Engaging with social issues is 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 often become more active in social issues during their college careers.
“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.
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 show students 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 the Pew Research Center, 88% of young adults 18-29 use some form of social media. Most college students fall within that demographic, suggesting college students use social media frequently. Many administrators focus on utilizing this technology and platform to maximize the value of their students’ education. Administrators can also use these platforms to engage in discussions about social issues.
In 2017, the American Association of University Professors demonstrated an example of the power that higher education institutions and administrators have by joining the #sanctuarycampus movement. In this movement, a list of prominent schools came together to identify themselves as safe spaces for undocumented students.
Tyrone Howard, associate dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion at UCLA, provides some insight into the power of social media to change the way we approach social issues and activism.
“What is unique about these issues is how social media has changed the way protests take place on college campuses,” he told 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 part of the solution. Administrators can take to social media to raise awareness of these occurrences and 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 — 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 have even 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 prohibiting discussions can backfire when it comes to opening students’ minds, as doing so limits their opportunity to develop the tools to have constructive conversations. Instead, he argues, 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 and expand their own horizons.
Provosts can utilize this information when interacting with staff or addressing departmental concerns. Creating these spaces, where colleagues can respectfully disagree and engage in spirited discussions, can spread to classroom discussions with students as well.
Let conversations continue
Very rarely does one speaker on campus or one student-led activity end the conversation surrounding a social issue.
Usually, one person or one event 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.
Keeping discussions going inside the classroom can give students 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 may 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 learning community that asks students to engage in social issues: It can prepare students for the myriad opinions they may encounter in their careers, social lives, and personal lives. In addition, by engaging with these multifaceted issues, students will develop their critical thinking skills, including how to listen actively to different perspectives and develop thoughtful 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,” Levy says.
Addressing social issues on campus is an important part of being a higher education administrator. As a department chair, you can ensure that your curriculum includes more information about these topics. As dean of student affairs, you can create a space for conversation on campus.
Earning an online EdD 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.