Musings on socially just decisions

As many of you who read our blog probably know, Carleton College decided this past January to NOT close during the polar vortex. There were impassioned debates about the decision on Facebook, in editorials in The Carletonian, and at formal and informal faculty gatherings. We’ve already discussed on this blog what our stance is about weather-related closings, so in this post, we wanted to expand on our ideas about how differences in experiences and power might be taken into account as institutions try to make decisions.

When we got the email from the administration about the decision not to close the college, it was mentioned that the administration had heard from many members of the community. It was not clear to us from the email how many community members had expressed their views and, among those who had, how many had been in favor of remaining open and how many had been in favor of closing. The first suggestion we’d have to make decision-making processes more just is to make them more transparent.

Getting information about a simple breakdown of how many were in favor of one option over the other is a start towards having more just and transparent processes. For example, considering only faculty perspectives for now, say 100 faculty wrote to the president to express their views on the issue. Let’s imagine that 50 faculty wrote in favor of remaining open, and 50 voted for closing.  The first question we would ask is be how representative were those 100 faculty of the faculty in terms of rank (e.g. tenured, untenured, tenure-track, visiting). Was there a preponderance of tenured faculty expressing their views, for example? If fewer untenured or visiting faculty expressed their views, we would think about how we can ensure that all faculty felt comfortable enough writing to express their views. As tenured faculty, the two of us do not worry much about writing an email to the Dean or the President to make clear our positions on any issue at the college, but we’re not sure that all faculty feel this way. Having channels for honest feedback from those who are vulnerable in terms of job security is an important issue in any hierarchical institution.

Next, if there is relative representation of all ranks of faculty among the 100 faculty who expressed their views, we would consider if there are patterns among those who argued in favor of one option over the other. For example, did more faculty who live close to campus favor staying open over those who would have had to travel longer distances? How about faculty with young children? Since the decision to remain open or close likely had differential impact on faculty depending on their life circumstances, it seems important to consider such impacts.

Third, paying attention to and acknowledging differential impact of such decisions is important if we are to make decisions that do not assume that the status quo is a just one. Martha Minow, a legal scholar, notes that we often encounter “the dilemma of difference” when trying to make decisions based on differences in status, category, or identity because both ignoring differences or taking into account differences can (re)create the stigma of difference. She notes that this dilemma partly is created because of how we think of differences. As she describes it:

We can treat differences as the private, internal problem of each different person, a treatment that obviously depends on communal agreements and public enforcement. We can treat differences as a function of relationships and compare the distributions made by different people to the costs and burdens of difference. Or we can treat differences as a pervasive feature of communal life and consider ways to structure social institutions to distribute the burdens attached to difference.

Taking that last approach can help us move towards a more equitable institution and one important aspect of that approach, Minow argues, is that we need to tilt the balance towards previously marginalized voices and perspectives and towards those people who are negatively impacted disproportionately by the status quo. Minow’s exhortation mirrors what we can learn from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work in Silencing the Past: “the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production,” or, as Adriana paraphrases for her students, we need to think about which voices and perspectives have no chance to be heard. Have we set the table (our decision-making process) in ways that everyone who is impacted by the decision is invited and able to attend? And of course, there’s still the question to ask about who gets to set the table in the first place and “invite” others. While ensuring that diverse, marginalized, and minoritized voices are represented at the table is important, there is still power in being the ones to invite those voices.

Bringing it back then to the example of how to make a decision about whether to close the college during inclement weather, we’d argue that paying attention to ensuring that faculty, staff, and students who would be negatively impacted by the decision to stay open or to close should be given extra consideration. We might want to consider (dis)ability, access to proper wear/gear, family and child care responsibilities, travel distances…and, of course, which members of the college community even have the chance to express themselves. We would want to make sure that our assumptions about people’s statuses and abilities don’t get in the way of listening to their professed needs. We’re thinking, for example, of possible assumptions  that all 18-22 year olds are non-disabled and can, say, walk really fast to avoid frostbite.

