Monday, August 28, 2017

Confronting the Past to Change the Future: Guidance from our Colleagues in Sociology

Kimberley A. Reyes, PhD Candidate
Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education
University of Michigan 

A few months ago, my Facebook newsfeed was full of references to a special section of the May issue of Social Problems entitled, “Essays on Voices from the Margins: Inequalities in the Sociological House.” I’m not a regular reader of this journal, but as someone who studies contention within academic disciplines, I was intrigued by all of the buzz. This special section is a collection of essays from six noted sociologists of color—Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, David Embrick, Julian Go, Mignon Moore, Aldon Morris, and Mary Romero—each of whom offered candid reflections on the current state of sociology as it relates to racial inequality and the issues faced by scholars of color in the discipline. Their reflections were generated by a town hall discussion at the 2016 meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), during which frank conversations were had about the ways in which social inequalities are reproduced within a discipline that claims social inequality as its core concern. Taken together, the essays issue a forceful call “to build a better sociology” (Morris, 2017, p. 210)—one that that supports diversity and inclusion in practice as much as in rhetoric.

I offer three key themes from across the essays that I believe are broadly relevant to and instructive for our own field of higher education:

1) Confronting a historical foundation of racism

First, these scholars insist that the discipline must admit to itself that sociological knowledge is deeply intertwined with racism and colonialism. The "historical heroes" (Bonilla-Silva, 2017, p.181) credited with founding sociology were not only overwhelmingly white and male, but they often rationalized racial prejudice as a biological and innate tendency. Early elite sociologists’ beliefs in white superiority silenced and suppressed the minority of sociologists of color who dared to think differently—ousting brilliant thinkers such as W E. B. Du Bois and Oliver Cromwell Cox from the sociological canon. Accordingly, these historical ties to a white western point of view must be understood as sociology’s greatest intellectual constraint (Morris, 2017). Confronting that constraint requires an epistemic insurgency—a fight to include worldviews that expand sociological knowledge beyond the “imperial standpoint” (Go, 2017). Higher education researchers must critically examine the origins of our own foundational concepts (some of which are based on sociological frameworks), much in the way that student persistence theory has been critiqued for its assimilationist bias (Guiffrida, 2006).

2) Rejecting adherence to objectivity/value neutrality

Second, these scholars maintain that the discipline’s adherence to objectivity and value neutrality greatly hinder its potential for societal transformation (Bonilla-Silva, 2017; Embrick, 2017, Morris, 2017). Bonilla-Silva (2017) and Embrick (2017) argue that when white sociologists “made a pact with the devil of objectivity” in the 1920s, they created a sociology that is more concerned with gathering data than changing lives for the better (Bonilla-Silva, 2017, p. 183). The expectation that the scientific must be kept separate from the political is an enduring hallmark of white sociology, leaving many contemporary sociologists in a state of paralysis when it comes to doing work that is intentionally geared towards social change (Embrick, 2017, p. 190). Constructing a public sociology that is grounded in human emancipation is possible, but the discipline will need to replace the myth of value neutrality with the belief that activism and scientific work can and must go together (Morris, 2017). In the field of higher education, cultural norms of objectivity and neutrality may explain why, for example, race-related studies published in our top journals commonly avoid critical discussions of racism (Harper, 2012).

3) Having the courage to look within

Lastly, these scholars turn the sociological gaze inward by describing the inequalities that are reproduced across multiple levels of the discipline—in scholarly/professional organizations, in departments and programs, and in universities (Embrick, 2017). Bonilla-Silva (2017) argues that relentless racial microaggressions and the other every day ways in which sociologists of color are made to feel marginal are central mechanisms of organizational whiteness in the discipline. Moore (2017) contends that both race and gender dynamics create an environment where women of color must constantly justify their existence within the discipline. Reflecting on what has changed since her well-known study of graduate students in sociology from two decades ago, Romero (2017) laments that the representation of graduate students and faculty of color remains abysmally low, and that mainstream sociology refuses to include important sociologists of color in its theories, methods, and curricula. Although the discipline is dedicated to studying inequality “out there” in society, it must address the persistent structural hostility to diversity within. Higher education scholars, then, must collectively reflect on everyday practices within our own profession. Do we put too much emphasis on institutional affiliation at our scholarly meetings? Do we place departmental diversity work primarily onto the shoulders of our students and faculty of color? Do we privilege certain epistemologies in our higher education degree programs?

