Racial and Political Tensions at an Open Enrollment Institution | Sokolich

Abstract

This scenario presents a complex problem facing student affairs practitioners related to funding, enrollment, politics, and identity. The students involved are from different geographical regions of a politically contentious swing state, with diverse racial identities, political ideologies, and socioeconomic statuses. The environment is an open-enrollment campus of a land-grant institution, situated in a rural and politically conservative part of the state, with a significant local student population, but with a primary recruiting territory in a politically progressive urban and suburban area. Campus-wide enrollment is declining, which is contributing to budget cuts for all academic and student affairs units.

 Keywords: Racial tensions, political ideologies, open enrollment institution, Predominantly White Institution

Primary Characters

Doug Francisco (he/him): Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion and advisor for the Students for Progress (SfP) student organization. He is a student affairs practitioner with a background in multicultural affairs as a graduate student at a large regional predominantly white institution and worked his way up to be a director of multiculturalism at a small private institution. Doug has been with the Regional Campus of State University for three year, but previously worked in urban and progressive environments.

Jamie Feldman (she/her): Coordinator for Campus Engagement and advisor of the Conservative Values Alliance (CVA) student organization. She is also a student affairs practitioner with experience in campus activities, student organizations, and leadership programs. Jamie is an entry-level professional who recently completed a graduate assistantship and earned her master’s degree from a small private institution in a rural region of the state. She grew in the same conservative rural area where she completed her education.

Dr. Matthew Norris (he/him): Dean of Students and supervisor of Doug and Jamie. He has been at the Middlefield Campus for ten years with a wealth of student engagement, leadership development, and multicultural affairs experiences. Dr. Norris has also published research about open enrollment institutions.

Case Narrative

The Middlefield Campus of State University is located in a rural town. As a regional campus, Middlefield offers open enrollment as a part of the institution’s land-grant mission. State University’s flagship campus in the state’s capital has competitive admissions practices that have resulted in increased GPA and test score requirements for the entering class over the last several years. In order to satisfy the institution’s open enrollment mission, any student who graduates from high school in the state can be admitted to any of the system’s regional campuses, even if they do not have the GPA and test scores to be competitive enough for the flagship campus. Each of the regional campuses recruit from a different part of the state; Middlefield recruits from the northeast, which is generally urban and suburban with liberal and progressive political ideologies. The Middlefield Campus itself is located in a rural and politically conservative north-central part of the state.

The Student Life team on the Middlefield Campus is small, but mighty. Every major functional area of student affairs is represented, but the operations are limited to one full-time staff member per area, and some staff have more than one job responsibility. Doug Francisco is the Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion. Because of Doug’s extensive work and career multicultural affairs, he is keenly aware of the specific needs of students of color at a predominantly white institution such as the Middlefield Campus of state University. Every fall semester, Doug sees more new students of color coming from the northeastern recruitment territories, and they are consistently shell-shocked by their surroundings. These students are out of their element in the rural conservative town, which is also overwhelmingly comprised of white residents.

Year after year, students from outside of Middlefield report concerns or incidents involving local students and community members ranging from harassment to physical altercations and threats. Local students tend to commute to campus while living at home or with friends from high school. Staff and faculty often hear local students referring to campus residence halls as “the slums” or “the ghetto” because that is where non-local students live. Often, faculty and staff reach out to Doug when they hear this biased and potentially harmful language.

A large proportion of the students of color that attend the Middlefield Campus live in on-campus housing. While the surrounding community is predominantly white, the Middlefield Campus has the highest percentage of non-white students of any state system campuses, including the flagship. Because of this, it is clear to Doug that the white students are referring to on-campus housing as “the ghetto” because of its high population of students of color. Students of color who are new to campus and the Middlefield area want nothing more than to enjoy their college experience. Many of them leave difficult family situations behind, looking for a new opportunity for a better life and a stable educational and career path. The tensions between white students and students of color makes the campus climate challenging at best, and uncomfortable and contentious at worst.

In addition to the negative perceptions based on race and ethnicity, political ideologies further reinforce the divide between local rural students and students who are new to the Middlefield area. The recent presidential election and extremely partisan fallout has driven a wedge between students on campus. An overwhelming majority of white students and their families from the Middlefield area voted for the conservative candidate, who promised a resurgence in the prominence of farming and traditional family values under their leadership. Alternatively, students of color and those who are from more urban areas of the state voted for the progressive candidate, who promised a more equal distribution of wealth, access to affordable higher education, and greater inclusion for historically marginalized groups.

