A lot of the time, finding the right path can be as simple as closely examining a situation to ascertain the heart of what one is hoping to accomplish. This can be as true for students trying to figure out how they should proceed in life as it can be for an institution of higher learning assessing its structures to ascertain if they align with its values.
GoodCourse spoke to Ainsley Carry, Vice President (VP) for Students at the University of British Columbia (UVC), about asking the right questions — sometimes difficult ones — to seek the solutions needed to achieve your goal.
My undergraduate degree at the University of Florida (UF) was in economics. I thought I wanted to run a Fortune 500 company someday, so after earning my degree, I went to work in retail, and I hated that experience. That alone catapulted me back to graduate school, so I returned to UF and said, “I enjoy helping young people make meaning out of life. What degree program is that?” And they said, “Sounds like you’d be interested in college administration with a counseling focus.” Suddenly I started thinking about my academic advisors, athletic coaches, and the dean of students…all of these people were doing college administration work right before me, but I had not seen it as an option. These people were inspiring and making a difference in my life day to day, and that’s how I was initially led into the profession.
I earned my Masters degree in counseling, loved it, and felt like I was done with all my education. Before I started to go off to work, though, I sat down with an academic advisor, a mentor of mine, who asked me if I’d ever considered earning my doctorate. He said, “While you’re young and broke, stay young and broke. Complete your education because it gets harder once you get married and have a family.” Then he said the words that defined my career: “What would it take to get where you want to go?” And I think that statement to me was not only his commitment to me but it became my commitment to this profession, asking my students that question. My job is to help them find their path.
Students are coming to us from all different levels of understanding Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), so we can’t assume any single methodology will work for everyone. So what I’ve been attempting to do is create a multipronged approach to allow students to enter where they are. What’s been most important to me as an administrator is spending a lot of time listening to students’ concerns to help us understand the gaps in our system and providing answers where I can. From time to time, we learn that our data, practices, or terminology may be out of date. Every year we have a new audience of students, faculty, and staff, so it’s increasingly incumbent upon us to listen and integrate that new understanding into our educational experiences.
There remains resistance to EDI. There are factions of our community who grew up in a different generation and struggle with this new multicultural world where the terminology and issues of acceptance are changing, and their values are being challenged. Then there are systemic obstacles. Universities were built on a model that’s now hundreds of years old. Embedded in that model are systemic structures — admissions, recruitment, enrollment, course selection, financial aid, scholarships, legacy admission — originally designed to exclude certain communities: women, people of color, and various religions. Although those things may not be blatantly obvious in written literature or in practice, they are still embedded in systems that need to be unraveled. Names on various buildings and scholarships, the historical figures we recognize…those things are part of systems designed for segregation.
This is the advice I give to universities on this critical topic: first, study the principal legacy of the memorial in question. If it’s an individual, what were they really about? On both sides. It’s easy to pick one slice of someone’s life and condemn them for that behavior. The totality of someone’s life needs to be considered.
The other part of the work is landscape fairness — understanding a building, residence hall, or walkway on campus that’s named after a Confederate leader or segregationist has an impact on everyone in the landscape. And the landscape is never neutral. It communicates who’s in power on a college campus. It communicates what’s most important to that institution. And if we’re preaching EDI, and then we build a residence hall with the name of a segregationist and then ask all students to live and build community there, that’s the definition of hypocrisy. We can’t do both things at the same time.
I ask universities to think about what heritage they’re responsible for protecting. I would challenge them to think about “Who do you want to be? Who are we inviting to our community?” It’s hard to worship the Confederacy that fought to maintain slavery and then ask Black students to attend your university. The answer in my book isn’t always about removing everything. It’s about having difficult conversations on both sides and creating creative solutions to remove, retain, contextualize, or counter-memorialize different parts of our campuses and community when these things are contested.