Hopefully, our previous paragraphs make clear the complexity of decision-making processes at a college and the effort it takes to do it well, i.e. making sure that diverse, marginalized, minoritized voices are able to participate. We’ve focused on the role of faculty, because ours, like many institutions, maintains the desire to drive decision-making through shared governance, where faculty expect and are expected to have a say in important institutional decisions. While we support a strong faculty voice and a robust shared governance model (something we’ll write more about in a future post), we also want to point out that as faculty, even with our different ranks, our voices and perspectives are generally given more weight and consideration than staff members. This privileging of faculty voices, no matter the history or rationale for them, means that when faced with a decision such as what to do when a polar vortex comes to town, insidious inequities (of voice, of autonomy) between staff, faculty, and students can get masked.

In other words, when the institution opts to stay open, but invites individuals to make the “best choices” for their individual safety, the impact falls differently. Faculty are empowered to cancel classes if they want (or not); students’ freedom to make a choice probably depends on class attendance policies; and finally, staff members may not always feel like they can make decisions that might go against supervisors’ explicit or implicit expectations about whether they should come in to work on a -40 degree day. These variations in how “empowered” we may feel to make our own best choices need to be accounted for in how institutions make such decisions.

Speaking up against the Border Patrol

arizona3.jpgImage source: Sandy Soto, colleague at University of Arizona

We’re back! And we wanted to kick off our series of posts for the spring term by signal boosting the story of University of Arizona students who are facing criminal charges for boldly and bravely challenging the presence of two armed Border Patrol agents on campus to give a presentation to a student club. As seen in videos linked in this Washington Post article about what happened, the student is heard repeatedly calling the agents the “Murder Patrol” and “KKK.” As the student notes, Border Patrol agents have been condemned by humanitarian aid groups for routinely destroying water left for migrants in the desert.

For a longer story of the racist origins of the Border Patrol, check out this interview with Greg Grandin, author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Grandin, for example, notes, “The Border Patrol, as a federal agency, was exempt from any kind of that oversight that either the FBI or the CIA was submitted to in the 1970s. There was no equivalent of the Church Committee. It really has been, in some ways, a rogue agency, both because of its nature, working in this kind of liminal area between the foreign and the domestic, and, you know, on these borderlands, with very little oversight. And it was founded in 1924. And it was founded the same year that the U.S. passed its nativist immigration law, which basically reduced immigration from Asia to zero, emphasized and privileged immigration from Protestant Northern Europe.”

It is impossible to separate out the criticism of the Border Patrol and the issue of free speech as they collide in this incident. In the same breath that the UA president proclaims his defense of free speech, he argues that the #Arizona3 were disrupting education. But what do we mean when we say that someone or something disrupts education? What measures are we using, what definitions are we employing, when we (or the UA administration) point to the students as disruption, but don’t acknowledge that the presence of the Border Patrol is also disruptive? It becomes important to ask: disruptive to whose education? on whose terms? When we consider what speech should be defended as free speech (the Border Patrol’s presence or the #Arizona3’s), shouldn’t we also recognize the conditions of power and the institutional power that hyperdetermine what speech we’re likelier to see as more worthy? And then shouldn’t we, if we truly believe in the value of free speech, make sure that minoritized, marginalized voices get heard?

The issue at UA is exacerbated, in our eyes, by the fact that it only recently earned the designation of Hispanic-Serving Institution*, positioning it to be able to apply for more federal awards and aid intended to foster and support the education of Latinx students.

At this point, you are hopefully wondering what is being done. And what you can do. Students there are protesting. Students, faculty, and staff are hand-delivering letters to President Robbins. Faculty in the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona issued a statement earlier this week in support of the protesting students and against the charges they are facing.

You can send letters to President Robbins here. You can also start conversations in your departments and with your coalitions to develop a solidarity statement like that put forth by the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota.  Finally, we should all be asking hard questions about what it really means to provide an inclusive education–which isn’t just about admitting students to our hallowed halls, but must also be about recognizing (and then interrupting) the ways in which State policing mechanisms can intrude and disrupt these spaces and these students’ lives.

*Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) designates accredited institutions with 25% or more full-time enrolled Latinx students.

Midterm elections and break

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As the results of the midterm elections came in, we cheered on the women of color and Indigenous women who will be a part of a more diverse group of representative on the local, state, and national levels. We feel good about the part that we played. Anita is especially excited about having played a tiny part (writing 60 postcards to voters) in support of Florida’s Amendment 4, which passed and restored the right to vote for more than a million Floridians. Adriana also wrote postcards in support of candidates across the country, but is especially proud of getting out to canvass twice in MN-2.