The harsh rhetoric used by the conservative candidate has blurred the line between hate speech and free speech; the language used is seen by progressive students as racist hate speech and by conservative students as free speech. Alternatively, the language and goals of the progressive candidate has been accusatory and patronizing to rural farming communities and residents feel disrespected in how they have been depicted. The weeks leading up to the election have been polarizing for students on the campus and tension has been building. The existing chapter of the Conservative Values Alliance (CVA) prides itself in historically being the only political organization on campus, which prompted outspoken student leaders to start a new chapter of Students for Progress (SfP). Once both groups were registered and established for the school year, the students in the CVA were all white and many were vocal about their political views, using microaggressions and stereotypes to reinforce their opinions. Students in the Students for Progress chapter were of mixed identities and considered themselves to be more socially just, accusing the CVA of being a fascist organization which further reinforced the political and racial tensions on campus. Students in both organizations were following the examples set by their preferred candidate for president using incendiary language used to rally their own base while upsetting the other.

Tensions came to a head when the groups got into an argument about values, ethics, and morality at the popular student organization fair. What started as loud, passive-aggressive commentary, escalated into name-calling and yelling, disrupting the event. After several tense moments where it looked like things might get physical, the organizers of the event dismissed both groups from the fair for violating the terms and agreements of participation. As advisors of the student organizations, both Doug and Jamie were summoned to the Dean of Students’ office to provide a better understanding of what happened during the event. The Dean of Students, Dr. Matthew Norris, stated that this altercation was just the tip of the iceberg and he had received reports and concerns from other faculty and staff after hearing inappropriate language and comments during class discussions, in the halls between classes, and in common spaces on campus, and that it was time to take some action.

Dr. Norris asks Doug and Jamie to create a brand-new initiative to help bridge relationships between students on campus. With the assistance of other colleagues, Doug and Jamie created a successful early-arrival program to promote leadership self-efficacy for students of color and encourage them to become involved in campus life. Dr. Norris is hopeful that Doug and Jamie can be innovative once again with another solution to the issues facing campus and the community. Specifically, Dr. Norris wants Doug and Jamie to address sense of belonging for all students on campus; local students and students from outside of the local area both deserve to feel a sense of safety and security on the open enrollment campus. This new initiative cannot have a substantial impact on the budget or take away from other programs or services on campus. Aside from the financial implication, the directive was open-ended; it could be a learning community, leadership program, sociocultural programming series, or any other new enterprise that is grounded in theory but will have a lasting and sustainable impact in practice. When considering the multiple and intersecting identities of the students involved, Doug and Jamie realize that the culture of the campus needs to experience a dramatic shift towards inclusion and a spirit of togetherness shared by all students.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you assess the campus climate and gauge the students’ senses of safety and belonging?
  2. Which theoretical frameworks would help you to assess the cultural needs of the Middlefield Campus? How will you apply them to the students in this scenario?
  3. What is your solution and how would you implement it on the campus? Who are your key stakeholders and change agents? How will you express the importance of this solution to students, faculty, and staff on campus?

 Author Biography

Andrew Sokolich (he/him) is the Program Manager for the Online Associate of Arts degree at Cuyahoga Community College and will begin the Higher Education Administration Ph.D. program at Kent State University in Spring 2023. Previously, he has served in various roles in student activities, diversity and inclusion, admissions, and retention at open access institutions. Andrew is a Cleveland, Ohio native and attended Kent State where he earned his Bachelor of Business Administration and The Ohio State University where he earned his Master of Arts in Higher Education and Student Affairs.

One of These is Not Always Like the Other: Social Class & First-Generation College Student Status | Ardoin, Nguyen

Abstract

This case addresses intersections of two salient identities—social class and first generation college student (FGCS) status—which are often challenging to visibly distinguish and mistakenly conflated (Ardoin, 2021; Rubin et al., 2014; Warnock & Hurst, 2016). In this scenario, the Vice President of Student Affairs (VPSA) meets with two prospective students and makes a “well-intended” but harmful comment during a meeting; the students then seek guidance from their assigned admissions counselor, who must figure out how to assist the students, navigate campus politics, and suggest training on these identities and student populations for the Division or Institution.

Keywords Social class, first generation college students, class consciousness

Primary Characters

Greta (she/her) is an admissions counselor for Winton College. As an admissions counselor, she is primarily responsible for the recruitment of first-generation college students. She completed an undergraduate degree from Winton. As an undergraduate student, Greta found employment in the Admissions office and subsequently filled an opening three years ago when an admissions counselor position became available.

Trenton (he/him) is a prospective first-generation college student from a working-class background.

Alexis (she/her) is a prospective first-generation college student from a middle-class background.

Dr. Foster (she/her) is the Vice President of Student Affairs at Winton College for the past 12 years and the admissions office is part of her portfolio. 

