Contested Issues in Troubled Times: Student Affairs Dialogues on Equity, Civility, and Safety
reviewed by Ezekiel Kimball & Nina Tissi-Gassoway - September 12, 2019
Title: Contested Issues in Troubled Times: Student Affairs Dialogues on Equity, Civility, and Safety
Author(s): Peter M. Magolda, Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, & Rozana Carducci
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 1620368013, Pages: 540, Year: 2019
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Under the editorial stewardship of Peter Magolda, Marcia Baxter Magolda, and Rozana Carducci, Contested Issues in Troubled Times: Student Affairs Dialogues on Equity, Civility, and Safety brings together diverse perspectives on critical topics in higher education and student affairs. The volumes authors come from virtually every major functional area of student affairs practice and represent almost every stage of faculty and administrative careers. The organization of Contested Issues roughly follows the format established by the books earlier companion volume, Contested Issues in Student Affairs: Diverse Perspectives and Respectful Dialogue (Magolda & Baxter Magolda, 2011). The editors invite two scholars with sometimes conflicting, but more often complementary-yet-distinct, perspectives to discuss a pressing issue for higher education and student affairs administrators. Discussion questions invite readers to continue their inquiry, engage in reflexive practice, or prepare themselves for dialogue with classmates or colleagues.
However, as the editors suggest in their preface, their approach has been updated for less optimistic times. Where before their earlier guiding questions had been simply, How do graduate preparation faculty prepare future student affairs educators to address the complexities of higher education? What kinds of continuing education opportunities do divisions of student affairs offer to optimize staffs effectiveness with students and colleagues? (Magolda & Baxter Magolda, 2011, p. xv), they now ask: How can student affairs educators create an equitable climate conducive to learning in a dynamic environment characterized by escalating intolerance, incivility, and overt discrimination? (Magolda, Baxter Magolda, & Carducci, 2019, p. xvii). The book neither sets out to nor actually provides a concrete answer to that question, but it does offer many of the tools that higher education and student affairs administrators will need to reach their own conclusions. To do so, Contested Issues is structured in four parts. The first provides an introduction to the books purpose and an overview of key issues in higher education and student affairs administration. The second addresses challenges and opportunities related to the creation of inclusive campus learning environments. The third explores how to engage in socially just, intentional student affairs practice. Finally, in its fourth section, Contested Issues comes close to answering the question it posed at the outset, suggesting both that the creation of an equitable climate conducive to learning is possible and that the responsibility for doing so belongs to individual higher education and student affairs administrators acting in a variety of big and small ways every day. In short, the book describes how colleges and universities ought to be more so than it offers the precise steps for how to get to that point.
The scope and scale of the contemporary issues covered across the volumes 24 paired contributions is daunting. The chapters make clear both the challenges associated with the current socio-political reality and also that it has merely brought to the foreground long-simmering issues associated with equity, inclusion, and social justice in higher education institutions. That is, the challenges described in Contested Issues are not new, they merely appear so to some because the current socio-political environment has swept away the thin veil of civility and laid bare the fact that college and university campuses have long disregarded their role in perpetuating systems of power, privilege, and oppression (e.g., Karabel, 2006; Malkiel, 2018; Stewart, 2017; Wilder, 2014). Although this theme runs throughout the entirety of the volume, Dafina-Lazarus Stewart articulates it most clearly in the second half of the first chapter, noting: The whole of the twentieth century and these first decades of the twenty-first are flush with illustrations of stubborn resistance to any manifestation of the equitable and just democracy this nations founders proclaimed (p. 19) and that For people with minoritized identities, the world has always been complex&. The challenge for student affairs is whether it is willing to shake the very foundations of the field to bring about a new vision of higher education that is radically democratic in its pursuit of justice for all (p. 23).
In the service of that goal, Contested Issues also troubles and deconstructs some of the fields most dearly held ideas. For example, the contributions by Chris Linder and Frank Shushok question whether institutional efforts to prevent sexual violence, which typically are rooted in conduct policy, go nearly far enough. They note that since sexual violence reflects cultural belief and socio-political structures stemming from ideologies of power, institutional interventions that fail to address this etiology will be at best incomplete. Elsewhere, contributions by Laura Elizabeth Smithers and Molly Reas Hall complicate whether we really know what we mean when we say student success; Kathryn Jaekel, Chase Catalanol and Z Nicolazzo challenge (non-)performative wokeness in ostensibly inclusive support for trans students; and Tricia Shalka and Kelli Zaytoun critique the fields inattention to trauma even as empirical evidence has consistently shown the capacity of higher education institutions to traumatize vulnerable populations. Collectively, the chapters stress the importance of understanding the long, troubled history of higher education and of scholars and practitioners listening to students, youth, and community members in order to gain new perspectives as they create plans for future change. Many chapters in Contested Issues encourage practitioners to push beyond just policies and best practices to look closely at their own day-to-day actions and relationships in order to create meaningful cultural changes on their campuses.
The volumes critical gaze also extends to the way that higher education and student affairs administrators are trained. For example, Rosemary Perez and Jessica Harris suggest that the fields lack of progress addressing broader social justice issues may stem from its inability to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in its own training programs. As Perez notes, Ultimately, if [higher education and student affairs] faculty are to enhance student affairs educators abilities to foster equitable, civil, and safe learning environments, we must create graduate training programs that are power and identity conscious (p. 294). In their contributions, David Pérez and Bridget Turner Kelly extend this argument, with Pérez describing the institutional pressures to remain silent: At the time of writing this essay, the content had the potential to undermine my promotion& but I refused to be complicit in perpetuating bias, discriminating, and oppression in student affairs graduate preparation programs (p. 349). Collectively, these works show the processual, ongoing work required to reshape the field. As such, it also only fitting that, across multiple contributions in Critical Issues, authors challenge either the fields movement toward competencies in general or the specific way in which these competencies have been formulated. They also challenge the often taken-for-granted assumptions that assessment, evaluation, and research intrinsically enhance practice and that our program designs support student learning.
Taken as a whole, Contested Issues makes the case that higher education and student affairs administrators must change the way they approach their work to navigate the troubled times in which colleges and universities find themselves. It does not make the case that the problems they must confront are new nor that the solutions to them are simple. It does not provide the answers but rather the questions that will lead to this change. In so doing, Contested Issues is a powerfully useful tool for anyone who seeks to understand colleges and universities in a thoughtful, reflexive way and appreciate more fully the systems of power, privilege, and oppression that are fundamentally intertwined with higher education.
Karabel, J. (2006). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York, NY: Houghton.
Magolda, P. M., & Baxter Magolda, M. B. (Eds.). (2011). Contested issues in student affairs: Diverse perspectives and respectful dialogue. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Malkiel, N. W. (2018). "Keep the damned women out": The struggle for coeducation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stewart, D. L. (2017). Black collegians experiences in U.S. northern private colleges. New York, NY: Springer.
Wilder, C. S. (2014). Ebony and ivy: Race, slavery, and the troubled history of America's universities. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.