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Dr. George Kuh, Some Thoughts About Doing the Right Thing in Uncertain Times

with Josh Davis, Florida State University 

Faculty, staff, and students in higher education require self-evaluation of their own personal assumptions, and they also need to identify whether or not these personal assumptions align with institutional values, mission, and principles.

Dr. George Kuh began the second day of the 2016 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values by providing his thoughts on student protests at Claremont McKenna College, alignment of personal and institutional values, as well as high impact practices.

Kuh posed a series of questions to the audience, one of which included:  Consider what are the right things to do and how do we [student affairs administrators] effectively create conditions that promote student learning and foster ethical behavior?

Elaborating on this question, Kuh announced that “deeply rooted societal inequities and injustices at any moment in time will trigger tensions and ignite flashpoints that in fact can put any campus into distress.” Kuh continued, “In these uncertain times, we need to find anchors in foundational assumptions and beliefs that constitute best practices.”

Prior to identifying these foundational assumptions, Kuh framed his comments with a recent example of Claremont McKenna College where Dr. Mary Spellman resigned her position as Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students. This resignation was fueled by an email response to a student asking to meet and discuss what it is like “to not fit the Claremont mold.”

Many students and media found these words offensive and demeaning, which sparked national media coverage of student protests and hunger strikes demanding Spellman’s resignation.

“I took a keen interest in this episode,” Kuh said, “because Mary Spellman is a former student of mine, and she does not have a bigoted cell in her body.” These comments were later addressed in Dr. Jamie Washington’s Keynote Speech.

Kuh continued that he was not trying to impugn the motives or the behaviors of the protestors. He claimed his purpose was to place a human face on what can happen to any student affairs professional when they are trying to achieve one of the most important outcomes of our post-secondary system – how do we adequately prepare ourselves and our students to deal in a responsible manner with these messy and unpredictable situations that are going to arise when people interact with diverse others?

“Many institution leaders are taking a duck and hide approach. We avoid doing or saying things that might offend, or otherwise be misinterpreted,” Kuh said. “We are ignoring the teachable moments associated with such circumstances, however risky or uncomfortable they may be to recognize.”

Kuh went on to discuss ethical reasoning, a desired outcome of higher education sought after by employers. Referencing The Student Personnel Point of View, Kuh identified assumptions and beliefs that despite lacking concrete action for practical implication, they create a pathway which develops ethical reasoning.

Closing the keynote, Kuh identified four good practices that create conditions which promote student learning and foster ethical behavior.

First, Kuh challenged the audience to review assumptions and beliefs that undergird their professional philosophy and behavior, and verify that the school’s policies are consistent with these principles.

Second, Kuh discussed the importance of students with different viewpoints being involved in discussions about campus priorities. “This includes the invisible students, the students with whom almost no one interacts,” Kuh said.

Third, higher education professionals should periodically review contingency plans grounded in a set of vetted assumptions and beliefs consistent with the institution’s espoused mission and values.

Last, Kuh asserted that every student requires participation in high impact practices.

Kuh ended his keynote by asserting that healthy, respectful, developmentally powerful communities are based in a large part on trust.

“Our work never seems to slow down. The world never seems to slow down.” Kuh said. “We only add more. Relationship building with students and colleagues is getting short changed.” Kuh continued, “We have too much suspicion and not enough trust, and we need to reverse this trend.”