Introduction

Social class remains a misunderstood and ambiguous concept within higher education contexts because it is often a taboo topic and visible markers make it difficult to distinguish students across different objective and subjective indicators (Ardoin, 2021; Evans et al., 2022; Rubin et al., 2014; Warnock & Hurst, 2016).  These measures stem from upbringings and meaning-making with the world. Like social class identity, first-generation college students (FGCS)—students whose primary caregivers did not earn four-year degrees–are not easy to identify. While many FGCSs come from poor or working-class (PWC) backgrounds (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005; Ward et al., 2012), these multiple identities should not be conflated as students may feel strongly about one construct, but not the other, or identify with a different social class (Davis, 2010; Herrman et al., 2022).  Consequently, higher education and student affairs administrators need to further develop and refine normative understandings around social class identity.  Given the complexity of this concept, educators need to allocate time to learn students’ stories, rather than making common assumptions.  Understanding and acknowledging social class differences can shape how institutional leaders and student affairs professionals develop structures, policies, and data gathering techniques to create systems that recognize the complexity of and systemic issues around identity. 

History/Context

Winton College is a small private liberal arts college in the Northeast.  Winston holds a reputation of being a homogenous and expensive institution. With escalating tuition prices, diminishing state appropriations, and declining returns on endowment investments, Winston is experiencing challenges recruiting students from underserved and historically excluded identities, including FGCS and PWC backgrounds.  The President and Board of Trustees have directed the admissions office, which falls under the direction of the Vice President of Student Affairs (VPSA), to increase enrollment of underserved and historically excluded populations by 10 percent for next Fall. Funding for additional scholarships for this particular population has been increased and secured.

The majority of the faculty and administrators at Winton College mirror the student population, holding privileged identities, and the institution has not hosted any training or professional development opportunities for its employees on working with FGCS or students from PWC backgrounds. Thus, it is unclear if Winton College is truly prepared to welcome new student populations to campus or support their path to success. 

August 1. Before admissions recruitment season began, Greta, an admissions counselor for Winton College was tasked with recruiting more FGCS to apply for admission. During prospective student visits, Greta and other admissions counselors specifically invite FGCSs to meet the VPSA at Winton during November campus visit dates. The VPSA, Dr. Foster, believed this kind of personal attention would be attractive to prospective students.

September 30. During a high school recruitment event, Greta met Trenton, a high school senior and prospective FGCS. The recruitment event occurred at a high school gymnasium in Southwick, which is generally known to be a working-class community. During the course of the conversation Trenton confided that he was very interested in applying to Winton College as a chance at “a better life” as the first in his family to pursue a four-year degree but was concerned about the financial component because his family had limited income. Greta noted this specific interaction in her admissions counselor logbook and earmarked Trenton’s information to have him visit campus during one of the specialized FGCS campus visit dates in November.

During this same event, Greta met Alexis – the likely salutatorian of the high school with elite test scores and extensive extracurricular engagement. Alexis shared with Greta that she was being sought after by several institutions but that she was drawn to Winton College because of its smaller size and liberal arts focus which would allow her to build relationships with faculty and explore different subject areas. Although Alexis would be the first person in her family to pursue a four-year degree, her family ran several successful businesses in Southwick, owning and operating the local gas station and construction company. Financially, the family was solidly middle-class. Greta was impressed with Alexis and added a notation to put her on the invitation list for one of the specialized FGCS campus visit dates in November.

November 15. Both Trenton and Alexis were excited to visit Winton College and meet with Dr. Foster, the VPSA who had been in her position for 12 years. As a third-generation college graduate, she earned a bachelor’s degree at an institution very similar to Winton and then graduate degrees from elite, private institutions.

Dr. Foster met with a small group of students—including Trenton and Alexis—attending Winton’s FGCS recruitment initiative. She began the meeting framing Winton as a friendly place for FGCSs, particularly those from PWC backgrounds. Believing that all the students in the group came from similar backgrounds, Dr. Foster discussed at length how Winton provided upward mobility for PWC students and offered food pantry, career closet, and emergency funds services to help meet students’ basic needs. Dr. Foster ended her time with the group by stating that the students would be more successful at Winton because other universities in the area “threw students into the pool to either swim or sink” and she warned the group that they would be more likely to sink because of their PWC backgrounds. She also reiterated how many FGCSs from PWC families flourished at Winton.

After their meeting with Dr. Foster, Trenton and Alexis began to re-evaluate if Winton was the right place for their college experience. While they thought the campus was beautiful and would meet their academic needs, they both were slightly insulted by the VPSA’s comments and contemplated mentioning their hesitation to Greta, their admissions counselor.

