Monday, November 23, 2015

"Why Can’t We Be The Model?"

By Dr. Mike Williams

This last week marked an important moment at the University of San Diego as students from the Black Student Union, PRIDE, the DARE Collective, and other allies presented a list of demands with respect to changes they want to enact on our campus.  In this post, I am not going to respond to the specific demands, but instead, I want to voice the reasons why I support their actions and their overall goals, and I why I stand in solidarity with their cause.  I also want to speak honestly about the ways in which I initially responded to the protests and the evolution of my thoughts over the last few days.

Earlier this semester, President Michael Roth (of Wesleyan University) delivered a lecture on the relevance and significance of a liberal arts education.  His main point was that a liberal arts university – such as the University of San Diego – must promote curriculum, programs, and a campus culture that guarantees opportunities for students to learn about, and express, new ideas (liberate), to become passionate about their ideas (animate), to work with others in pursuit of their passions (cooperate), and to take actions to produce the changes they want (instigate).  As I stood in the back of Salomon Hall on Wednesday night and watched students take over the space, respectfully submit their demands, and facilitate a dialogue with other students, faculty, and administrators on the issues that “set their hearts aflame,” I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was watching students model what a liberal arts education, and changemaking, is all about.

This reaction, where I situated their actions into conceptual categories relating to the liberal arts and changemaking, misses the point of the students’ protest, however.  While I can easily situate their actions into these categories, and while do believe that this sort of student expression exemplifies the liberal arts and changemaking, the students might resist this classification.  I know this now after speaking with numerous students, faculty, and administrators after the protest.  The students who protested, it seems to me, are coming from a lived experience where the very institutions and spaces that many faculty and administrators (including myself) believe are there to support their actions are actually perceived as inhibiting change.  This perspective, however, is one that is difficult for many faculty, administrators, and students to embrace.  For those students who can easily step into the changemaker space to take actions on those issues that they are passionate about, this perspective may seem unfounded.  For those of us (faculty and administrators) who have dedicated our careers to advance the interests of students, to advance civic engagement on and off campus, to advance a campus culture that is more inclusive and accepting, this perspective hurts because it is a critique of what we have created. In other words, speaking for myself and not for others, the “work” that I have done at USD is not just career oriented, it is very personal as well.  Thus, the critique, the distrust, and the belief that what I have created actually inhibits change is difficult to endure since it seems to be a personal attack in addition to an attack against the “business” of USD (many student protesters on Wednesday night referred to USD as a “business” rather than a “university” to highlight this point).

Photo Credit: Dr. Greg Prieto
Thus, I think one immediate reaction to the student demands is defensive.  It is to present them with stories about changes that have taken place at USD over the years.  I left Salomon Hall envisioning ways to share what USD has done over the years, and is currently doing, to address their demands.  I also started scheming of ways to “program” events for the students so that they can advance their interests.  Instinctively, I wanted to “help” and “collaborate” because I believe that in my current position as director of the Hub that I have resources that could be useful for the students.  Instead of taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and pausing to listen to the students in meaningful ways, my inclination was to take action with the students, but also, on behalf of the students. 

I am now convinced that such a strategy is bound to fail without first taking the students’ perspective seriously.  To do this, I believe it is necessary to engage with them in a way that can build trust.  As I was speaking with a colleague on Friday afternoon, and as he was presenting many of these arguments to me, it struck me that what he was suggesting I do at USD is something that I consciously do in other communities – specifically, the village of Makuleke in South Africa.  As I self-reflect, it occurs to me that I have not learned anything “new” about my understandings of community engagement and social action, but instead, the students’ protest, and the conversations that have occurred in the wake of the protests, have given me the space to think critically about how I engage students in South Africa versus how I engage students at USD.  Just like other places where USD provides students with opportunities to practice community engagement (such as, South Africa, Jamaica, or Linda Vista), USD is a diverse community and there is no “one size fits all” model on how to engage with students.  I am grateful that the students’ protests have created the space for me to self-reflect and to think about what this means for how the Hub can engage all of the students at USD more effectively.

What this will look like, I am not sure.  I am stepping back from the inclination to design a program to make this happen.  Through listening, through joining community, through practicing empathy, through practicing immersion at USD, I am hopeful that the processes, institutions, and resources that are needed to turn demands into material change will emerge.  At the protest on Wednesday night, someone asked for an example of university that creates a campus climate and space for action that the students demand.  A student immediately responded, “why can’t USD be the model?” – to which there was applause from everyone in the room.  This is the challenge and the opportunity for our campus community as we move forward.  I have always believed in the power of students to create change on their campuses as well as off their campuses.  For me, the changemaker designation at USD is one that holds us accountable to do this.  The reason I love my job as director of the Hub is so I can be a part of institutional change.  This change, however, must come with student energy, with student critique, and in spaces that are autonomous from USD structures of power.  As a faculty member, administrator, and member of the USD community, I stand in solidarity with the student protesters because they are asking difficult questions that require meaningful cooperation.  I stand in solidarity with them because I believe that what we encourage our campus community to do off-campus, we should encourage them to do on-campus: to practice empathy, to listen, to seek out other sources of knowledge and wisdom, and to take action in ways that promote participatory democracy and inclusion.  These practices and goals are not antithetical to our mission as a university.  In fact, these practices and goals embody what we aspire to be at USD.   

*As always, I invite readers to post your comments – especially if my own interpretations of the goals of the student protesters are inaccurate or misinformed.


  1. Thank you for this blog post! I appreciate your honesty and new willingness to sit back, and listen to students here at USD.

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