since that’s liberal ideology.
The history of higher education is one of exclusion that is based on social identities, including race, indigeneity, gender, sexuality, disability, social class and religion. The vestiges of those exclusionary policies and practices remain within higher education today. Therefore, on residential college campuses, in community college classrooms and through distance education courses, it is essential to create conditions where everyone can learn about themselves, each other and their subjects of study without concerns about becoming targets because of who they are. As a matter of fact, these orientation sessions and other campus programming throughout the year support the learning of all students, regardless of their political leaning. Student affairs professionals help to create and sustain campus communities where students, faculty and staff are capable of robust dialogue across differences. Our society has a serious problem when some people see efforts to do that as just politically ideological.
Third, a decade ago, I wrote an article, “Confronting the Politics of Multicultural Competence,” in About Campus, a publication read by student affairs professionals and other college administrators. In that essay, I critiqued the claim -- advanced even at that time within and outside the field of student affairs -- that educating for multicultural competence was liberal and excluded conservative student affairs professionals. I drew on my direct experience of my students’ class discussions on multicultural competence, a concept that Raechele Pope, Amy Reynolds and John Mueller advanced in Multicultural Competence in Student Affairs, first published in 2004 and just being released again in a second edition. I noted that my students, including conservative ones, were able to recognize that their conservative political beliefs were not inherently opposed to the characteristics of multicultural competence. They saw for themselves that they could accept and support students of all stripes as individuals worthy of human dignity, regardless of their political leanings.
Treating students with dignity and respect and educating them to do the same for each other is not about being a liberal. It is about the responsibility of being a human being living in community with other human beings.