Two weeks later, Greta followed up with the two prospective students and was surprised to hear that meeting with Dr. Foster made the students question their interest in Winton rather than solidify it. Her initial thought was that she would need to increase any scholarships being offered to Trenton and Alexis to hopefully make up for the meeting mishap. She then remembered that there were other prospective FGCS in that meeting and some of these other students may have experienced Dr. Foster and the meeting similarly. Greta began to recognize that scholarship funding may not be the appropriate or realistic response. But what was appropriate? She and her colleagues in admissions had to figure it out because there would be consequences for them and Dr. Foster if the 10 percent targeted enrollment increase for underserved populations was not achieved.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How should Greta, the admissions counselor, respond to the prospective students?
  2. In what ways can the high school or college support the students in understanding the complexity of their identities?
  3. How can Greta, the admission counselor, address the “well-intentioned” bias of Dr. Foster, the vice president?
  4. What training or professional development activities could be utilized on campus to further develop the consciousness and skills of administrators around social class identity and/or FGCSs?

References

Ardoin, S. (2021). The nuances of first-generation college students’ social class identity. In R. Longwell-Grice & H. Longwell-Grice (Eds)., At the intersection: Understanding and supporting first-generation students (pp. 88-99). Stylus.

Davis, J. (2010). The first-generation student experience: Implications for campus practice, and strategies for improving persistence and success. Stylus.

Evans, O., McGuffog, R., Gendi, M., & Rubin, M. (2022). A first class measure: Evidence for a comprehensive social class scale in higher education populations. Research in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-022-09693-9

Herrmann, S. D., Varnum, M. E., Straka, B. C., & Gaither, S. E. (2022). Social class identity integration and success for first-generation college students: Antecedents, mechanisms, and generalizability. Self and Identity, 21(5), 553–587. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2021.1924251

Hurst, A. (2010). The burden of academic success: Loyalists, renegades, and double agents. Winton.

Lohfink, M. & Paulsen, M. B. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generational and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 409–428. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2005.0040

Rubin, M., Denson, N., Kilpatrick, S., Matthews, K. E., Stehlik, T., & Zyngier, D. (2014). “I am working-class” subjective self-definition as a missing measure of social class and socioeconomic status in higher education research. Educational Researcher, 43(4), 196–200. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X14528373

Ward, L., Seigel, M. J., & Davenport, Z. (2012). First generation college students: Understanding and improving the experiences from recruitment to commencement. Jossey-Bass.

Warnock, D. M., & Hurst, A. L. (2016). “The poor kids’ table”: Organizing around an invisible and stigmatized identity in flux. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 261–276. https://doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000029

Author Bios

Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. (she/her) is a learner, educator, facilitator, and author. Proud of her rural hometown of Vidrine, Louisiana, her working-class, Cajun roots, and her first-generation college student to PhD journey, Sonja holds degrees from LSU, Florida State, and NC State. She considers herself a scholar-practitioner of higher education; she served as an administrator for 10 years before shifting to the faculty in 2015. Sonja currently serves as an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Clemson University and studies social class identity, college access and success for rural and first-generation college students, and career preparation and pathways in higher education and student affairs. Learn more about Sonja’s work at www.sonjaardoin.com.

Dave Nguyen, Ph.D. (he/him) is Dean of the University College and Associate Professor of Higher Education & Student Affairs at Ohio University. Even with his administrative post, Dave maintains his advising/coaching load to support the next generation of scholar-practitioners. His research explores how campus ecology contributes to student success by calling attention to how individuals and organizational features hinder or widen equitable opportunities for students holding minoritized identities.

“My Body, My Choice”: The Campus Abortion Debate in Post-Roe America | Williams, Herrera, Anderson

Abstract

In this case study, we explore the tensions of campus programming, supervision, and student activism through an issue of polarity. Grounded in a disagreement within a campus identity center, we consider how state and federal law, institutional policy and practice, campus reputation, and student activism impact and influence campus programming.

Keywords: Supervision, Abortion, Women’s Issues, Activism on Campus

Primary Characters 

Denise (She/Her): Is a white woman from the U.S. Southeast. She spent all her formal education as well as her student affairs practitioner training in the region and was highly recruited to join Baldwin University as the Executive Director of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) five years ago. She also serves as the interim Vice President of Student Affairs. She oversees the entire WRC directly through Rebecca, and vocally describes herself as an ally to women from other marginalized communities.

Rebecca (She/Her): Is an Indigenous-American woman from a federally recognized tribe who spent all her life in the U.S. Midwest. She serves as the Associate Director of Programming and Engagement in the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and is an alumna of Baldwin. She oversees all entry-level WRC staff and reports directly to Denise.

