Hello! If you’re reading this when it posts, it’s now October and here in Milwaukee the weather has turned decidedly autumnal. The mornings are crisp and cool, and we’ve had a stretch of beautiful days with clear blue skies and just a hint of chill in the air. My kiddo and I have been taking weekend hikes with Bacon and we’re having a great time exploring the bluffs, woodlands, and wetlands throughout Southeast Wisconsin.
We’re also a month out from the November mid-term elections, and so I’m launching a series of examinations and conversations about the relationship between democracy and higher education. I’m kicking things off with some personal ruminations on the events that led me to even ask this question in the first place.
During the fall election season of 2016 I was a dean at a women’s college in Missouri. My family and I had recently relocated to Columbia, which is a small blue circle smack-dab in the middle of Missouri, which was then (and is today) a solidly red state, despite its history of being a bellwether in elections. We had moved from Minnesota, though, so we were accustomed to living in a state that was mostly red with distinctly blue urban centers, so in that way, at least, Missouri felt very familiar to us.
Still, I was surprised to see pro-Trump signs on campus, placed by young women. And I was pretty ambivalent about them. The signs, not the young women.
On the one hand I was proud of the students for exercising their free speech and being bold enough to take contrary positions. (It seemed to me pretty contrary to be studying at a women’s college and not be supporting a woman running for the highest office in the country.) I’m generally pleased when women speak up and speak their minds, even when – sometimes, especially when – their positions are unpopular. It’s hard to speak up and be out of step with those around you.
On the other hand, I felt very strongly that if young women were supporting a candidate who had a history of harming women, and who harmed women intentionally and even boasted about it, and who made a business practice of harming people who were economically disadvantaged, then I felt that we needed to reflect on whether we had failed as educators. My thinking at the time – and it hasn’t changed since – is that women voting for Trump were voting against their own self-interests. I know that’s a complex position and lots deserves to be unpacked there, but fundamentally I felt – I still feel – that a women’s college should educate women to fight for their self-interests – not in any selfish, self-aggrandizing way but because women’s rights are human rights.
As much as I was dismayed to see those signs, I was even more disheartened to realize that my position was unpopular with campus leadership. And that prompted me to wonder…what do women leaders at colleges and universities think their role is in educating for democracy? That question came to me that day in Missouri, and it has persisted, quietly insistent at the back of my brain, ever since.
That question came to me in anger and frustration, and also some sadness, and also genuine curiosity.
And it’s the question that motivates and organizes the next several episodes of the podcast.
Today I’m asking that question as a curious woman, and as a veteran educator and administrator. I come to this question as a white woman, a mother, a daughter, and a feminist. And wrapped up in those pieces of my identity is a whole lot of baggage.
I’m going to start with the baggage.
I grew up straddling what felt like two very different worlds.
In one world I was a Mormon girl living in a mixed family with my mother, her 2nd husband, and her four children. In that home we were “in” the world but not “of” the world. We didn’t listen to the radio, as kids we were only allowed to watch “The Muppet Movie” on television, and for a stretch of time we started our mornings by reading scripture as a family. We were also poor: I was one of the few kids in my grade who got vouchers for free lunch at school, my mom sometimes shopped from the Goodwill donation bins before Goodwill came to empty them, and there was a period of time when we ate primarily because the church brought us food. That home was also violent. So there in that world I was a very good girl: I was quiet, obedient, an excellent student, a devoted big sister. Underneath that, though, I was hungry and scared most of the time.
In the other world I was a Mormon girl living with her grandparents. Although both were Mormon, my Yugoslavian grandfather was raised a Catholic and, as a converted Mormon, was pretty iconoclastic. With him we whiled away our summer hours drinking Coca-Cola and gambling our pennies while playing BlackJack, poker, and eventually Pinochle. For a while he had me convinced that I could put myself through college as BlackJack dealer in Vegas. One of my favorite stories about him – I have no idea if this is true – is that he retired early from his job as an accountant at Standard Oil when he discovered someone above him was cheating and when he reported it, the story was hushed up. In the story I heard, the cheating superior was also a Mormon, and in his disgust my grandfather not only retired from his job but quit going to Church. In my childhood eyes, he was a strong, confident man who stood by his values and let his grandkids have fun.
My grandmother, also a Mormon, was an outspoken feminist. She took me to rallies and events where, even though I was shunted into the kids’ groups to make crafts while the women got involved in women’s work, I knew what was happening. She was a long-time member of BPW – Business & Professional Women of Utah. She took a lot of grief from her husband for the time she spent with her “women’s groups,” but she did it anyway. She was also a retired English teacher turned high school librarian, and she brought me home banned books to read every summer, so I counter-balanced my reading of the Book of Mormon with Julie of the Wolves and novels by Leon Uris and Chaim Potok.
At my grandparents’ house there were Oreos and potato chips in the cabinets, plentiful dinners every day, and ice cream in the freezer. Nobody hurt me, yelled at me, or threatened to harm people I loved.
All of this is to say I grew up with a really…I don’t even know what word to use here…I just grew up strangely, with wildly competing examples of what the world offered and how to move through it – especially as a woman.
