You will interact with many faculty and staff this semester as you engage in various activities outside of the classroom. Some of you will be working on developing your leadership skills and this means you will work with dedicated professionals all committed to helping you develop strong leadership skills. There will be retreats, meetings, trust falls, Leadershapes, and other awesome experiences. As you work with these people you will become closer to some as you identify your area of interest (Greek life, public service, college radio, LGBTQA advocacy, etc.) and assume a leadership position in these areas. You will hear words like “change agent” and be told that you can make a “huge impact” within your area, both locally and globally. If you do well, you might even be invited to sit on numerous administrative committees as the “student voice” and that will give you an inside view of policy making on a college campus. You will get to know some of the higher level administrators and feel really involved in the running of your school.
Then one day, you’ll be talking to some friends and realize that there is something you think is unfair or just plain sucks. Maybe your school receives money from a corporation you believe is anathematic to its values, maybe you think the sexual assault policy revictimizes, or maybe you just think your student fees are being mismanaged. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. The point is that there will be a policy or lack of a policy that you believe affects the people and issues you cares about. You know it will be controversial and will upset some people, but it is important to you. So you turns to your mentors in student affairs or in the administration who hears your concern, they nod and indicate that they’re listening to you, and when you’re done they say “You should choose your battles.”
That phrase, and the idea behind it, is completely against everything you are being taught about being a leader, and you should demand more from your co-curricular educators.
While there is some value in the idea that not everything that annoys you should become a bloody cage match, in almost every instance the person who tells you to “choose your battles” is in a position of authority over you, disagrees with your opinion, and/or knows that if you choose that particular battle their life will become more difficult. Unfortunately, there are some places where the upper administration is insecure or desires to separate itself from controversy. At those places, the administrator you’re talking to might indeed get some heat if you protest too hard or loud, but that should never stop you from fighting a fight you think is worth it. “Choose your battles” is not the advice you give someone when you want them to pursue an issue, and it should never be the advice anyone in student affairs gives you. It is lazy, passive aggressive, and anti-developmental-you deserve better.
No matter how much of a student advocate someone is as an administrator, that person is still an administrator. This means that he or she is part of the system that is perpetrating the problem. This is true for everyone (including me) and you can forgive someone for not wanting to be seen as backing a potentially high-conflict issue when that concern isn’t shared. However, what you should not forgive them for is not helping you understand the potential consequences of their battle and then helping you prepare for that battle if you want to proceed.
Sometime ago someone decided that education should be neat. That we should be able to measure knowledge like calories and that there was such thing as “acceptable” dissention. That’s crap. The truth of the matter is that you should be encouraged to not only make mistakes, but make HUGE mistakes. Career injuring mistakes. Picking your teeth off the floor mistakes (this might have just been me.) This does not mean you should be sent into battle ignorant of the consequences, but that once you decide the potential consequences are worth the risk—they should cheer loudly for you. The key is to make sure you’re making informed mistakes. Once you do, you should be raised high on their shoulders and have a spotlight on you a real leader—willing to risk what others will not to fight for an issue you believe is right.
Notice that nothing I’m saying means that the administration has to back your issues or even defend you from people who attack you for fighting your chosen fight. It does mean, however, that they should help you develop the tools and understanding you need to fight the fight you choose. As long as you know that your battle could result in a disciplinary violation, jail time, getting fired, or any other negative consequences and your understand what those consequences mean-they have done their job.
I think there are three primary responsibilities of the student affairs staff working with you to make you the type of leader willing to stand strong in the face of opposition for your principles. The should:
- Help you really understand the issue. When something happens that you don’t like, you tend to react strongly. However, few issues are as simple as they seem. The administrator should help you understand why a decision was made or a policy is in place, what it accomplishes, who it affects, and who will be affected if your are successful. I have had many students decide that an issue was not “that bad” once they understood it completely, and regardless of what you decide to do once you have all the information you will be able to be confident as you move forward.
- Help you identify the proper audience for your complaint (or target for your outrage.) When something happens on a college campus people tend to write the President or the Trustees without realizing that doing so will just delay a response since the higher you go in a university hierarchy the less chance there is that person will be the one who understands the issue. Administrators have the ability to look into issues and identify the decision makers, and they should do so and share that information with you to not only make sure you have the right person/people in your crosshairs, but to protect everyone else.
- Make sure you understand all the rules and policies that will come into play as you move forward. Most campuses have rules governing when and where students can protest, appropriate language, posting rules, etc. Making sure you understand the rules not only stops you from getting in trouble accidentally, but it also allows an administrator to give you the proper framework to make it more likely you will be heard.
In the academic world students are taught to challenge the information that has been amassed before them, and to rethink issues and challenge the norms. Until student affairs not only supports students as they fight against issues but encourages them to do so, it can not claim to fully develop leaders or advocate for students. Every student affairs professional I have ever met is dedicated to doing both of those things, but when discourage dissent they encourage conformity.
And frankly, we have enough apathy and conformists in my generation. We don’t need more from yours.
Has this happened to you, or have you had the opposite experience? Let me know in the comments or email me at DaveK@collegejudicialconsultants.com!