Alex (She/Her): Is a white woman, dual national citizen of Ireland and the United States. She is a junior dual major in sociology and social work. Back in Ireland, Alex’s family was instrumental in organizing for the successful passage of Irelands’ 2018 Health Act. She is president of the Women’s Empowerment student organization and reports to Brenda for all official student group needs.

Brenda (she/her): is a Afro-Latina trans woman, continuing generation college graduate, from a wealthy, politically engaged family in California. She serves as a Senior Program Coordinator in the WRC and reports to Rebecca. 

You, the reader: a brand new Program Coordinator in the WRC. You work alongside Brenda and directly report to Rebecca.

Campus Context

Baldwin University (BU) is a four-year, mid-sized, regional comprehensive public university in the Midwest. There are 8,500 students enrolled at Baldwin and the campus is primarily residential and 90% of the enrolled students are at the undergraduate level. Baldwin’s recent self-reported campus data suggests the student body is 30% racially diverse with students identifying as the following: Two or more Races: 10%; Asian: 7%; Non-White Hispanic: 6%; Black: 4%; Indigenous/ Native: 3%; White: 65%; and other/ not disclosed: 5%. The same campus data revealed 64% of the students identify as women, 31% as men, 1% as non-binary, and 4% prefer not to disclose/other. The university is in a state where an abortion trigger law went into effect with the Supreme Court overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022. In addition to the immediate overturn of abortion due to an old trigger law, the state has required that all discussion of abortion include “both sides” (understood as Liberal and Conservative).

Case Scenario 

You (the reader) are a brand-new Programming Coordinator (PC) in the WRC at BU. On your first day in the office, you shadow the existing senior programing coordinator (SPC) Brenda. That day, one of the center’s highly engaged students, Alex, wrote to Brenda suggesting a programming idea to support the reproductive rights of women and other people who can give birth. Thus far, Brenda explained to you, PC’s and SPC’s are expected to run all programming ideas by your (shared) supervisor Rebecca (Associate Director) for her approval. The proposed program is as follows from Alex’s campus programming proposal:

  • Program Name: The Dangers of Roe v Wade Being Overturned
  • Purpose: The purpose of the program is to educate women on how the overturning of Roe vs. Wade impacts their bodily autonomy and how to engage in activism for helping women access alternatives as well as mobilize a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign in the next election cycle to combat anti-abortion legislators in office.
  • Description: During the program students will hear from faculty who are experts in women’s issues, social justice activism and protests as activist power. The event is being put on by Baldwin’s Women’s Empowerment student organization.
  • Topics:
    • Reviewing and comparing state laws
    • Discussing how the different state laws impact women
    • Identifying alternative resource agencies for bodily autonomous healthcare resourcing and support
    • Sharing information on how students can be activists regarding abortion in their current state (where Baldwin is located) and in their home states.

Brenda, your colleague, relays the program ideas and topics to your supervisor, Rebecca, who is immediately concerned given the local and national tensions on the subject. You listen along to their unstructured chat about the program as Rebecca mentions she would prefer to stay away from this kind of programming unless students agree to follow the new state law. The law, Rebecca turns to explain, requires all WRC programs to include both sides about abortion (liberal and conservative views).

You watch as Brenda shares the news from your supervisor with Alex. She decided to call Alex rather than writing back by email, and Alex expresses deep disappointment by the proposed program changes because the idea of “both sides” would deeply undermine the realities of what abortion means and how it functions in a post-Roe America. Brenda explains that she feels her hands are tied. While Brenda takes you around the student center to meet staff in the other identity centers, you both learn that Alex decided to go around the WRC to put on the event. Alex gained traction on the programming issue from campus faculty members who had already voiced support for the program prior to the WRC proposal submission.

Outraged because they feel the new direction of the program is a copout for the institution to avoid taking a stance on women’s issues, the campus faculty wrote a scathing email to Brenda and your boss Rebecca. The campus newspaper editorial team decided to publish this email with a bold headline reading: “Women’s Resource Center? OR Wayward Right-winged Center?” The headline is then picked up by the local paper and Denise (the WRC executive director) is called to meet with the University President and the media relations team. While you and Brenda work to brainstorm next steps with your supervisor, the three of you learn that the faculty decided to forge ahead with their support of Alex. A social media post reveals the program will continue without support of the WRC the next day.

At the close of your first day, your supervisor Rebecca (Associate Director) immediately calls both you and Brenda to their office to decide a plan of action upon learning the President has summoned and verbally reprimanded Denise for failing to control this situation. After the meeting as Brenda walks you to your car, she reveals that Alex invited her to the program since Alex knew that she (Brenda) believed in the program as designed. Because the event is taking place without WRC and Brenda is in support of the student’s idea, she explains to you, the new WRC program coordinator (the reader) that she plans to attend the program.

