What higher education administrators can learn about addressing social issues on campus

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Engaging with social issues has been an integral part of higher education for students and administrators alike. Colleges can bring people together from across the world that share the same concerns, which can translate into activism through change. Students are becoming more active in social issues during their college careers.

Young professionals sit around a table, talking.

“There’s a renaissance of political activism going on, and it exists on every major campus,” Harold Levy, a former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, told The Atlantic Magazine.

Administrators can offer opportunities for students to discuss current political events, helping to enrich their lives as community members and prepare them for the outside world. However, there are challenges administrators face when handling social issues on campus: Protests can escalate and conversations can shut down. How can administrators lead by example to students on how to be respectful and socially active community members? Here are the top things to know about getting involved with social issues on campus:

Embrace the power of social media

According to a consumer insight service Experian Simmons, 98 percent of young adults 18-24 use social media – whether on their computers or on their smartphones. A majority of college students fall within that demographic, suggesting college students use social media frequently. Many administrators are focused on utilizing this technology and platform to maximize the value of their education. They can also use these platforms to engage in discussions about social issues.

The recent move from the American Association of University Professors to join the #sanctuarycampus movement shows the power that higher education institutions have. A list of prominent schools came together to identify themselves as safe spaces for undocumented students. The power to make a difference via social media extends to administrators as well as students.

“What is unique about these issues is how social media has changed the way protests take place on college campuses,” observed Tyrone Howard, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA, to the LA Times.

Deans of student affairs can use social media to draw attention to issues like mental health or anxiety. According to the American College Health Association, anxiety has become a top concern for students away at college. While social media can exacerbate that problem, it may also be the solution. Administrators can take to social media to raise awareness of these occurrences. In addition, they can also provide tips on how students can cope.

Appreciate different perspectives

Higher education institutions can open students’ minds and ask them to step outside their comfort zones. They can bring together students from different economic, geographic and racial backgrounds. However, that only happens when a discussion can occur – and yet students may be reticent to listen to both sides of the conversation. Administrators like department chairs and deans of student affairs can facilitate discussions that can bring students together. Some institutions, like Sarah Lawrence, have instituted a cabinet position to address social issues that have taken center stage on campus, including diversity in the student body.

But what happens when professors and administrators stop conversations from happening?

Van Jones, a political activist and commentator, noted that closing down discussions can backfire when it comes to opening students’ minds – and it doesn’t give them the tools to have constructive conversations. Instead, he argued, students need to learn how to address adversity and different perspectives, as they will likely encounter differing world views when they step into a new work or social environment after graduation.

Create colleague-only discussions

Students may not be the only ones who can benefit from engaging with social issues on campus. College presidents and provosts can hold discussions with their colleagues about pressing issues. Broaching topics can help administrators learn from their colleagues’ experiences. Provosts can utilize this information when interacting with staff or addressing departmental concerns. For instance, in the wake of tragic events in its state, North Carolina-based Elon University’s Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education focused on engaging with faculty members on campus. Associate provost Brooke Barnett and presidential fellow Randy Williams pointed out that professors, department chairs and administrators can spend years on campus, which can create a “bubble.” However, holding these conversations can also be an opportunity to expand their horizons as well. Creating these spaces, where colleagues can respectfully disagree and engage in spirited discussions, can spread to classroom discussions with students.

Let conversations continue

Very rarely does one speaker on campus or one student-led activity end the conversation surrounding a social issue. Usually, it sparks a conversation that carries on between students and teachers inside and outside the classroom. Scheduling follow-up talks can give students a chance to return to topics and ask thoughtful questions. It can also provide a channel for students to learn about the different facets of a topic, which can help them become informed citizens as they move into post-grad life. It can also give them the chance to practice empathy and hold these conversations to learn something from the other party. In addition, these conversations can touch on how students can react when they see biases carried out in their day-to-day lives.

Prepare students for post-grad life

There are benefits to creating a campus that asks students to engage in social issues: It can prepare students for the myriad opinions they may encounter in their careers and the different cities they will live in. In addition, by engaging with these multifaceted issues, students will develop their critical thinking skills, including how to actively listen to different perspectives and develop thought-out opinions.

“You want kids to be politically active precisely because you want their engagement in the world, and you want to encourage them to be free thinkers,” noted Levy to The Atlantic.

Addressing social issues on campus is an important part of being a higher education administrator. As a Department chair, you can ensure that curricula include more information about these topics. As dean of student affairs, you can create a space for conversation on campus. Earning an online Ed.D in Higher Education Leadership can give you the tools necessary to step into roles that engage with social issues on campus, like a dean of student affairs or provost. You can help students and colleagues learn about these pressing issues. To learn more, contact Maryville University today.







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