One of my grandmothers’ favorite stories to tell me about me is that when I was little and she’d ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer “A mommy!” and she’d say, “A mommy…and what?” It was always fine with her if I wanted to choose motherhood. She just wanted there to be an “and” – an “also.” And she discouraged me every time I chose a traditionally female job – a nurse, a stewardess, a teacher.
Meanwhile, my mother hadn’t earned a college degree or even completed high school. So this idea that I could be both a mother and be ambitious – intellectually and professionally – was another conflict for me. And again, little by little, one small decision at a time, I chose my grandmother’s way.
As I started making my own decisions as a teenager and young adult, I found myself making choices that put me on a path more like my grandmother’s path. This cast me as a trouble-maker, since I was defying a lot of familial expectations. It’s also taken me pretty far.
In my house today we read all the books. We eat well. We rail against the patriarchy. We support education at all levels. We don’t hit and hurt each other. We do a lot of the things my grandmother modeled for me.
And yet, I live in this very safe place in a body that has been assaulted and hungry. I have lived scared. I have experience being a young girl who didn’t know how to speak up. I have experience being a young girl who, for her own safety, had to embrace other people’s behaviors and ideologies even when they harmed me.
And even though I chose to walk a different path, the path I walk is still littered with the debris of all those things I walked away from. Those conflicting worlds and the dissonance they created are knit into the fabric of my being.
All of that is part of who I am when I show up as an educator and administrator on a college campus.
Which helps explain, I think, why I feel some ways about young women on college campuses not being shown a path toward the intellectual and physical empowerment of fighting for their own interests and rights as human beings.
So when I ask “What do women leaders believe is their responsibility in educating citizens for a democracy?” I ask it partly from the perspective of young women who are finding their way and shaping their identities who deserve to be taught to interrogate systems of power and who deserve the experience of learning to use their voices. I care about this because I was taught those things and they completely changed my life for the better.
I ask the question not only as a feminist with a complex past, but as someone who loves teaching college students.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and learning how to teach, a number of my colleagues were involved in service learning. The idea that students could take their knowledge out into the public and use it to make change, and that as a faculty member I could organize my teaching that way, was foreign to me. I’d never had that kind of experience as an undergraduate studying English literature and I didn’t know anybody who’d done this as a student. Even more, my personal understanding of community service was deeply connected to church and religion – remember those church ladies who brought us food when I was a kid? – and I had a deep desire to keep all of that separate from what I was trying to do, who I was trying to be, as I pursued my PhD. I don’t think I ever thought about it that way, but I can still feel in my gut the discomfort that the idea of service-learning prompted.
But at Madison, one professor in particular – Bruce Burgett, who is now at the University of Washington-Bothell – talked a lot about the role of scholarship in public life. Even today, the first sentence of his teaching philosophy reads “I believe that lively teaching requires lively research, and that both need to be tied closely to complex problems that arise in everyday life.” When he shared that view on teaching more than 20 years ago, I found it so novel as to be unimaginable. I literally could not imagine how my work – studying visual culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – would have any relevance to problems in daily life. I’m not even sure I wanted it to.
A few years later I was beginning to see it, though, and eventually I told my dissertation advisor I wanted to write a chapter on virtual reality. But…I had no idea how to do that, and I really just wanted to finish the damn project already, so I didn’t write that chapter. I so often wish I had at least tried.
Anyway…as a young professional I became familiar with both Campus Compact and Imagining America, but because I was an administrator and not a faculty member, the programs and their purposes interested me mostly from the viewpoint of how they could enrich the campuses I served. My interest was not yet personal.
It got personal in 2011, when I learned about a project out of the University of Oregon, called the Sustainable City Year Program.
The program is the brainchild of two faculty who believed that their students’ expertise could be put to legitimate use to advance cities, tribes, and communities across the state of Oregon. Essentially, the program partners with a community for an academic year; the community – whether a tribe, city, town, etc. – dusts off all the projects it wants to tackle but which are currently shelved or delayed for lack of resources. Those projects are then matched to classes at the university, where the students actually complete some or all of the work of the project. Everybody wins in this model: actual community work is completed, communities are served by the flagship public state institution, and students apply their learning in real time in a complex and meaningful context. I’ve seen the program in action and it’s really amazing.
We brought a version of this program to the Twin Cities in 2012, when I was the Executive Director of the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities. We partnered with the City of St. Paul and our undergraduates completed really meaningful projects: for example, an engineering class designed a light-bulb retrofit so that original streetlights could use LED bulbs, instead of needing to be fully replaced; a marketing class designed and launched an awareness campaign about the storm drains – which, in St. Paul, go straight to the Mississippi River and were often cluttered with discarded televisions and bowling balls; an environmental science class worked on a composting project, while another class worked on a project to capture rainwater runoff from the roof of a city building.