Unfortunately, as word gets out about the program more “pro-life” students begin to act. The next day, protests against the abortion program begin in the hours leading up to and during the scheduled event time. As the event time draws closer, you can hear the chants from your new office from anti-abortion protestors declaring they deserve to be heard. The students and faculty responsible for putting on the program write online that they no longer feel safe to continue and cancel the event at the last minute. You learn via text from Brenda that as she was arriving to the student center where the event was to be held, she instead decided to turn around to go home. The text reads: “Just got here & IDK if you plan to attend, but don’t! It’s chaos and I’m leaving.”

The next day, Denise (WRC Executive Director) and the BU campus President put out the following joint statement regarding the event:

Yesterday, several students and faculty came together to put on an event called “The Dangers of Roe v. Wade Being Overturned.” Unfortunately, the event organizers did not go through the proper channels to get the event approved and were met with a group of students in protest of the event topic. Baldwin University supports freedom of speech and diversity in thought. Therefore, we ask all event organizers to share all sides of current events or topics. At BU, we understand that students with different political, religious, and individual values will view the overturn of Roe v. Wade differently. We welcome discourse about these topics but require that any event go through the proper procedures to ensure the safety of presenters and attendees.

Not long after the release of the joint statement by Denise and the BU President, numerous student body members begin to express their thoughts via social media. A viral twitter hashtag and gif begins to circulate rapidly. The hashtag (#BUmeanBodiesUnacknowledged) and a gif of the BU President high-fiving President Trump while shouting “5-4!”

Later that afternoon, you overhear Rebecca pulling Brenda aside outside your office. Rebecca then admits to Brenda that she did not agree with the joint statement because as an alumna, she struggles with how students are supported in their activism. She explains that because of the legal restrictions and the inflexible program registration protocols, BU is failing to honor the commitment to students as leaders and change agents that it ascribes to in the institutional mission, vision, and values statements. However, Denise calls you, Rebecca, and Brenda to her office and demands to know what the three of you knew about the program, how long, and why you failed to report the usurping of the center’s programming oversight. In that meeting, you learn Denise was alerted to the staffs’ prior knowledge of the event after receiving a snapshot of Brenda’s twitter timeline retweeting a friend’s post. The friends’ post in question criticized the anti-abortion protestors as well as the institution’s failure to augment the voices of students advocating for respect of bodily autonomy.

Rebecca resigns in protest explaining that it has long been time for her to leave BU, because it is no longer the BU she recognizes. This leaves you and Brenda with no buffer between her role and the WRC ED while negotiating the political fallout from the event. Given you are brand new to the office, you leave your second day at work disheartened, frustrated, and concerned about preparing for a check-in meeting the next day with your interim supervisor Denise.

Discussion Questions

  1. Identify and describe the supervisory tensions in this matter between Denise, Rebecca, Brenda, Alex, and yourself.
  2. How does campus activism and protest impact student affairs practice and institutional response in this matter?
  3. How, if at all, does the joint statement align with the state law and/or support or deny student’s first amendment rights? Why does this matter?
  4. Considering the social identities and workplace positioning of the affected WRC staff, how might current students, alumni, and stakeholders respond to Rebecca’s immediate resignation? What, if anything, might this mean for how we consider identity and positioning in student affairs practice?

Author Bios 

Brittany M. Williams (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration at the University of Vermont. She primarily studies career development and supervision issues, social class, and the nexus of education and health. Williams centers Black women and girls in her scholarship.

Vanessa Kay Herrera (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate at St. Cloud State University. She also serves as the Assistant Director of Student Resources & Support at the College of the Florida Keys.

Wachen Bedell Anderson (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate at St. Cloud State University. She also serves as a member of the Administrative Service Faculty at the College of Nursing and Health Science at Metropolitan State University.

“It’ll be like Biden and Harris”: A Black Woman’s Conundrum in Collegiate Student Government | Brown, Goodman

Abstract

In this case study, Sasha grapples with issues of systemic racism she faces while serving as student government (SG) vice president, specifically when the SG president is a white man at a predominately white institution. After experiencing several microaggressions by white administrators, tensions between students, and finding her personal values incongruent with those of SG, Sasha needs to decide whether to stay in SG and work within the organization to change the system or resign and push for systemic change from the outside.

Keywords: student government, Black Women, leadership, identity, campus racial climate

Primary Characters

Colby (she/her/hers) is the Student Government Advisor at Southern University and has been in her role for just over one year. Colby has a student affairs background, and just before this role, graduated from a student affairs graduate program at a predominately white institution in the Midwest. She has a student-centered approach to advising and believes in the power of both student government and student leadership. Colby identifies as multiracial, and outside of her role at Southern University, she volunteers with several community-based organizations and efforts related to racial justice. She met Sasha through community organizing.