The parallels between sociology and the field of higher education are clear.  Scholars in our own field are committed to addressing social inequality, but the field itself is based on similar historical legacies of exclusion, myths of value neutrality, and continues to lack compositional diversity across faculty and graduate students. Many of us in higher education consider ourselves scholar-activists. Part of this role involves examining and challenging the biases embedded in our own dominant knowledge paradigms. We cannot effectively address social inequality across higher education until we have come to terms with how inequality is reproduced within our own field.


Bonilla-Silva, E. (2017). What we were, what we are, and what we should be: The racial problem of American sociology. Social Problems, 64(2), 179-187.

Embrick, D. G. (2017). Discontents within the discipline: Sociological hypnagogia, negligence,      and denial. Social Problems, 64(2), 188-193.

Go, J. (2017). Decolonizing sociology: Epistemic inequality and sociological thought. Social           Problems, 64(2), 194-199.

Guiffrida, D. A. (2006). Toward a cultural advancement of Tinto's theory. The Review of Higher    Education29(4), 451-472.

Harper, S. R. (2012). Race without racism: How higher education researchers minimize racist         institutional norms. The Review of Higher Education36(1), 9-29.

Moore, M. R. (2017). Women of color in the academy: Navigating multiple intersections and          multiple hierarchies. Social Problems, 64(2), 200-205.

Morris, A. D. (2017). The state of sociology: The case for systemic change. Social Problems,         64(2), 206-211.

Romero, M. (2017). Reflections on “The department is very male, very white, very old, and very    conservative”: The functioning of the hidden curriculum in graduate sociology departments. Social Problems, 64(2), 212-218.

Monday, June 26, 2017

What’s Right When You’re Left? Complexity of Ethical Dilemmas.

By: Cecile H. Sam, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership
Rowan University 

On April 27, 2017 Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. Due to different reasons (e.g., threats of violence, student protests, scheduling), she did not speak on that day or on the alternative date the university provided. This recent event (or lack thereof) has been just one in a series of conflicts happening on campuses across the country this academic year: the clash of ideologies between the far-right and left. 

This post will not be about arguing the specific details of the Berkeley-Coulter situation.  For that information, there are several good articles to read online (if you trust those news sources). Rather, this post is about how these types of conflicts ultimately present a complex ethical dilemma for leaders in higher education. Because the resulting policies and practices from these conflicts will reflect the institution’s moral stance, it’s important to recognize the various ethical issues that need to be addressed.

Given the history of higher education in the US, the Berkeley-Coulter example is almost cliché. On the surface, this situation looks like every other time controversial speaker comes to campus. But underneath, there appears a new level of complexity.  First, there is the imminent threat and use of violence as a silencing tactic from groups on both sides. Second, the politicization of the university by those outside of campus who want to use higher education as a proving ground to test the limits of free speech, legitimation, and progressive ideas. Third, the institution has been placed in a dilemma where the best options seem to be the one that results in the least amount of loss. Finally, the speed in which narratives of the event can be shared across social media sites (both real and fake news), can place the institution in a reactive rather than proactive position. Combined with the other familiar issues such as the values of free speech and safety, marginalization and disenfranchisement of certain student populations, university mission and vision—these events become flashpoints that define institutions of higher education and how the public perceives them.

Take for example the threat of violence, that came from various polarizing left and right-winged groups determined to either stop Ann Coulter from speaking or to protect her speech respectively.  Broadly speaking, people using a justice perspective may view the use of violence as a silencing tactic to be morally wrong; the use of physical violence is an unethical response to ideology, no matter how repugnant (for example, see Newsweek’s article around the ethics of punching a Nazi: ). History has too many examples of groups using violence as a silencing tactic—in U.S. alone, we can easily point to the ways people used violence to silence women’s suffrage, civil rights, and the LGBTQ movements to name a few. In an ironic twist—we are now seeing the anti-fascists and other groups use of violence to try to  silence the alt-right, or white-nationalist movement. From a justice perspective or ends-based ethical frame, is trying to silence the alt-right the same thing? 

