Tension is all around us on college campuses, brought on by dual pandemics. The COVID-19 pandemic preoccupies every decision we make as college administrators, faculty members, students and relevant stakeholders. We must also grapple with the chronic pandemic of systemic racism and white supremacy that has had a lasting and not-so-subtle effect on who has a better chance of thriving in our society -- a pandemic strategically engineered to devalue the contributions of underrepresented individuals in general and Black, brown and Indigenous peoples in particular.
In between both pandemics sits the 2020 presidential election, an election for which the results are being questioned by some in our communities, and one that I worry will continue to consume us at least through Inauguration Day 2021 and beyond.
The results of the 2020 election will bring little solace and comfort to three particular groups on our campuses: 1) undocumented and international students, 2) members of the LGBTQ+ community, and 3) professional staff members. As college administrators, tenured faculty members and others with certain levels of financial and educational privilege, we must understand that, come what may between now and Inauguration Day, the short-term and long-term future for these individuals is murky at best and debilitating at worst.
Undocumented and International Students
Even before the results of the 2016 election, undocumented students and those with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, as well as international undergraduate and graduate students, lived in a constant state of instability. Threats of deportation, the cost of securing required immigration status to pursue one’s education and the waiting game for visa reauthorizations and updates to federal laws kept these students wondering if they or their family members were in danger of being deported or not being able to complete their degrees.
The last four years, however, have brought heightened and constant reminders of their vulnerability, as federal laws have grown more and more restrictive. Regulations have changed suddenly -- and with little input from the students impacted or from scholars and administrators on our campuses. At my institution, Wake Forest University, for example, these professional colleagues have continually had to readjust, re-educate, reprogram and reprocess hundreds of requests, and they’ve met these challenges in spite of limited time and guidance to prepare accordingly.
Undocumented and international students need our help in understanding and dealing with the implications of new or updated laws on their current immigration status, and they will continue to express anxiety and fear over what might happen to them -- either in the next several months or after the current academic year comes to an end.
Members of the LGBTQ+ Community
For members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies, the coming U.S. Supreme Court term brings fear and a sense of loss. Recent key and pivotal decisions have supported the basic rights of LGBTQ+ colleagues and students, particularly this past summer’s Title VII SCOTUS ruling that extended workplace protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But with the recent appointments of more conservative justices, as well as cases on the SCOTUS docket about health-care access and whether same-sex couples can be discriminated against when it comes to adopting children, much is at stake.
College and university counseling service providers, gender and identity centers, and chaplains’ offices must serve as places that provide support and advocacy for specific groups like LGBTQ+ constituencies, as well as education and opportunities for the entire community.
Professional Staff Members
Considering that professional administrators will staff the spaces I just mentioned, they make up the third group of campus community stakeholders we need to make sure to remember postelection and beyond. They will be especially taxed to provide their guidance, expertise and care.
Directors, assistant and associate directors, assistant deans, program coordinators, associate chaplains, and business and office managers are but some of the titles held by the professional staff members who program, advocate and offer care in these spaces. Although the demographic breakdowns vary between the type of services provided in these centers and offices, they tend to be some of the most diverse units on our campuses -- in terms of both those who staff these areas and the students they serve.
When students, faculty members and administrators on college campuses have felt threatened, unseen or unsure of how to get through their day or to their next class, the professional staff members in these areas are the ones who remind them of their strength, inquire about the safety of their families back home and support their professional and personal development. During COVID in particular, these centers and spaces have also provided refuge and psycho-educational support to those who are serving as caregivers, many of whom are disproportionately women and people of color, as they try to balance work and homes.
In normal years, these professional colleagues are taxed to the limits; this year, most have worked beyond their breaking points. Through it all -- from demonstrations calling for social justice and to rapid response to COVID-related needs -- they have been left to wonder, “If I am here for so many, who will be here for me?” As college administrators, faculty members and compassionate colleagues, we must answer that question with an affirmative “We see you, we hear you and we will support you.”
Taken as separate groups, these individuals do not represent a large percentage of the student body or faculty or administrative ranks. Furthermore, they have not been provided access to the same level of agency to impact or sway decisions at an institutional level as those in the majority. But that doesn’t mean their experiences are inconsequential -- or that their realities shouldn’t factor into systemic changes throughout our institutions.
Those of us who serve as higher education administrators must leverage our seats at decision-making tables. We must elevate the challenges and triumphs of our undocumented, DACA and international students. We must ensure that equal protections under the law are upheld for members of the LGBTQ+ community. And we must champion, celebrate and appreciate the day-to-day contributions of those professional staff members who sometimes sacrifice their own physical and emotional well-being so that all members of our campus communities can flourish.
Simply knowing that the next few weeks and months will be particularly stressful for these valued members of our campus communities is not enough. We must act on their behalf and with them by our sides.