Kavanaugh Campus Conundrum

By Karen Gross

The events surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court will have an effect of college campuses—and not just in the near term. This is not a political statement. It is a statement about reality. Campuses will be brimming over with concerns about how people treat each other, how people engage with each other, how people of different views can respond to each other and how we form attachments to another person or to people in general with truth and trust.

All of these issues are brought to the fore post-Kavanaugh. And the hard question is how campuses can and should respond, recognizing that there is no single approach and that campus culture pre-Kavanaugh plays a central role in reflecting on and dealing with these issues.

Before turning to several possible approaches, I want to emphasize this point: Silence and sweeping the impact of the Kavanaugh “spectacle” under the proverbial rug is not a solution for anyone on a campus—faculty, staff, coaches and students alike. Ignoring both the intellectual and emotional aftermath is flawed for a myriad of reasons including that the issues won’t disappear and the failure to address them is neither intellectually or emotionally honest nor healthy.

Let me offer two suggestions, which can be adapted and molded to particular campuses, for how to address these issues campuswide.

Suggestion one. Many students, before and when they are on a campus, have experienced, or know of others close to them who experienced, sexual assault, unwanted sexual overtures, broken hearts, heavy partying, bad decision-making leading to police intervention, negative social media engagement, venomous arguments and different versions of contentious events.

From a psychological and physiological perspective, this means the Kavanaugh events have tripped off emotions and autonomic body responses. And these affect students, faculty, staff and coaches (regardless of whether they are aware of it) in classrooms, dining facilities, residential halls, and homes. For some students, previous unrecollected stories can flood back, stirring a pot some students didn’t even know was on the stove.

The usual offerings—outreach by mental health services on campus, perhaps a hotline for reporting psychological problems—are valuable, but not enough. Faculty, staff and coaches need to become hypervigilant; they need to look at what their students are saying, how they are behaving (particularly changes in behavior or attitude), how they are functioning day-to-day. Are students eating in the dining hall? Are they isolating themselves? Are they failing to show up in class? Are there more parties than usual? Are alcohol and other substances being used to mask pain or fear or concern?

To be sure, this is not the usual role of faculty, staff and coaches except in the most general way; this suggestion ramps up how we reflect upon our students and try to anticipate those who are experiencing symptoms of trauma or stress. Since most educators are not trauma trained, they do not know what to look for in particular, what indicators suggest that a person has or is experiencing trauma.

This suggestion—the use of hypervigilance—is actually a “flip” because the usual behavior of trauma victims, not of those providing assistance, is hypervigilence. But in this instance, attentiveness can help immensely. We know from trauma responders that listening is key. So is being available to problem-solve. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that faculty, staff and coaches become substitutes for those who need ongoing mental health intervention and treatment. That said, acknowledging what a student is feeling is a sizable step forward toward processing negative events.

Suggestion two. Faculty should consider what materials and discussions they could use in their classrooms in the Kavanaugh aftermath. In another essay, I suggested campuses offer “pop-up” courses that deal with the Kavanaugh issues and I am not referencing politics. Such pop-up courses could address how we find truth, how memory works, how we engage on difficult topics while remaining civil, and how we give meaning on our own earlier behaviors that, with 20/20 hindsight, are sub-optimal.

As valuable as pop-up courses might be, I think faculty need to reflect on how they can use their own expertise in an integrative way to help students process the issues raised by the Kavanaugh confirmation. For example, might a professor of rhetoric reflect on the opening statements of Christine Blasey Ford and now Justice Kavanaugh? Might a criminal law professor discuss the validity of witness and victim memory and how we can improve observational skills? Might a biology or chemistry professor reflect on how the hippocampus works and what research is being conducted on how our brain processes memory and trauma? Might a political science professor reflect on the role of the Supreme Court in a tripartite government and the history and effectiveness of Senate advice and consent?

These could become “touchy” subjects. And there are risks to be sure in addressing issues that may hit raw nerves. That’s accurate but we may hit the nerves anyway, unintentionally. Faculty may be uncomfortable addressing these issues too but surely they can address them more easily within their disciplines, grounded in substance. The goal is not to be partisan with respect to the new material added by professors; instead, the hope is to create information and knowledge, which is empowering.

I appreciate that some folks on and off campus—perhaps many people—will not see these suggestions as within the purview of institutions of higher learning. They see these approaches as coddling, creating snowflakes or pandering to student needs.

I beg to differ. As educators, we have an obligation to help our students learn and grow—intellectually and personally. We have a responsibility to create leaders of tomorrow, individuals who will help our Democracy function and flourish, contribute to the workforce and their communities meaningfully and form relationships of a wide sort with truth and trust. We have a responsibility to help our students process contentious current events so they can achieve a better and deeper level of understanding and make informed decisions on a go-forward basis.

That’s our job. The hard part is how we do that job well when it is most needed. And that moment of need is now.

Karen Gross is senior counsel with Finn Partners, former president of Southern Vermont College and author of Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students.

Photo courtesy of Karl_Sonnenberg/Shutterstock.com


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