Every year, the Black Student Government associations from the Big XII universities gather for a big conference where students can discuss the challenges they face at their institutions and offer each other support, creativity, and motivation. While I have never attended this conference, I have heard profound testimonials from students who have about the way it has empowered them. Last night, a former colleague of mine at Iowa State shared this quote from the closing keynote speaker at the conference, Dr. Gwendolyn Webb-Hasan:
If an institution won’t treat you right, is it reasonable to expect them to teach you right?
I think there is a certain brilliance to this quote that informs the work of many professionals in our field, as well as the continued advocacy on campuses across the nation. If universities do not offer every single resource they can toward making their campuses truly welcoming for every student, they are not doing right by many of those students. And Dr. Webb-Hasan’s point is critical: if you can’t trust a university for your safety, your prosperity, or your comfort, why should you trust a university for your knowledge, your career, or your future?
In the last year, I have seen many universities cut or freeze positions dedicated to working with diversity and inclusion, from Multicultural Services to Women’s Centers and LGBT Centers to Disability Offices to whatever kind of student resources are out there. These services are vital to institutions, and in most cases, they exist to attempt to compensate for severe deficits in campus climate, some of which will take decades to repair, and some of which might never be mended. To limit or deprioritize these resources does not just have a detrimental effect on recruitment and retention, but also on the very academic reputation of the university.
Consider: if only white students feel comfortable or have the resources to succeed on a particular campus, it can then be concluded that such a university is not capable of teaching students of color. Not only does such a reputation help maintain a narrow enrollment of students of color—maintaining their marginalization on campus—it also perpetuates racist mythologies about the very potential of people of color to succeed. The same could be said of straight vs. queer students, and we don’t even have mechanisms for identifying LGBTQ students!
If universities are truly committed to providing equitable opportunities for education, they need to step it up. They could have the best professors in the history of the world, but it wouldn’t matter if only straight, white men can effectively learn there. How pathetic is it that at almost every university, underrepresented populations of students have to continue to advocate for themselves? We would ask that of no other student, but for our women, our people of color, our LGBTQ folks, our people with disabilities, our veterans, our atheists, our religious minorities, and our international students, we often look at them and just say, “If you need a particular resource to be successful here, you have to do the extra work yourself.”
Advocating for our students and advocating for our students to learn is the same thing. When will our universities recognize what we already know?