Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Harmony and disharmony in cultural perspectives

At a time when cultural difference is being highlighted and the treatment and rights of minority cultural groups is the subject of significant discourse and protest, I find myself looking for any ray of hope and a path forward.

President Crutcher of the University of Richmond, shared insight from his discipline by suggesting that "To succeed, colleges and universities must recommit to helping students become active listeners with the inner strength to weather the challenging and even offensive views they will inevitably encounter in democratic life. My experience as a cellist in a chamber ensemble -- and often the only person of color in any room -- has taught me that if you actively listen, even when the chords are dissonant, the harmonies can resolve into a single, complex musical composition made better by its many parts."

President Crutcher's subsequent essay, Leadership in Crossing Divides, offered further reflections on having difficult conversations and specifically recounts experiences he had where the initial visceral reaction was to challenge or end a conversation. But he advocates leaning into conversations that may at first blush look racist or off-putting:

  • Lesson #1 - acknowledge uncomfortable history as a way of opening discourse on what to do now
  • Lesson #2 - respond to controversial speech with more speech
  • Lesson #3 - slow down

I assume that President Crutcher's argument is more complex than these two short essays reveal, but the focus on listening for those who have to endure "challenging and offensive views" is problematic. The responsibility for harmonizing or connecting, if that is the goal, rests with everyone in an ensemble or other type of organization. And I would even suggest that the greater responsibility rests in the mind and expectation of the dominant forces (in the music analogy, the sonorous or comfortable harmony). Music comes in many and varied forms and sometimes the most intense and engaging music has lots of discord, and there may actually never be a comfortable resolution to a harmony that is recognizable by all.

My insight tells me that, rather than seeking harmony, those of us committed to inclusive cultural perspectives need to welcome a new kind of tonality that, in fact, may be quite discordant. Indeed, discord entered the University of Richmond environment when President Crutcher, supported by members of the Board, determined to not rename campus buildings that celebrated founders who owned slaves but, instead, chose to include the names of both those who owned slaves and the enslaved. Following the decision, a coalition of Black students and other advocates at the University pledged that if the building names were not changed by March 25, they would stop participating in campus organizations and administrative groups. Deep sensitivity and division remained at University of Richmond with faculty first passing a resolution criticizing the University Rector and then voting "no confidence" in his ability to exercise his fiduciary responsibility on behalf of the University. The faculty actions began as a reaction to his reference to "Black, brown, and regular students" during deliberations. The Richmond Board of Trustees eventually placed the naming decision on hold and have formed a task group to study and make recommendations before proceeding.

My experience with and appreciation of music tells me that in the case of naming campus buildings and all cases of working toward cultural understandings that it's all about balance - can a dominant tonality embrace the wonderful and sometimes tense discomfort of a completely new sound? The University of Richmond story tipped toward greater dissonance and it remains to be seen if a comfortable tonality can be found after a period of sharp discord.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Student protests here to stay (for a while)

I previously posted that the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 were likely to find resonates on university campuses once the fall 2020 semester began. When I predicted that, I thought in-person instruction would have returned by then, which has not come to pass. However, student protest have been cyclical over time and the times are right for a return to more student activism. Colleges and universities, and student affairs staff in particular, will be wise to plan ahead for how they will respond.

Steven Mintz offered a number of insights well worth considering. His assessment is that, while previous generations of protestors were often unified in their efforts, current students' issues are more differentiated. However, there is a tendency for activist groups to come together to support and complement each others' efforts. Recent protests have come from inclusion commitments institutions have made, which necessarily empowers new student population groups to voice their concerns in a constructive way. Mintz says, "A college, at its best, is a place of exploration, identity formation, value clarification, aspiration and philosophical reflection, and the college years are, ideally, a time to test boundaries, question tradition, undergo fresh experiences and try out various identities - in short, to grow and mature and experiment with new ideas, values, sensibilities and aesthetics. To that end, colleges should welcome students' efforts to question university policies and practices..."

The Student Voice survey of early summer 2021 indicated that, while students believe there is an increase in campus attention to racial issues, they have generally not been satisfied by institutional responses. Perhaps it's time that we should get busy making sure that our colleagues and institutions are ready to listen to students and embrace the potential of protest in the spirit Mintz advocates.

Monday, January 18, 2021

What international students learn from their U.S.A. experience

On the cusp of a new era for higher education as the White House passes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, my deep hope is that the credibility and role of U.S.A. higher education in the world is restored. On his first day in office, President Biden reversed Trump visa restrictions and other impediments to immigration and naturalization. Future Biden actions will hopefully restore the incentives for higher education institutions to build international partnerships. These executive actions are important to rebuilding from the Trump administration's narrow view of "American First."

Looking at the ways that international students who study in the U.S.A. benefit is another place to start in order to recenter higher education's focus. Two international graduate students offer perspective on the three distinctive strengths that most contribute to their professional success. These three strengths are; cultural intelligence, communication, and courage. In the conclusion of their essay they say, "we urge academics to celebrate their international colleagues as holistic individuals and share their stories of courage, imagination and fresh perspectives -- in addition to their work ethics, research accomplishments and immigration challenges."

