The job of Higher Education (HE) professionals is to create access and opportunities for all students to receive an education and hear diverse perspectives within that education — this is how students grow and learn more about the world.
For Salvador Mena, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at Rutgers University, the role is about creating these opportunities and providing access regardless of the political and cultural climate in the country at large, which he speaks about in the following interview with GoodCourse’s Universities Lead, Kitty Hadaway.
I was inspired to do this work by seeing other professionals doing it when I was an undergraduate student. Having grown up in the Bronx in New York and then going to the University of Maine, my undergraduate years were transformative for me. Luckily there were people who made a difference in my experience and helped me with the challenges I was facing at the time. Having those Student Affairs professionals helped me graduate and inspired me — the rest is history.
We are one of the most diverse institutions in the country — certainly in the top ten. We try to leverage that to give students as many opportunities as possible to engage across differences and experiences. This ranges from having them spend weekends away at retreats to restorative justice work that we are doing. This is where people come together to listen to one another; we give them quality opportunities to engage and support one another. We are moving away from competency and towards cultural humility, having students understand one another as human beings.
It’s never easy. Universities have been dealing with these issues for a long time. One of the things we are very clear on is protecting freedom of speech. A university is a place where people are often subjected to new perspectives that may not align with their way of thinking, but nonetheless, the perspectives have to be shared. That is the foundational underpinning of how we approach that issue.
After that, we do everything possible to allow speech to happen. We provide students with spaces where they can express views and thoughts on any issue; we don’t hold back on outside groups coming to campus even if we disagree with their perspectives. We ensure controversial speakers are allowed to come to campus, whether they were brought to campus by student organizations, academic departments, or outside organizations; we can't deny their right to speak on our campus.
Certainly, there could be safety concerns that might have us postpone or cancel speakers — that's another matter — but aside from that, we believe in perspectives being heard on campus. We have space reserved for controversial speakers, but we also ensure that there is space for counter protesters to gather and express opposition to the speaker. We try to educate students on freedom of speech and the fact that varying perspectives must coexist. If we start silencing voices we don’t agree with, there is no line for who can and cannot use their voice.
It’s tough to see — DEI efforts at universities have been in place for a long time and come from the civil rights movements that changed access to HE. A lot of the efforts have focused on facilitating more equity and access. It's sad to see efforts that have come about over years of struggle and challenge in order to have a curriculum that reflects the students that attend an institution and the citizens of a state come under attack.
This is a politicized issue that puts DEI at risk. It makes the jobs of my counterparts in those states difficult, but at the end of the day, our job is to find ways to work around that, ensuring students feel supported and get access to an education that exposes them to diverse learning opportunities.
It's about being very clear about our messaging to students from the minute they set foot on campus. We also have to ensure the emotional safety of students and colleagues — it is about collective responsibility to keep one another safe. There are so many things impacting the lives of people today; we are concerned about mental health and well-being, given the diversity of our student population, and we are also concerned with how students can impact one another.
There are so many things impacting the lives of people today; we are concerned about mental health and well-being, given the diversity of our student population, and we are also concerned with how students can impact one another.
We do a lot of harm reduction work with our students because we do face issues, so reducing risk is essential. We run active bystander training to show how we can be there for one another. Above all, it’s about emphasizing that community aspect.
Immerse yourself as part of that experience. Be vulnerable, be willing to share, and be willing to welcome people into the space. DEI isn’t just about workshops and training; it's about engaging with one another as part of a community. When students don’t see their lived experiences around them, they can struggle; we have to be willing to engage together to make the world a better place.