And we know that there’s so much more work still to be done. We’re inspired by our friends, family, students, and alums who have dedicated their time and energy to electoral politics while also being clear that elections are only a part of what needs to change in order to build a more equitable society for us all.

We plan to be back in January with a series of posts about the ramifications of the #metoo movement on academic freedom, particularly as it relates to how we think about what and who we teach in our classrooms. We’d love to hear if there are particular questions or topics you’ve been thinking about in that area that we might be able to address in our posts. You can email us as doxprofx@gmail.com or submit a question here anonymously.

 

When words matter

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Last week, The New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services is leading an effort to have government agencies “adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.’”

While these efforts have not yet yielded any attempts at legislation or new policies, some colleges and universities have already issued statements emphasizing their support for their transgender students, faculty, and staff. We wanted to collect here some of these statements–and we’d love for you all to post statements from your institutions if any. While it’s important that colleges and universities take concrete steps to make their spaces truly inclusive for people of all genders, words can and do matter in such moments. In making these statements, we think that these institutions are recognizing the particular vulnerability of these communities under the current government, even before this move. Indeed, in making these statements, educational institutions are aligning themselves with trans, intersex, and gender-expansive individuals, communities, and organizations who have been responding to this latest assault not just with fear and concern but also with defiance and resistance. For example, trans activists organized a “visibility event” this past week in the Twin Cities where they asked allies to literally stand with them as they/we lined up for 40 blocks along a central street in the cities. We hope that these statements serve as an inspiration and model to other colleges and universities that have yet to reaffirm their support for truly gender inclusive campuses, and remember–please post other statements you know of in the comments!

Statement by faculty at University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Education

Statement by President of Reed College, Hugh Porter

Statement by President of Amherst College, Dr. Biddy Martin

Response by administrators at Stanford University (yay, Adriana’s alma mater!)

Statement by President and top-level administrators at Brandeis University

Statement by Dean of Penn State College of the Liberal Arts, Susan Welch

Statement by Interim Chancellor of UMass Boston, Katherine Newman

Statement by gender, women, and sexuality studies department at University of Minnesota

 

Why I support race-conscious admissions policies and racial diversity in schools

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Note: We occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Anita.

There have two recent cases relating to educational opportunity that have deeply involved and engaged the Asian American community. First, debates about Mayor Bill De Blasio’s proposals about how to make the specialized magnet high schools of New York City more racially and ethnically diverse and the second, the current case against Harvard’s affirmative action plan. Both situations have brought to the forefront the diversity of experiences and opinions among Asian Americans about how they view educational opportunity and privilege. As an Asian American who happens to be an educational studies scholar, I’ve read a number of articles written on the topic, I’ve watched Asian American friends and relatives discuss and debate the issue on social media, and I am one of 500+ signatories on an amicus brief submitted in support of race-conscious college admissions. That brief makes two main arguments: (1) that Asian Americans, like all applicants, benefit from Harvard’s whole-person reviews of applications and (2) the lawsuit makes arguments based on racial myths and stereotypes of Asian Americans. Additionally, as many others have pointed out, we should be spending our time thinking about educational opportunity and equity for all students, including Asian Americans, beyond elite K-12 schools and colleges.  

While the brief summarized my professional take on the matter, I wanted to write about these two cases–especially the New York City one–on a more personal level. I graduated from Stuyvesant High School, one of the specialized high schools in New York City. When I think back on my own K-12 educational experiences with a more sociological lens, I can clearly see how various forms of privilege played a crucial role in opening up educational opportunities for me even as I can recall how being a new immigrant student led to painful moments and experiences. I can also see vividly how interactions with peers and friends from diverse communities played an equally integral role in what I have learned over the years and who I have become.

As the child of class and caste privileged parents, and like many middle-class Indian children, I attended a private, English-medium school (English-medium is the term used to describe schools where English was the language of instruction). I had access to a rigorous curriculum, teachers with high expectations, a parent who herself was a teacher and a family who emphasized and celebrated educational achievement. By the time my family’s visa to the United States came through, my parents already had established lives. They owned a home, my dad had a well-paying, stable job and my brother and I were doing well in school. Yet, they decided to take a chance to move to the U.S. because they wanted my brother and me to have a wider range of educational opportunities than they thought was possible at that time in India. There’s a very good chance that if I had stayed in India, I might not have taken the path that I have in my career in terms of pursuing a PhD in a social science field and teaching at a liberal arts college. (In light of what’s happening these days in terms of American immigration laws and policies, I do want to stress that my family would have been fine if our visa hadn’t come through–our lives would not have been endangered if we had stayed in India.)