Sasha (Say-shuh) (she/her/hers) is the newly elected student body vice president in Southern University’s student government. She is a Black woman who has been encouraging students and administrators to be more intentional in centering inclusivity and equity on campus; including student government, as they pass legislation, develop bills, and interact with constituents. Sasha is the first Black woman elected to a student body-wide executive role in over ten years. Centering inclusion and equity was a pillar of her campaign platform.

Preston (he/him/his) is a white man, and the newly elected student body president after having served in multiple student government positions before this election. He and Sasha ran on a ticket together, after Preston approached her to be his running mate. Preston is a member of a historically and predominately white fraternity, one with a lot of social capital on campus; he comes from a family with a deep legacy status at his institution and knew from his first year on campus that he wanted to be a student body president.

President Craig Zilker (he/him/his) has been the University President of Southern University for nearly six years, after previously serving as Dean of the College of Engineering for 22 years. President Zilker is a white man, very active in his church, and has four children who went to Southern University. President Zilker has been known by students to perpetuate a “good old boys” club on campus by visiting only historically and predominately white fraternity meetings, hiring white students to work as aids in his office, and hiring/appointing white men to campus administrative leadership roles. President Zilker has never made a comment on the campus racial climate and has not issued statements of support to students in the wake of national incidents of violence against Black and Brown people. President Zilker says he refrains from doing these things because he is not “a political president.”

Context and Case

Southern University (SU) is a large public research university in the southern region of the United States. Students of Color make up 26% of SU’s undergraduate population, of which only 4% are Black students. The university President’s cabinet is composed of twelve administrators, of which ten are men, two are white women, and three identify as People of Color, including one man who identifies as Latino and two men who identify as Asian.

Recently, there has been racial unrest affecting the student body, on- and off-campus. Students of Color, specifically, have shared with administrators and stakeholders the many macro- and microaggressions faced on campus, including racist incidents between students and faculty members. When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, SU did not make a public statement. Instead, student leaders and activists on campus held space for community support and processing, primarily used by Students and Staff of Color.

Student government (SG) at SU is a significant leadership space where students have access to university administrators and key campus decision-making. Over the years, SG has been led primarily by white men who had large political backing on- and off-campus. After student organizing efforts, Sasha knew she wanted to run for an executive SG position to use her leadership at a different level. When Preston heard Sasha was interested in running, he asked if she would be interested in being his running mate. Preston pitched his campaign to Sasha and was receptive to her ideas. “It’ll be like Biden and Harris. This will be great,” Preston assured Sasha. While Sasha did not feel comfortable being compared to Vice President Kamala Harris, she appreciated having a large student backing to support her candidacy. Preston and Sasha won the election by a wide margin and were sworn in a few weeks later.

When the new school year began, Preston and Sasha started meeting with university administrators and community leaders. These intimate meetings were new to Sasha who had more experience with town halls, open forums, and a sit-in she participated in when the local city council failed to pass legislation funding from police to social programs.

Knowing the tensions related to the lack of campus and community responses to racial incidents, Sasha wanted to bring up SU’s lack of response to George Floyd’s murder. Before meeting with the Provost, Preston told Sasha, “Please don’t bring up anything about racism in this meeting. We need to plant seeds and don’t want to come off like that in these early meetings.” Sasha was taken aback but hesitantly trusted Preston. When they met with the Provost and his team, it was clear Preston already knew these administrators, while Sasha felt like she was invisible. The Provost only made eye contact with her two times. She felt the conversation was directed solely at Preston.

After this meeting, Sasha met with her advisor, Colby, who could see that Sasha was upset. Colby helped Sasha identify a few examples to bring up with Preston in a meeting later that day. That evening, Sasha called Colby saying Preston was “incredibly defensive.” He told Sasha, “This is just the way it is. It’s politics.” Colby helped Sasha process her emotions, but after the call, Sasha began to reconsider her VP position. She understood how important it was for a Black woman to be in this role but was unsure how much she could take.

Sasha and Preston’s next meeting was with the university President. “You’re the girl who doesn’t like me very much aren’t you?” the President said to her, laughing, as he shook her hand aggressively. Sasha, taken aback, looked at Preston who indicated she should play along. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that” she replied nervously. President Zilker then greeted Preston with a warm hug, saying, “Preston, it’s wonderful to see you! You look so much like your dad!” Preston said, “Oh, stop! Great to see you, Dr. Zilker.” Their exchange made Sasha even more uncomfortable.

