The extremely liberal environment on many college campuses is often attributed to the influence of aging-hippie professors intent on indoctrination rather than education. But perhaps even more influential is the army of campus administrators — deans of students, hall directors, counselors, and student organization advisors – who work with college students 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. My recent experience at a national conference of such professionals revealed that indoctrination isn’t confined to the classroom.
Before retiring in 2015, I did this “student affairs” work on university campuses for almost 40 years. I always looked forward to attending the ACPA (American College Personnel Association: College Student Educators International) conference to connect with colleagues who were dedicated to helping students adjust to being away from home, make new friends (often both US and international), discover hidden talents, and become successful and contributing citizens after they graduated. This year’s meeting, however, was devoid of such old school notions. What we got instead was politics – far Left, social justice politics.
Not that I wasn’t warned. When the pre-conference advertising trumpeted the “Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization” theme, I had a feeling that things had changed mightily since I last attended a national meeting. We were provided “talking points” that included such statements as “Racism and colonization are real, present, enduring, intersectional, and systemic forms of oppression,” and “Advocacy and social change require us to work to dismantle racism and colonization in higher education.” The conference website highlighted blog posts with such titles as “Racial Justice & Decolonization Can’t Happen Without Disrupting Monoracism,” “The Costs of Avoiding Discomfort: Addressing White Supremacy in Student Affairs,” and “White People Owning Our Whiteness & Resistance.”
The next suggestions for conference attendees involved taking the “I’ll Go With You” pledge to assist transgender attendees with restrooms: “I pledge to pay attention to the struggles and triumphs of trans people both in the national news and in my community,” and “I pledge to speak up against injustice. I will contact my elected representatives to make sure they know I support equity, justice and fairness for trans people in my country, state, city and neighborhood.” There were designated “All-Gender Restrooms” because “[h]istorically, restrooms have been a way to reinforce sex assigned at birth (female/male) and gender (woman/man) identities and expressions, but as an Association, ACPA actively challenges traditional definitions of sex and gender.”
The day I arrived at this convention that was moored in the principles of tolerance and inclusion, I was greeted by a large laminated poster at the registration tables touting the “ACPA Convention Equity and Inclusion Information Booth.” At this booth one could report any “bias incident . . . believed to have a negative impact on ACPA members, particularly across marginalized social identity group membership.” So if I asked a question that violated the thought police regulations, I might be reported? Welcome to Communist China.
It didn’t get any better. Just before the welcoming video and keynote speaker began, a trigger warning flashed up on the screen that there might be “disturbing scenes of activism” in the video. Duly warned, we then listened to Keala Settle’s “This is Me” (a great song, by the way) as pictures were shown, not of happy college students of every background experiencing the many different aspects of life on a university campus, but Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March on Washington. I could have been at an SEIU convention.
The keynote speaker was a professor who expounded on “White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard for Whites to Talk about Our Racism.” I suppose she was selected to kick everything off because according to the convention program, “white supremacy culture permeates in (sic) the United States, with higher education and our campuses. Additionally, there is no doubt racism and colonialism exists (sic) on colleges campuses.”
I was emotionally exhausted, and this was only the first day.
The next morning I risked offending the Equity and Inclusion marshals by starting some conversations. To my pleasant surprise, no one shut me down. Perhaps it’s because my first musing was, “I wonder how my son would be accepted at this convention. You see, he’s white. I’m white; his dad is white, so he can’t really help that he’s white, too. He’s straight – married with a 15-month-old son. And he’s a police officer. I wonder what assumptions last night’s ‘white fragility’ speaker would automatically make about him were he to walk into her office.”
I got nods from everyone to whom I posed this observation. This was a good sign because I doubt if anyone in all the pre-conference planning meetings, emails, and telephone calls had ever paused to reflect, “You know, 40% of the students on our campuses are male. A lot of them are white. Maybe we shouldn’t lecture them about their failures and shut out their needs at our annual convention.”
