Universities have a duty of care towards their students and a responsibility to protect students by making them feel included and like they belong. However, when freedom of speech and cultural competency come into play, it can be difficult to find the line between allowing free speech and preventing hate speech.
Dana Horne, Vice President for Student Services at Cochise College, sat down with Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse Universities Lead, to discuss how she balances protection and freedom within her uniquely positioned campus.
We are a community college in Southeast Arizona. We are district-wide, and we have two campuses and four centers, one in connection with a military base, two in rural areas, and one downtown center, which is very like a campus. It’s very interesting to serve as Vice President over these areas rather than just one central school.
Our location is interesting. We are around an hour and 20 minutes outside Tucson, Arizona, and around four hours from El Paso, Texas. One campus is also very near the US-Mexico border. I grew up in Canada, so while different here, living and working in border communities brings a lot of great cultural diversity and perspective to our campus.
I was a student-athlete at Washington State University, and I didn’t have a lot of academic confidence, so I was scared of losing my scholarship. There was a program that I did which meant meeting with an advisor once a week so that I could keep on track, and that was the impetus for coming into this work. The person I worked with showed me that I’d be good at helping others do the same thing I was doing. I became a peer mentor while I was still in college, and I loved helping people to find that inner confidence that they can be both scholars and athletes. When I got my Master's degree in Higher Education, I switched out of athletics to academic advising.
Our primary mission statement is to provide inclusive and accessible education, which is everything from admissions to governing statements. One of the things I have worked on since starting with the college was to focus on sustaining and expanding our student services staff. I started my role with the college midway through Covid and similar to many other colleges during that time, members of the staff and faculty left or retired from higher education. So the staff was my first primary focus — looking at inclusive hiring practices and ensuring that we recruited people with open mindsets and cultural awareness because that affects how students feel a sense of belonging. My first year was very focused on getting the staff in the right places, and I feel we’ve made good progress on this.
We’ve also started student wellness which we didn't have before. That’s not just about physical wellness but overall wellness. So we asked ourselves, what are the needs of our students in terms of, say, food scarcity? As a result of that assessment we have a very robust food pantry and many students that we help, as well as some of their families. We’re also looking at programming and ways in which we can expose our students to more and broaden their minds. We have Difficult Dialogue conversations and book groups, and we try to embrace variety so that all students can widen their perspectives.
This arrangement was already in place pre-Covid, but when the border shut down, that agreement ended. So we are at the beginning stages of re-activating that, and this Fall, we hope to see the benefits of that. What we have noticed is an increase in our English as a Second Language (ESL) enrolment, so with those partnerships, it’s really about the exchange of having students from there come for an ESL course and for our faculty to go there and have some exchange of minds. Our biggest focus is to increase the educational attainment in this region beyond borders.
We have over 30 articulation agreements with colleges and universities. We have a border program, so we have a lot of individuals from Sonora, which is the region we border, that come here for their education. Not all students can afford a four-year university, so we want to open pathways for them to get into their Mexican universities — that is our goal there.
I had to deal with my first hate language incident this spring, which was challenging because that is where cultural competency comes in. I had to remind myself that I might not like some of the language being used but had to slow down and look into what the first amendment really means. So, what crosses the line from free speech into hate speech which can be criminally punished? It was a challenge because the situation was in a grey area there — it wasn’t criminal, but we didn't stand for it either because it didn't allow for an inclusive environment for learning, and it created fears for some individuals. My sense is that we are going to see a lot of that in the next few years, where language borders between free speech and hate speech. That is where policy comes in, because if it has to be criminal before you act on anything, you risk losing that sense of psychological safety.
One of our campuses has residence halls, and one doesn't. The one with residence has higher engagement with an increased desire for in-person classes and activities. On the other hand, on our other campus, we are still trying to encourage students to come back to campus after Covid, and we see a lot less engagement across the board. So we are trying to find ways to engage that group of students in a way that works for them.
Come into HE with an open mind. You have to be adaptable — if you come in with a rigid mindset, then you won’t be impactful. Being open to change is huge, and being aware of your biases too.
One of the reasons I chose this job was because of our President, he is so student-focussed. Coming here from a state that is very different from Arizona and coming from a four-year institution, I loved his perspective and willingness to try new approaches — he’s not afraid to take chances. He is approachable and supportive, and he always keeps our mission and purpose at the center of everything he does. I’m really inspired by his leadership.