The fact that I had access to an education in English in India–a function, as I noted earlier, of class and caste privilege–helped ease my transition to American schools in many ways. While I might have spelled some words wrong (oh, color, not colour!), I was able to understand my textbooks, my teachers, and my peers. When my family moved to New York City a few months after we moved initially to the U.S., my parents could use their English-language knowledge and their social network of other Indian immigrants to ensure that I could go to a middle school outside of my neighborhood because they decided that my brother’s negative experiences in the neighborhood middle school meant that I should go to a different school.

Off to middle school I went, in a predominantly White neighborhood with robust curricular resources and well-prepared teachers;I was placed in the highest tracks of classes along with other Asian American students and White students, thanks to the preparation I had from my schools in India. My middle school counselor told me about and encouraged me to take the admissions test for the specialized high schools. I did and I was able to gain admission to Stuyvesant High School.

My parents’ decision to give up their comfortable lives in India and move to the U.S. opened up a new range of educational opportunities for me and my brother, but it wasn’t easy for them or for me. While my parents eventually got well-paying, middle-class jobs in New York City, they did struggle for quite a few years because their foreign degrees and accents meant that they weren’t able to find jobs commensurate with their education and experience. While I received a solid, rigorous education in my schools, I also remember the difficulties that came with being a new immigrant kid. I remember peers making fun of my Indian accent, my “weird” lunches, and my “funny-smelling” clothes. I remember arguing with my sixth grade teacher that I was right when I insisted that Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were not related. I remember a classmate’s surprise that I had electricity and running water when I lived in India (though, of course, that access is also related to class privilege there and in the U.S).

Still, overall, the system worked for me and I’m truly grateful for my parents’ sacrifices and dedication to my education.

However, what I learned in my classes in my K-12 schools and beyond is only part of my story of education. I would not be the person I am today if I had only been educated through interactions with my mostly White peers and teachers in middle school and my mostly Asian American peers and White teachers in high school. What has made me a more thoughtful, compassionate, joyful person and what makes me so passionate about the need for diverse classrooms, K-12 schools, and colleges are the interactions I had with Black, Latinx, and Native American peers and friends in and out of school. In high school, for example, I had the privilege of writing stories for a teen-written newspaper, New Youth Connections, where I got to know teenagers from across the city who attended a variety of high schools. I learned more about myself and my world through discussions and debates with them. In college, I was lucky enough to be part of a class where 40% of students were students of color, which meant that I had the opportunity to discuss issues of race, identity, class, and privilege with peers who came from a range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. They pushed me to think about my privileges and positionality, while supporting me and cheering me on. In graduate school, another South Asian classmate and I were welcomed into the student group for African American students. My membership in that group was crucial to my intellectual growth and social support throughout my graduate school career and beyond.

What Janelle Wong writes is definitely true for me: “I would not have succeeded as a scholar without the benefit of attending classes with students from diverse backgrounds who challenged me and made my thinking sharper.” And I would only add that my life wouldn’t be as joyful, thoughtful, or supported either.

Civility and Racism–Links roundup

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This week, we want to highlight an essay published this week, “I fought academia’s cult of civility and all I got was this lousy PTSD diagnosis” by Naima Lowe. In it, Dr. Lowe details how her efforts to defend students’ right to protest at Evergreen State College put her in the crosshairs of right-wing hate groups. Bombarded by hate mail and threats (some of which she reprints in this essay along with the graphic, racist images she was sent), she attempted to find institutional support. While her story reveals how institutions are not equipped to protect faculty members who are doxxed and threatened by outside groups, it also demonstrates how her institution was unwilling to help her and instead found ways to find her responsible: by deeming her behavior uncivil, by equating her anger about racism with the hate flooding her in-box, by claiming an institutional need to “remain neutral.” We were impressed by Dr. Lowe’s honesty and courage in publishing this searing account of her experiences. It is a singular story, but we think her analysis makes it useful for all of us, and we urge you to read it.