Identity politics is undermining university administration

Professionals must be able to connect with students from different backgrounds, but obsessing about inter-group differences doesn't help, says an anonymous academic

June 3, 2020
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I spent my adolescence battling a severe speech disorder, along with all of the personal effects that accompanied it: sadness, isolation, desperation, anger.

Despite a love for reading and writing, I neglected my schooling out of frustration. Why accumulate knowledge if I would never be able to share it, my distorted thinking went.

For me, then, college was a second chance: an opportunity to rediscover the intellectual potential I suppressed. My faculty advisors, who took the time to learn about me as an individual, helped me do so.

I became an administrator so that I could help students learn and grow in the same way. But I was disheartened to see that students in the US were being taught a different lesson from the one I received. It seemed that their identities were to be derived primarily from their membership of various groups – race, sexual orientation, gender, class – rather than their personalities, histories or passions. Academics and professional support staff alike seemed more adept at dividing their students into identity groups than connecting them.

A good example of the direction that some student affairs-run programmes have gone is offered by the University of Delaware’s invasive student reeducation programme, run via its student housing department, in which students were reportedly questioned individually on various ideological positions, presumably with the goal of remedying attitudes.

Why is it happening? For Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, it is linked to the prominence of “intersectionality”, which, because it is hyper-focused on race, gender and power dynamics, has the potential to incite division. “A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions,” Haidt writes. “You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle.”

Haidt was referring to classroom teaching, but the same warning can be applied to the work being done in student affairs, particularly as administrators have come to see themselves as educators.

Administrators have often trained in education schools, which dedicate a large amount of attention to progressive scholarship, so it is hardly surprisingly that concepts that fall under the identity politics umbrella dominate their thinking. Moreover, for aspiring administrators, engaging with and conforming to these ideas is necessary to enter and progress in their field.

One large part of the story that is often overlooked is the massive professional development conferences, which champion social justice and inclusion as “professional competencies”. Take last year’s Student Affairs Educators in Higher Educations (NASPA) conference in Philadelphia. According to my analysis, more than one in five of its 835 educational sessions explored ideas closely aligned with identity politics. Titles such as “calling our whiteness in” and “strategies for the retention and progression of womxn of color professionals” give a flavour of myriad of events devoted to diversity, inclusion, privilege and classism, which far outnumbered those on either traditional staff development (promotions, hiring, team-building) or those focused on student development and success.

Yes, administrators should be well-versed in demographic group differences in learning, well-being and social behavior. As higher education continues to diversify, professionals must be able to connect with students whose demographic or socioeconomic backgrounds differ from theirs. But when you present inter-group differences on such a grand scale, with dissenting ideas unrepresented, you undermine this ability.

Readers might dismiss these issues on the grounds that student affairs professionals don’t have as much involvement in what students learn compared with faculty members. But think about it from the perspective of a parent whose child is leaving for college for the first time. Isn’t that parent entitled to trust that, rather than being steeped in divisive thinking, the people tasked with influencing their child’s crucial first semester – their academic advisor, residence hall director, planners of social events – are focused on timely issues such as mental health and disability services?

If my mentors had seen only my identity characteristics, rather than the intellectual potential that I, as an individual, had suppressed, I would have left college just as I entered it: aimless and alone.  

The author has chosen to remain anonymous.

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Reader's comments (2)

This is accurate and reflects my experiences as a senior academic. It has sucked all the joy out of my job as a teacher. The students are always right because they pay our salaries. If they get radicalized and want to see equality of outcome implemented everywhere, the admins are overjoyed to kiss their a**es because it's good for marketing, too. If that means reprimanding faculty members for stirring controversy by exposing students to ideas that might promote equality of opportunity instead, they all too often happily go along with it. The next generation will hardly remember that there was a world in which achievement and equality of opportunity counted for something, as it will all be about group membership and the prestige of being part of a victimised group for them to climb the social ladder.
The chosen anonymity of the author speaks volumes.