At the ACPA Town Hall meeting that afternoon, the woman who welcomed us began by asking the officers and committee leaders to introduce themselves – with their names and their pronouns. One after another, 12 or so grown-ups stood up and said, “I’m John Doe, the new president, and my pronouns are he, him, and his.” “I’m Sally Smith, the new treasurer, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers.” Every person gave the pronouns I would have expected, i.e., male for the men and female for the women; one person did add they and them, but everyone knows plural pronouns are grammatically incorrect for singular antecedents. But I digress.
I stifled a laugh, knowing it might land me in Equity and Inclusion jail. I was amazed at how seriously they seemed to take themselves in this exercise. Not one of them resisted and said, “Are you kidding me?” When they finished and moved into the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, I couldn’t help but think, “If a Martian landed in this room and saw this, he/she/it/they would flee back to the space ship.”
To further divide people during the conference, the schedule included Identity Caucuses. During this hour each day, attendees could meet with people “who shared their identity/ies” and talk about racial justice and decolonization. The caucuses included Arab/Middle Eastern; Asian/Asian American; Biracial/Multiracial/Transracial; Black/African American; International; Latino/a/x; Native, Indigenous, Aboriginal; Pacific Islander; Third Space; and White. I have no idea what Third Space is. The program book stated that participants should be able to “explore a deeper understanding of their own racial/political identities” and “engage with issues of power, privilege, and oppression in order to interrupt dominance.”
Can you imagine these people planning the homecoming parade?
I write this not (only) to make fun of what I observed. I have many wonderful friends who still work in student affairs, and they’re good at their jobs. But I am sounding an alarm for average, everyday people who need to know more about what is feeding the campus discord and upheaval that we see so often in the news.
“Those liberal professors” share the blame for the sanctimonious silliness, but the administrators at this conference often have much more personal contact with students. They advise Student Government, supervise residence hall staff, and oversee the student code of conduct and “free speech” policies. They include those who recently graduated from their Master’s programs, regularly attend student affairs conferences, and soak up the social justice messages.
When I came along in my student affairs Master’s and doctoral programs, we were taught about psychology and normal maturational issues of 18-to-22-year-olds. We learned how to be objective counselors, how to supervise and develop groups, and how to teach leadership skills to young adults who would one day lead our communities and our nation. We supported all of our students – black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, gay, straight, and international. We tried to create environments where everyone could succeed, and when conflicts arose, we helped students learn how to solve their problems.
Now, however, college students are surrounded by adults who live and breathe an extreme political ideology. No more judging people by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. No more encouraging everyone to come together around their commonalities rather than focusing on every possible difference. No more celebrating the gifts of ALL people. It was disheartening to see and hear so much stereotyping from people who pride themselves on their inclusiveness.
Particularly alarming to me is that political ideology has become a dominant theme of student affairs graduate preparation programs. I started seeing this even before I retired. In addition to being an administrator, I was an adjunct assistant professor and always graded the “student development theory” question on the Master’s students’ comprehensive exams. Students formerly wrote about young adult psychology and how to apply their understanding of normal development in working with undergraduates. In more recent comprehensive exams, however, the answers were treatises on white privilege and explanations of Nigrescence Theory, born of the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1960s.
This is pure political indoctrination, and it’s what our future student affairs professionals are bathed in. When they receive their graduate degrees, they go off to colleges and universities where they share the same indoctrination with freshmen. The Left need not depend on sociology and women’s studies faculty to radicalize our children; it’s being done quite effectively in student centers and residence halls.
This type of dogmatism and tunnel vision is profoundly unhealthy for our students. Young people are more fragile now than they have ever been, and I’m afraid student affairs is playing a major role in the angst. The political self-absorption I saw promotes not emotional growth and resilience but rather distrust, anxiety, and victimhood. College students need mentors who are more concerned with their developing competence and strength than with which pronouns they use.
I came away from this experience alarmed and discouraged, which is why I feel the need to raise awareness of these realities. Our young people are too important for us to be silent.