As universities begin to engage with the dilemma, they may want to apply a critical perspective--in addition to other frames-- to the issue. Critical ethics looks beyond the laws and policies that exist to the inequities and historical context that has created those laws and policies.  For example, historically—marginalized communities (e.g. racial minorities, women, LGBTQ)  found it difficult to obtain justice through “proper channels” due to systemic racism and/or structural oppression, and often had to rely on disruptive tactics such as protests.  Dominant society has emphasized the work of non-violent leaders, while diminishing the contributions those who used more aggressive tactics (e.g., the contrast between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X).  However, we also learned in US history was that the Revolutionary War and Civil War were not won by pacifists. There is also the distinction of physical violence and verbal violence—normative ethics tells us that words, no matter how offensive, are not the same—but critical ethics tells us that words are used to shape our conceptualizations of others. We can use our words to dehumanize people, and in turn make it easier to justify or commit acts of violence against them (Bandura, 1999). To not acknowledge these ideas in light of history and context when engaging in an ethical dilemma would be to dismiss real concerns for different groups. To take a critical perspective shifts the question: Is silencing the demands to be treated as equal human beings ethically the same as silencing the demand to treat others as less than human?

This isn’t a post to justify violence as a form of protest, but instead I wrote this to bring light to the difficult questions that contain no easy answers. What makes ethical dilemmas so challenging is that ultimately some value is compromised for the sake of another. Values such as free speech, equity, democracy, justice, safety, dignity and truth all have their place in our abstract idea of higher education. However, it is during these crucible events, where higher education administrators and scholars will have to choose which of their core values are more important.  Depending on the different perspectives, some people may say that Berkeley sacrificed free speech for security—others would say that by offering an alternative date the institution compromised its values of diversity and dignity of persons.  These choices that we make have ethical outcomes be they for good or ill, and institutions have to be ready to defend those decisions.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Academic Freedom Should Be Used

By: Marybeth Gasman, PhD
Professor of Higher Education
Director, Center for Minority Serving Institutions
University of Pennsylvania

Academic freedom is an idea and right that I deeply cherish.  Full academic freedom – the kind that comes with tenure – is vitally important to the future of colleges and universities. And, I firmly believe that we must use our academic freedom to move the academy forward.

Academic freedom is involved in many aspects of being a professor – from what we teach to what we research, and to what we say publicly and within our institutions.  As faculty, academic freedom gives us immense privilege that most individuals do not have, and we have responsibilities that are tied to this privilege.

In recent years, more than likely due to the intensity of the world around us, I have grown weary of faculty members who chose not to use their academic freedom in meaningful ways and instead horde it to protect themselves and their own agendas.  I think we have an obligation, especially within the sub-field of higher education, given its applied nature, to use our research and voices to advance a justice and equity-oriented agenda.

When I glance at the titles and abstracts of papers and sessions hosted at this year’s AERA annual meeting, I’m struck, once again, by the number of papers that speak to issues of equity, access, equality, diversity, and inclusion.  Yet, I wonder if the faculty presenting these papers act on these ideas in their day–to-day lives as professors.  Are we teaching in inclusive ways that empowers all students or in ways that make our lives easier and more efficient? Are we collaborative and inclusive in the ways we approach our research and our research teams or do we always need to be in control and in the lead? Do we speak up in faculty meetings when we see systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression – the way we suggest others do in our research – or do we sit in silence hoping someone else will do it, or, perhaps, doing nothing because these systems protect us?  Do we use our academic freedom to push our institutions to take stands on justice issues or do we wait for others to do this?

I give a lot of talks around the nation pertaining to faculty diversity and inclusion, as well as on faculty members using their voices to make change.  Inevitably during the question and answer part of the talk, a faculty member (with tenure, usually White) in the audience will ask me how to be brave around issues of diversity or in general within the academy.  My response is always, ‘What makes you afraid to speak up when you hold the power?’  Often the faculty member’s response is one of shame that they have not had the courage to speak up and stand up for the rights of others. I wonder if their shame turns into action.