At the time I wouldn’t have framed this work as preparing students for democracy or citizenship, but I think back to Bruce’s belief that “lively teaching requires lively research, and that both need to be tied closely to complex problems that arise in everyday life,” and I see that philosophy at work here: These college students experienced their learning as practical, applicable, and capable of creating tangible, positive transformations within a community. This is part of what’s so interesting to me about educating for democracy: fundamentally I think it’s about educating students in a way that connects their care for the world they live in to the things they’re learning at school.
So back to this question. I care about it as a teacher, and I care about it as a feminist. AND increasingly I care about it from the structural, organizational perspective of a higher ed administrator.
It wasn’t until I started serving at the level of dean and higher that I began to understand – or honestly, even think about – the structural ways that institutions can either embrace and model, or counter and stifle, the notions and values inherent in democracy.
As a veteran administrator in a range of roles on a variety of campuses, I wonder…how much does it matter if we teach classes on citizenship, host get out the vote activities, and encourage students to see themselves as actively creating their communities … if as an institution we model in our words, actions, and even our structure, non-democratic – or worse, anti-democratic – norms?
If we stifle public dissent?
If we don’t encourage asking troubling questions?
If we stay silent when it matters?
I recently read the book “What Universities Owe Democracy,” by Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University. (His “about” page at JHU provides good context for his interest in sustaining democracy as part of his presidential legacy.) In his book he writes that “we can teach the art and science of democratic citizenship,” which means not only ensuring that our students have a comprehensive understanding of civics – that is, they have historical knowledge of how and why our government is structured the way it is – but also that they have the dual abilities of identifying and harnessing facts and truths, and engaging in genuine debate and reaching informed compromise with people who think differently than they do.
In “What Universities Owe Democracy” Daniels writes that “democracy has always privileged the will of the majority and the wisdom of crowds” (11), whereas liberalism champions “personal autonomy and human dignity, freedom of thought and belief, and reasoned debate as a means of progress” (12). It’s “the fusion of these two ideas” that “binds the notion of a government responsive to popular will to the imperative to protect individual rights and preserve rule of law. In fact, the push and pull between these structures can be regarded as one of its unique sources of strength” (12).
And this idea – that citizenship in a liberal democracy requires both the ability to deal honestly with facts, and to deal honestly and fairly with people who also trade honestly in facts and yet have different perspectives or different values and therefore want different things – that takes me right back to those student signs in Missouri. What I wanted for our students in that moment was the chance to practice debating, to use their knowledge, truths, and facts to marshall an argument and engage in meaningful conversation with people with different values and perspectives. I wanted not only signs posted on bridges but also campus-wide conversations about, yes, sure the election, but also about what it meant to be a woman at that moment in history, what values were at play in which arenas, what it would mean to use your voice and for which purpose and for what end.
What I longed to see in the election season of 2016 was the university teaching, and modeling, these tenets and tensions of liberal democracy.
If we had been able to teach and model those tenets, and students still wanted to stump for Trump, I would have felt…not great, but I would have felt better.
I also think every institution bears this responsibility – to its students, its alums, and its employees. I believe we share a responsibility in what we teach, and in how we teach, and in how we treat each other, to engage the basic tenets of a liberal democracy: to preserve autonomy, dignity, and freedom of belief, and create spaces for our positions to encounter one another and collide precisely so that we can find our way forward together, through the wisdom of the crowd, in a way that cares for all of us. And that can only happen, for real, if everybody knows that they can speak up, and also they know how. Or at least, they feel safe enough to try.
I believe we need to teach this to our students everywhere: in class, on the playing field, in student orgs, in the orchestra pit…everywhere. I also believe that institutions have a responsibility to model the fusion and tensions of liberal democracy in the ways we self-govern. Take the faculty senate: when it votes, the will of the majority wins the day and the organization changes: new programs are started…tenure and promotion procedures are revised…new committees are formed…and those decisions are meant to be made on the bedrock of discussion and free debate, where faculty voice the full range of their opinions before the wisdom of the crowd takes over.
That principle – that we can share and explore facts, and perspectives about those facts – before drawing conclusions – is the hallmark of research and the creative expansion of knowledge. It can also extend to student government, to the president’s leadership team, and even to the board. If we truly want to teach our students how to participate in democracy, I think that needs to happen. Otherwise we risk students learning their civics lessons only in books, while learning from experience and observation that the world doesn’t really operate that way, or that power can be exercised to undermine the principles of democracy. Students can see that lesson all around them. They should not see it on our campuses. We owe it to them to show them an alternative.
So…all that. All that is where I’m coming from.
And honestly? I so appreciate that you listened to all that, but I’m not all that interested in my take on all this. I genuinely want to ask the question of other women leaders. I want to know how other women leaders think about this question, and how they experience it in their daily activities as educators and administrators. I want to know what these kinds of activities look like around the country, especially when they are imagined, created, and led by women. So I’ve invited a number of women to join us this month, in a series of interviews all focused on the question What do women leaders believe is their role in educating for democracy?
As we explore this question leading up to the elections on November 8, I hope these conversations give you ideas for your campus, new questions and ideas to ponder, and possibly maybe even a bit of hope for our future.
See you next week with our first featured guest!
The Uplift Podcast
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