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It was August of 1970, when I was a psychiatric social worker on active duty in the United States Air Force at the height of the carnage of the Vietnam War and, much more importantly, when the whole world was watching thousands of protesters in the streets outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago, the headquarters hotel of the Democratic National Convention. They were chanting “The whole world is watching; the whole world is watching; the whole world is watching.”
And now, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the world watches again as we chant: “I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe!”
For decades, US higher education had been the envy of the rest of the world, the gold standard for emulation. In my case, I have had the exhilarating experience of being part of a highly respected educational innovation, launched by one American university in 1972, which has been adopted around the globe: the so-called “first-year experience” movement, philosophy and associated practices.
Of course, the same cannot be said of our country now. Even before the pandemic, tourism numbers of non-US passport holders coming to the United States were down. And numbers of international students had fallen off a cliff. So, here at this time when the world is once again watching people in the United States fighting for justice, what can we higher educators do in our institutional settings?
Since 1636 and throughout American history our higher education institutions have reflected, affirmed, challenged, and helped change the dominant value systems of American society. As educators, we have both encouraged our students to adopt those values and/or to challenge them and stand for something else. Our campuses have stood for maintaining the status quo, modifying the status quo, or outright rejecting it. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, what are we going to do now, especially when ever the students really do return to campus?
Our campuses, no surprise, are microcosms of the larger American society. Thus, we manifest most of the inequities of the country. And certainly our “outcomes” – in terms of who is admitted where and to what programs, financially supported and to what extent, retained and graduated, and with what debt levels, offered the best jobs – mirrors the inequitable outcomes of our society.
I lead a non-profit organization that has a strong mission to work in pursuit of social justice, but what else can those of us in academia do within our own spheres of influence?
What about our admissions policies?
And our financial aid practices?
Our grading practices?
Our gateway course outcomes in high failure rate courses?
Our opportunities for on-campus employment, internships, study abroad?
Our willingness to provide emergency financial aid?
How do all of these still manifest race-based, structural inequities and hence serve to perpetuate that historic and well-established system?
This year our focus, surely, will just be on getting back in business. But that “business” has always had discriminatory elements. Are these any longer sustainable? The public is speaking; polls are suggesting record numbers of US citizens, including older whites and even some conservatives, are sympathetic with the causes and concerns of protestors. This is the time then for unprecedented change in our policies and practices.
So what could you be doing on your campus that the whole world could be watching and applauding? I have a dream that moving forward some of you/us are going to be doing more than we ever have before.
The whole world is watching.
We can’t breathe!
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