I urge tenured faculty and those seeking to be tenured faculty to think about the connections between their research and teaching and how they act in their day-to-day lives in the academy. We often fail to realize and act on the power that we have. We often act as if we are being forced to do things by administration, but faculty have much more power to make change than we acknowledge.  We often criticize the systems within the academy without realizing that we create and enforce those systems and that they can change if we have the will.

Academic freedom in all its forms and manifestations should be nurtured, cherished and used in profound and meaningful ways as faculty move throughout their careers. Failing to do so is academic malpractice.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Research for Research’s Sake: The Value and Responsibility of Translating Research to Diverse Audiences

By: Desiree D. Zerquera, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Leadership Studies
University of San Francisco

For the majority of us who identify as higher education scholars, we are in this field because through our own educational or professional experiences we saw problems in the way higher education is shaped and shapes others. We were called to scholarship as a way to examine these problems, find solutions and contribute to a vision of a better system of higher education. Our individual work is situated within the broader mission of the university, which has a commitment to serving the public good, achieved in large part through our research.

Traditional graduate school experience trains us to write for publication in academic journals, primarily read by academics. We are encouraged to present in the more prestigious conferences of our field, attended largely by other scholars. Further, the reward structures of academe value these types of contributions above all else. Despite efforts to resist these pressures, jobs need to be obtained, tenure and promotion need to be earned, and our value in the field needs to be recognized. Time being finite, these efforts come at the cost of other forms of engagement that speak to the very reason why we entered the field of higher education in the first place.  

The problem, however, isn’t that we publish in academic journals and present at academic conferences. These are important spaces of knowledge dissemination. It is an invaluable part not just of academe but of our society as a whole—a space where ideas are shared and debated, where we can trace the contours of our collective imagination for how we see and address problems, and where research and scholarship can exist for the sake of their own existence.

The problem lies in the fact that much of the fruits of this knowledge gained stops within these spaces. Not everyone has access to these spaces, and not all voices are permitted to be amplified within them. As social scientists, we do not have the privilege to be so elitist so as to limit our knowledge to just one another.

There are a number of ways of translating our work for diverse audiences. Starting with the academic format we are socialized to communicate within as academics, journals and conferences that speak to policy- and practitioner-based audiences are valuable outlets. These spaces are important in fostering knowledge exchange around policy and practice. Just as important as the rigor reflected in our research are the ways we can utilize this work to inform change in our higher education system. Translation is needed to better connect our work to its own value within our respective fields. This can be a challenge, and require reshifting and reframing of our work, but we have an obligation to undertake this work.  

Leveraging the public attention through blogs, op-eds, policy briefs, TED talks, keynote engagements, and social media are also promising and valuable ways of reaching broader audiences. Higher education scholars like Marybeth Gasman and Julian Vasquez Heilig often use these channels of influence to advocate for the higher education equity issues they research. This expands our audience reach to inform not just policy and practice, but also the public conscious around higher education. 

As a field, we need to do more to develop and institute this value of translating our work. Faculty in higher education programs can incorporate assignments that have students write in various formats beyond just the traditional research paper. In my classroom, students read and write reports and op-eds. We workshop the process of discovering your voice to bridge ideas to public discourse. Further, faculty can also play a role in shaping reward systems. More value to these types of engagements needs to be added within the tenure and promotion (T&P) processes. Institutions like Loyola Marymount University have supplemented their traditional T&P requirements to account for public engagements as part of a measure of faculty’s contributions. Lastly, technology makes options like publicly-available webinars valuable outlets for communicating with administrative, practitioner and public audiences. The National Institute for Transformation and Equity (NITE) has embraced this through their Webcasts on Equity and Change (WOCE) series that brings together scholars and practitioners around relevant topics related to equity in higher education.

Being called to the work of higher education, our work cannot stop at just examining issues. We have the responsibility to communicate and engage with those who can put our research into action at the policy and practice level. Making our work more accessible and breaking down our complex ideas and higher education jargon is even more needed within our current anti-intellectual context that emphasizes 140-characters or less bits of information. As a field, we not only need to do better, but we have an obligation to do so to fulfill our commitment to contribute to improving higher education.