Dr. Zilker gestured for Sasha and Preston to sit down. He looked at the agenda Sasha created and noticed the first item was, “Iota Omega Upsilon Party.” At the party two weeks earlier, the theme was “Rapper’s Paradise.” Several members donned blackface as they wore basketball jerseys, cornrow hairstyles, and fake tattoos. Pictures from the party went viral on social media and Black students on campus felt even more isolated and frustrated due to this party. Black students, including Sasha, met to develop a list of grievances and calls to action to address their concerns.

Sasha began, “Well, I think of the concerns you may know about is the Iota Omega Upsilon party—” “Yes, Sasha (Saw-shuh),” President Zilker interrupted, “The situation has been brought to my attention and we’ll defer to Student Conduct to adjudicate.” Sasha ignored the mispronunciation of her name and responded, “With all due respect, sir, students are still waiting for some type of response from the university that this is not tolerated. Black students feel uncomfortable on campus and since there hasn’t been a response from your—” This time, Preston cut her off saying, “Sasha, I have to agree with President Zilker here, this is up to Student Conduct.” Sasha remained quiet for the rest of the meeting, and afterward, she and Preston went separate ways without speaking.

The following week, SG hosted an open forum for non-SG members to hear about recently passed legislation and learn about the structure of SG. Sasha and Preston had not spoken since they met with President Zilker. A group of Black student leaders began protesting the President’s office two days before the open forum. Members of the Black Student Alliance (BSA) attend the open meeting and acknowledged Sasha as SG began their meeting.

Toward the end of the meeting, Sasha and Preston open up to the floor to allow non-SG members to ask questions. One of the Black student leaders says, “Thank you for allowing us to be here. We noticed that there was no discussion around the fraternity party that happened a few weeks ago. As a leader of BSA, we are curious if SG will be releasing a statement of solidarity?” Sasha and Preston looked at each other, but before Sasha could respond, Preston said, “Thanks for your question, but SG does not believe it is our responsibility to respond to that issue. It is the responsibility of the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life.” Sasha made brief eye contact with Preston as he quickly adjourned the meeting. The murmuring in the room began as Preston exited, leaving Sasha at the front to respond to additional questions from BSA members.

Later that evening, Sasha called Colby and told her that BSA friends said they were worried about Sasha’s values since joining SG. Sasha added that Preston has not been a supportive colleague. She feels strongly that SG should make a statement about the recent party, even if Preston is not willing to do so. Sasha is considering resigning from her vice president position. She feels she may be able to make a greater impact outside of SG. Sasha is conflicted because she has access to those spaces of power to create change for underrepresented students while increasing visibility and financial support for Students of Color. Sasha added that the pressure and stress of SG have pulled her away from schoolwork and friends, and she just does not know if it’s worth it anymore. They agree to meet in-person the next day.

Discussion Questions

  1. What role do SG organizational history, student advocacy, and activism play in SG particularly related to Students of Color?
  2. How might Colby advise and support Sasha through this decision as it relates to Sasha’s desire to be an activist/advocate and how her peers are questioning her work?
  3. How can Colby support Sasha and Preston in their relationship and individually as student leaders?
  4. How might climate, male-dominated spaces, and gendered notions of leadership affect Sasha and other women and Women of Color in student government roles?
  5. What pressures exist for underrepresented students who pursue high-profile leadership positions on their campuses? Further, what can and should institutions do to make sure all students get the support they need, both pursuing positions and while serving in office?

Resources

Demick, S. (2022, April 12). Feature: Kasiyah Tatem, the university’s first Black student government association president. The Review. https://udreview.com/feature-kasiyah-tatem-the-universitys-first-black-student-government-association-president/

Workman, J. L., Hull, K., Hartsell, T., & Weimann, T. (2020). A chilly climate: Experiences of women student government association presidents. The Journal of Campus Activities Practice and Scholarship, 2(2), 39-54.

Author Bios

Shawntal Z. Brown (she/her/hers), M.A., is a Senior Outreach Program Coordinator in Inclusive Campus Support, Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. Her practitioner work primarily focuses on campus climate assessment and initiatives. As a part-time second-year doctoral student in the Program in Higher Education Leadership, Shawntal’s research focuses on analyzing the diversity, equity, and inclusion practices and policies implemented by universities.

Michael A. Goodman (he, him, his), Ph.D.,  is an Assistant Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin, and Co-Coordinator of the Program in Higher Education Leadership. Goodman’s research focuses on college student governance and involvement, and in particular, students’ experiences in collegiate student government, the student body presidency, and sorority/fraternity life. Goodman is the Research Coordinator for the NASPA Student Government Knowledge Community and is a member of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Research Community.