Fostering Critical Hope (Part 1 of 3) Our Present Moment; Somewhere between Fear and Despair | Shea

written by: Heather D. Shea, Ph.D., 2023-2024 ACPA President

Author’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series for Developments exploring the concept and application of critical hope as adapted from the presidential address I offered at the 2023 ACPA Convention in New Orleans on March 28, 2023.

TW: mentions gun violence

We live in a time when there are attacks on students, faculty, staff, and universities on many fronts. There is an attack on our identities, our histories, our cultures, and our rights. As state and federal policymakers seek to tear down our diversity, equity, and inclusion offices, limit access to higher education for students. Turning confusion and ignorance into animosity and violence, both mainstream and fringe media sources have turned their attention onto our trans and queer students and colleagues, onto the history and cultures of BIPOC peoples, and onto the structures of our education system. Now is a time in which many of us feel full of despair.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge that August 13th marked six months since the tragedy at Michigan State, a senseless and random act of gun violence – three students’ lives taken, five injured, and countless more impacted by the traumatic event.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, I, like all my colleagues in the MSU Division of Student Life and Engagement, tried to do everything, everywhere, all at once. I reached out to the staff and students individually and collectively, who reported to me to check in on how they were doing. I signed up to staff sparsely attended listening sessions alongside religious and spiritual advisors (and plenty of therapy dogs). Furthermore, I listened to my colleagues who were then (and are now) working with such focus and intensity but who, like me, felt and probably still feel today like we are not doing enough.

The more significant issue I am grappling with today, six months after the shooting is how we entered this tragedy as a campus—many student affairs educators on my campus (maybe like on yours) are struggling with burnout and fatigue. Some are even questioning the sustainability of this career. It would be easy to succumb to fear and despair in this moment. However, critical hope infuses my work and life, even in these difficult times.

In the wake of the violence at MSU the Spartan Community has come together in innumerable ways. Moreover, my ACPA family has come through in offers of support and care in ways I cannot even begin to describe. In New Orleans, I expressed my gratitude for all the trauma-informed resources, facilitation guides, and one-pagers for students, faculty, and family that flowed into my inbox from campuses across the U.S. These materials were vital in the immediate response and instrumental as we seek to support MSU Spartans, their families, and our campus administrators into the future.

Given the plentiful resources that made their way to my inbox, I know that MSU is not alone. So many of you have these resources to share with us because you have faced your own collective trauma in the wake of ongoing police violence, structural inequities, escalating student mental health issues, continuing pandemic chaos, natural disasters, financial and political threats, and global climate catastrophe. Again, this is a time in which many of us feel full of despair.

I am probably not the first ACPA leader who has identified unique factors of the current moment in which they found themselves serving as president—contributing to a higher education context that compels us as an association to act boldly and transform higher education. Today, we find ourselves, again, in such a critical moment—this is not new.  Higher education exists within a politically polarized, financially precarious, and–as we know too well at Michigan State University–violent national context—particularly in the U.S., but beyond as well. It may be tempting to succumb to despair and cynicism and give up hope. I know many colleagues who have left higher ed or adjacent fields for completely unrelated work that does not require quite as much of our hearts.

However, to persist, to fight, to hope is what we need on our campuses – not naive, toxic positivity or reckless, misguided hope, but critical hope. To critically persist, to critically fight, and to critically hope—this is what our time, our moment, demands from us. In the next installment, I will delve further into this concept and describe how we might find that critical hope together.

continue reading part 2