My Students Matter

12/03/2015 09:59 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2016

The president of a Christian university in Oklahoma just declared that his institution was a university, not a daycare, after he chided students for playing the victim over their hurt feelings when they hear something they don't like. I've seen a lot of chastising of college students over the past few weeks, especially students of color, because they've spoken out about their experiences of mistreatment on campuses.

The response from the dominant (well-off, white, straight, male) culture has primarily been to accuse students of being weak and self-absorbed opponents of free speech. Those are easy accusations for people to make who have never been interlopers in higher education. Our institutions of higher education, on the whole, were created by and for heterosexual white men. Changes resulting from the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, the LGBTQ Movement, Black Lives Matter, and other movements for social justice have challenged white male dominance in higher education, and many of the responses to recent challenges by students seem to me simply to be the good ol' boy system pushing back.

I'm a professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at a large research university, and so I see a greater proportion of students of color, women students, LGBTQ students than many professors in more traditional disciplines. I can't speak for students at Yale or Missouri, but my students are not asking to be coddled or protected from ideas they don't like. In fact, my students engage deeply with diverse ideas and care passionately about understanding the world around them.

What my students do want, as do I, is to be respected, to feel welcomed, and to feel valued by their institution. Many of the people criticizing students have never had the experience of being a minority of any kind on campus. They have not had to live with long histories of subordination and the psychological toll of oppression. So dismissing critiques of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist behaviors comes easily when one has never been targeted because of one's identity. One can simply believe that the playing field is level and everyone has an equal opportunity because that has been one's own experience. And, of course, acknowledging that others may not have had those same experiences would mean one would have to examine one's own privilege and systematic advantaging within social institutions.

What my students want is not to be called names. I get that. I don't want to be called b---h or c---t. I don't want to hear sexist jokes or have colleagues comment on my appearance. I don't want to see pictures of naked women on office walls in my workplace. All of those things create a hostile work environment.

Similarly, my students don't want to be asked to speak for their groups. They don't want to be singled out for their identities. They don't want to be stereotyped. They don't want to be reduced to a single identity. They don't want to see their cultures diminished by Halloween costumes or mascots that simply continue colonizing appropriations of their people and cultures. Those things also create a hostile environment, and learning in a hostile environment is not playing on a level field.

I know because I went to a Southern Baptist seminary in the early 1980s when Southern Baptists were fighting over the roles of women. I and other women at the seminary were told we didn't belong because of our gender. We listened to denominational leaders blame women--all women, including us--for the Fall of humankind. One of my fellow students once told me that he'd pray for me that I didn't get "messed up with this women in ministry thing." That was the day I became a feminist!

Asking for respect is not the same as asking to be coddled. Expecting professors to create inclusive, equitable, and just learning environments for each and every student in their classrooms is not asking for censorship.

My students want to be students. They want to learn. They want to see themselves represented in the curriculum alongside all the straight white men who still dominate course content. They want the range of ideas discussed broadened, not narrowed.

In my own classes, I welcome all ideas as long as they are argued responsibly and respectfully and are supported with evidence. I encourage students to examine conflicting ideas, including, and sometimes especially, ones with which they disagree. Sometimes, if all of the students seem to be agreeing, I argue an opposing viewpoint, just to expand the dialogue.

But I don't let students use slurs toward each other. If a student inadvertently says something offensive, I stop and address the comment--not targeting the student, but the student's words. I ask my students to read things they don't like, and sometimes I ask them to take the point of view of someone who liked what they read. I help them develop critical thinking skills. And they do.

Not surprisingly, the critics of diverse students use excesses as their evidence of the downward spiral of higher education. Of course, there are excesses. These are college students. They are young and idealistic and learning their way in the world. They are also making change. Have we forgotten how important a role college students played in stopping the war in Vietnam?

Our goal with students is to teach them. Rather than accusing them, we need to work with them, to hear them, to make change with them, because change is needed.

I am also the Principal Investigator on a large National Science Foundation funded project to transform institutional climate at my university. Why? Because despite the progress made over the last few decades, universities are still places where women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people from poor and working class backgrounds are disadvantaged in many ways that are often obscured by the veneer of equal opportunity.

My students are not wrong that we need to be better. What seems most overlooked in all the criticism of students, however, is the enduring optimism of students who have experienced discrimination and mistreatment and who still believe they can change the university and the world beyond it. I am heartened by their belief in a better university for all of us. After all, isn't that part of what a university should do? Send young people out in the world who have the skills, passion, and courage to make the world better.