Let's get back to the work of internationalizing higher education and let's make sure we're doing it for reasons that are based on an ethic of care.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Managing social media in a crisis

What we now know is that the January 6, 2021, insurrection attempt in Washington, D.C., was preceded by months of preparation and messaging via social media. The FBI, police, and others knew about it but apparently viewed it as overstated bravado that would not ultimately come to fruition... bad judgment that gave us one of the worst days in American history.

Kylie Kinnaman of TVP Communications advises that higher education needs to carefully follow and respond to social media on campus. In times of heightened political discord and threat of actual violence, the advice includes; revisit the campus social media policy, make sure an incident response team and communication templates are ready for release, provide transparent and frequent updates, monitor social media outside the institution, pause other campus events and communication, and complete a postmortem when it's over.

Kinnaman does not address decisions about reporting social media posts or denial of access to platforms, which has become prominent since Donald Trump's access to social media were revoked following his use of these platforms in allegedly advocating insurrection. Twitter's decision has been lauded by some as a potentially transformative ethical stance that will have implications far into the future. However, conservative criticism on social media has claimed that Trump's banishment was denial of free speech. It's important that campuses have a honed and widely communicated policy that defines what comprises protected speech versus speech that threatens and ultimately draws hostile and violent groups together. The latter is not protected speech and everyone on campus should understand that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

International students accuse Western Iowa Tech Community College of forced labor

One of the most valuable aspects of studying as an international student in U.S.A. institutions is job training and experience. Most international students rely on visa permits that offer job training after completing their degrees but some look to opportunities to work while they are studying. International students at Western Iowa Tech Community College have alleged that jobs offered to them amount to forced labor and human trafficking. Such a charge raises questions for all institutions of higher education - How is work viewed in relation to education and what efforts are taken to make sure that workforce experience and understanding are purposeful and integrated in the learning process?

Thursday, January 7, 2021

U.S.A. higher education - dismayed with Trump

Higher education faculty and administrators have not been silent about their opposition to Donald Trump over the last four years but have they done enough to draw attention to the dangers that ultimately brought the U.S.A. to an attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021? There are so many failures that must be accepted and, as a leadership educator, I will continue to ponder what went wrong over the last four years for some time.

Responding to the destruction of January 6, 2021, there have been numerous condemnations and calls for Donald Trump's resignation, impeachment, or invocation of the provision of the 25th amendment. They include:
It what some view as one of the most consequential immediate actions, Twitter temporarily and later permanently banned Trump from his favorite platform and megaphone. While critics claim Twitter's move is akin to silencing free speech, others see it as a powerful ethical decision that will have implications far into the future. Ben Stoviak, an instructional designer and graduate student in counseling, opined, "Twitter demanded that we speak truth to power. And it instructed us through example not to provide power to voices that seek to dismantle, alter or obliterate a truth-loving disposition that higher education so often cultivates through a complex and intentionally designed enrichment of students' lives."

Hundreds of political scientists deplored the insurrection attempt and Trump's role in it saying, "The President's actions show he is unwilling or unable to fulfill his oath to protect and defend the Constitution. He should be removed from office immediately before further violence takes place or further damage is done to our democracy." Their statement was subsequently revised to assert the importance of accountability rather than a "both sides" equivocation advocated in the first statement. Key questions about public statements include; have university leaders, both faculty and presidents, done enough and have their statements had purposeful and significant impact? In the flurry of condemnations, some scholars are urging more focus on, or a return to, democratic education; among them:
Extreme irony unfolded with Donald Trump's release of the 1776 Commission report, a statement discredited by scholars that called for more patriotic education in schools. On President Biden's first day in office, the Commission that drafted the report was disbanded and the report taken off the White House website. However, the 1776 Report lives on through its authors' commitment to publish the report. 

Determining if, and how, a university president responds to public concerns is an important communications question. The fact that the higher degree of indignation now being expressed comes so late is an example of misjudgment. In many ways, coming late to the realization of the deep danger of an unbalanced narcissist as President of the United States is not surprising. The wave of populism and xenophobia that brought Trump to office was hard to contradict and so many of us continued to deny how bad it could become. Now the U.S.A. knows and the rest of the world is watching.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

UK's exit from EU and ERASMUS

The UK's final departure from the EU is unfolding and the details are beginning to emerge. One of the casualties of Brexit is the loss of access to ERASMUS agreements that support mobility of students enrolled in higher education institutions throughout EU countries. Boris Johnson's government is launching the "Turing Scheme" but educators are skeptical, noting that the mobility that would result from its implementation would largely be symbolic.

Modeling by government officials projected early in 2021 that U.K. universities could lose as much as 2/3rds of the students that used to come from EU countries. U.K. elite universities at Oxford and Cambridge will likely gain in enrollment and revenue.