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.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cultivating a Strong “Team” of Social Support While in Graduate School and Beyond: You Cannot Do It Alone

By Ah Ra Cho, Senior Graduate Student Representative, Division J
PhD candidate in Higher Education (graduating May 2017), University of North Texas

“I did it all by myself” is not something one will hear any person who graduates with their doctorate.  If you happen to come upon the acknowledgement section of a dissertation, the individual will list multiple people who have supported them throughout their journey. This is analogous to professional sports. Not just one person coaches a professional sports team. There are multiple coaches, coordinators, trainers, nutritionists, and other support staff, who are all in place to carry out the different functions and needs of the team and individual athletes toward success.

Having your team in place is particularly important as one transitions from the coursework stage, where one regularly sees faculty and fellow classmates on a regular basis, to the dissertation stage, where that sense of routine, deadlines, and interactions are no longer in place. Graduate school is tough; it is a journey, a marathon. Social supports are key, both in the level and quality, in helping graduate students cope with stressful events and maintain good health (Goplerud, 1980; Hall, 1969).

What if you are a new doctoral student and unsure who comprises your “team”? Here are some various team members you can consider adding to your team.

Your Graduate Program

Your Peers/Classmates. Peer support networks are particularly critical for graduate and professional students (Hall, 1969). This includes the sharing of information and social value from the peer interactions that occur (Austin, 2002). Some of these social supports will be from fellow students, who are a semester, a year, or multiple years ahead of you and who are willing to let you “in the know” about the program—the culture and the information not readily provided in the open but are crucial to your success.

Some of the strongest bonds I have seen and personally cherish are the small groups or partnerships that form during graduate school. You will often recognize them always together at conferences. They write together, they commiserate together, they celebrate together. This is not bounded to graduate students alone. You will often see junior scholars and senior scholars publish together time after time, many of those bonds formed early on in these scholars’ careers, starting in graduate school. The power of technology nowadays helps keep those bonds going on even after graduation as your “squad/posse/group” go your separate ways to other institutions. These bonds form through similar research interests, possibly an established cohort model, or even organically.

Your Faculty. The quality of faculty-student interaction is an important aspect of graduate school (Hartnett, 1976). Faculty, particularly your advisor, can help you set your “action plan” both in how you proceed during your doctoral program and your future career aspirations. The field of higher education is small, and the networks that your current faculty have can be helpful in connecting you to other scholars in higher education.

Higher Education Groups and Organizations

For graduate students, the “continuum of involvement” in participating with organizations is a distinction that graduate students should consider as they can be incredibly helpful in building those social supports (Gardner & Barnes, 2007).

Get involved with national professional organizations. The main academically focused organizations in higher education include AERA’s Division J Post-Secondary Education and the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). Join their graduate student networks and participate in the programming provided year-round such as AERA’s #DivJChat twitter chats or Conversations with Scholars. Both graduate student networks also provide wonderful programming specific to graduate students during the annual conferences which include graduate student sessions, fireside chats, and graduate student socials. Another is to be involved with practitioner oriented organizations, including NASPA and ACPA, which umbrella all of student affairs. There are a myriad of multiple other organizations in higher education that exist which focus on a specific area or specialty, and located at the state, regional, and international levels.

Networking/Social Media
The concept of social support from social media is something I have found to be particularly helpful in gathering a unique type of social support, from those near and far. In my experience, sending or receiving that limited 140 character “encouragement” on twitter can be quite reassuring. Interacting with a fellow doctoral student I have never met in person or seeing posts with hashtags such as #gradschool #sadoc #gradlife #gradschoolproblems has provided me a form of support that someone else in the world is likely feeling the same way I am. Seeing researchers on social media having interests outside of academia also help foster my own striving for a work-life balance in my own personal life. Also, social media is a great way to connect with other graduate students and researchers with similar research interests. This means is particularly helpful for those who have research interests that are unique or very few people in your own graduate program share.

Outside of Academia
The more obvious ones will be your family, significant other(s), etc. This further extends to your friends outside of academia and other social circles you are involved with. Even pets are a great source of support. Sometimes, the best thing to do while in graduate school is to get these people to take you outside of the graduate school bubble. It is important to have interests outside of graduate school, whether that be hobbies, a sport, or other people to count on when graduate school is too much to bear.

Self-Care/Health Resources
I cannot stress enough the importance of having a well body, mind, soul, spirit, etc. to get you through the process of graduate school. Graduate school is stressful and can have an effect on you for which at times, can seem unsurmountable. The feelings of imposter syndrome, loneliness, lack of motivation, and other life stressors can arise in anyone and can hinder progress in your graduate program. Multiple campus resources exist such as the health and wellness, counseling and testing, recreation centers, and a myriad of other areas on campus. Also seek out assistance outside of your institution if needed for therapy or health care issues. Be willing to get help as it is crucial for your overall well-being. Setting healthy habits and practices now will only benefit you towards success in the future.

There is no ideal equation, perfect formula or one-size-fits all of support one should seek from these multiple channels. It may also shift as you become more advanced in your studies, as the needs for a student entering the field will be different than those who are in their final stages of their doctoral program. Keep in mind your personality and specific social supports you need in place to succeed as it differs for everyone.

Finally, it does not stop after one graduates. You are creating a team which will carry you through graduate school and into your professional life. It is important to find an ideal team for yourself that helps set you up for success, supports you through the challenging aspects of graduate school, and celebrates your achievements and milestones for years to come.

To end, this quote by Leslie Knope, from the Parks and Recreation series finale, captures the essence of graduate school and success…

"Now, go find your team and get to work”.


Austin, A. E. (2002). Preparing the next generation of faculty: Graduate school as socialization to the academic career. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(1), 94-122.

Gardner, S. K., & Barnes, B. J. (2007). Graduate student involvement: Socialization for the professional role. Journal of College Student Development, 48(4), 369-387.

Goplerud, E. N. (1980). Social support and stress during the first year of graduate school. Professional Psychology, 11(2), 283.

Hall, D. (1969). The impact of peer interaction during an academic role transition. Sociology of Education, 42(2), 118-140.

Hartnett, R. T. (1976). Environments for advanced learning. In J. Katz & R. T. Hartnett (Eds., Scholars in the Making. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.