Letter on Student Activism

Dear University Life Staff Members,

I continue to be moved by the excitement of our students arriving and returning to campus.  All summer long, the Orientation team – along with many of our units and colleagues throughout the university – worked hard to welcome our new students and set the tone for an engaging and successful academic year.  And then last week, supported by hundreds of volunteers, Housing and Residence Life staff and student leaders warmly welcomed students to their residential communities.  Countless University Life staff members supported these efforts.  The very busy summer produced our largest freshman class ever (once again) and there were very real opportunities for our new students to see staff and faculty working together on their behalf in our caring community.  As the events of Welcome Week continue, thanks are in order for Student Involvement, and again for our many University Life volunteers. The enthusiasm and interest that our students are displaying for opportunities to get connected, get entertained, and get involved is truly inspiring.

As the semester begins, I am struck by the attention college campuses are receiving in the popular national media. This sustained attention is a relatively new phenomenon. Frequently, these stories point out the areas that are most challenging in our student affairs work.

For example:

  • Campus climate issues are increasingly focusing our attention on the need for creating space for difficult and challenging dialogues. In the aftermath of the recent shooting of an unarmed African American man by a University of Cincinnati police officer, more than 250 students and others participated in an impromptu rally in Cincinnati organized by Black Lives Matter. Students’ voices, whether in response to acts of violence or tuition increases, continue to gain momentum on college campuses in both organized and activist ways.
  • Recent fraternity banners at Old Dominion and other universities remind me how fast news travels in the social-media era, and often the news focuses squarely on areas within Student Affairs. I encourage you to listen to Inside Higher Ed founder and editor Scott Jaschik’s position on the banners, in last week’s interview on Here and Now:


  • The ubiquitous Beloit “Mind-Set” List also reminds me how multi-dimensional our Mason students are when viewed in the context of this popular register. Lists like this continue to challenge us to communicate about the full range of the student experience to people who believe “traditional” incoming students are 18, middle-class, and homogeneous. You can read the list here: http://www.beloit.edu/mindset/2019/
  • A recent conversation on The Diane Rehm Show addressed many related yet distinct challenges facing colleges and universities today related to the handling of sexual assault, concerns about campus climate, and questions about whether speech is chilled on campuses. This show was particularly frustrating to listen to because the guests simplified and conflated issues, but I found it instructional to hear their arguments and process them in the context of our work. The show underscored how vital it is to communicate fully about our work. You might find it interesting as well: http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-08-25/the-new-political-correctness-and-why-some-fear-its-ruining-american-education

I bring these conversations to your attention in an effort to help contextualize our work in the environment facing higher education today. Never before have colleges and universities faced so much scrutiny from so many places. This will likely increase as we come into a heavy election season, starting in November in Virginia and continuing into next year’s national elections.

Rather than become dismayed by this attention, we can relish the opportunity to tell our stories better and strive to be better leaders, focusing on the reasons we do our work and improving on the already excellent service we provide our students. We have a chance, every day, to help Mason students deepen their college experience and enhance their classroom, co-curricular and experiential learning.

University Life provides direct services and resources to help students thrive and succeed. We offer activities and services that instill a sense of belonging and Mason pride – this is our foundation. As stewards of our students’, the Commonwealth’s and the university’s resources, it is up to each of us to do that work innovatively, responsibly, and responsively.

Change has become the common environment across all of higher education. University Life is poised to face new challenges as we continue to adapt to new student, regional, and global needs and expectations under ongoing budgetary constraints. It is an exciting time to be student affairs leaders at such an invigorating university. My hope is that this year we continue to grow as leaders and challenge ourselves to think differently, creatively, and honestly about how we can best serve Mason students.

We’re off to a great start – here’s to a great year ahead.



Posted in Letter from VP.