Regional Public Universities and Social Justice

After the election, some friends half-jokingly recommended that progressives teach Kindergarten so we can grow a generation that supports the ideals of diversity, social justice, and inclusion. Teaching young children is important work, and social change is a long game. But the diverse, passionate, dedicated students in our regional public universities need support, too, and they have the potential to be leaders in just a few short years — a much quicker return on investment. I urge progressives to take a second look at regional public universities for partnership and collaboration.

I work at Cal State East Bay (CSUEB), one of the most racially and ethnically diverse universities in the country. It has been recognized for three years in a row with the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award. At CSUEB, no racial or ethnic group is in the majority. Most of our students are the first in their families to enroll in college. Our average student age is 27 years old. Over 60% of our students identify as female. Many of our students have years of relevant personal and professional experience when they come to us. A lot of our students juggle working, caring for their children, and supporting their parents or other loved ones with their studies. We have a high number of students who are bilingual. We actively support students with disabilities and teach faculty strategies for inclusive pedagogy. We have a strong LGBTQ+ community. We have services for students who have been in foster care, have autism, or are homeless. We have programs for Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, and African American students. We support undocumented students. We have been making dedicated efforts to embrace and celebrate our diverse community for years.

Our university is rad (and happy). But we are not alone. There are about 400 regional public universities across the country, enrolling over 40% of all undergraduate students. Find one near you. Check its mission, vision, and diversity stats. Then show it some love — see below for ideas. Regional public universities are constantly under threat of budget cuts, and forced to contemplate tuition increases, which turn away the very students we most want to serve. Financial constraints limit our ability to hire full-time tenure-track faculty, and so we need to rely on too many overworked and underpaid adjunct faculty. When students at regional public universities are seeking jobs or internships, they may be overlooked in favor of those who attend more elite institutions. Our retention and graduate rates leave a lot of room for improvement. Given all this, why would I feel so motivated to do work at a regional public university and call on others to do more to support us?

The maxim, if you are not on the table, you are on the menu, feels especially relevant to this question and for this political moment. Trump’s cabinet is the most white, male, and inexperienced we have had in decades. Over the past several years, the United States had just begun to make progress in diversifying leadership across many employment sectors, and a lot of diversity was just lip service, but now it feels like we have taken a big step back. Supporters of white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, religious bigotry, and transphobia feel emboldened — rather than lurking in the shadows, they are making very hurtful and public gestures to intimidate diverse communities.

We must fight them directly, but we also need to support diverse young leaders regardless of what right-wing folks may be doing. We need to build our bench and up our game. Diversity makes us smarter and stronger. Business leader Mellody Hobson’s words underscore this point:

“We have to be color brave. We have to be willing, as teachers and parents and entrepreneurs and scientists, we have to be willing to have proactive conversations about race with honesty and understanding and courage, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do,because our businesses and our products and our science, our research, all of that will be better with greater diversity.”

I can’t think of many things more radical, that can result in lasting change, than infusing a cadre of diverse, smart, committed college-educated people into every sector of the American economy. At our university, and most other regional public institutions, we have undergraduate and graduate students majoring in business, STEM, political science, education, nursing, arts, humanities, health, social work, communication, and so much more. This is not to say that diverse young people are all political progressives, or that universities are or should be teaching only liberal perspectives. But young people rejected Trump by a large margin, and it is unlikely a more diverse leadership would overtly or tacitly accept white supremacy, misogyny, and more.

In addition to building future leaders, our university stands out as an exemplar of an inclusive community. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are deeply engaged in an ongoing process of reflection and response to ensure that everyone has a sense of belonging on our campus. On any given day, visitors will see people of many races, ethnicities, ages, genders, sexual orientations, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, immigration experiences, and abilities working and learning together. At a time when more homogeneous communities seem to have difficulty imagining how an inclusive community can work, universities like ours serve as a model.

Our university, like most institutions of higher education, is also a site for fighting alternative facts. Every day, we seek to identify and share truths, whether they be in the form of research articles, presentations, narratives, or artistic expressions. We engage diverse learners and community members in grappling with, contributing to, and challenging the truths we find. We need such places and spaces more than ever before.

Here are a few ways you can partner with your regional public university:

  • Donate, whatever you can, to whichever programs speak to you. At our university, you can designate your gift to the general fund, scholarships, or to any of the specific programs noted above. If you usually donate to a more prestigious university (perhaps your alma mater), and it already has a big endowment, consider splitting what you would usually give between a more elite institution and one like ours. At our university, a donation of any amount can make a big difference. A small book scholarship will be very much appreciated by our students.
  • Connect with faculty of the university who do work that interests you by looking up faculty bios on the university website, then connecting by email, LinkedIn, Research Gate, or twitter. Once you’ve made a connection, offer to serve as a guest lecturer to talk about your work, invite students to tour, shadow, or intern at your workplace, or collaborate on research, practice, or evaluation projects that will benefit your company and our students.
  • Mentor or tutor a student.
  • Serve on a selection committee for a special scholarship fund or departmental curriculum advisory board.
  • Come to our public events, including lectures, art openings, and performances. Learn more about what we do.
  • Invite members of our university community to your events. Ask faculty to serve as panelists, guest speakers, or moderators.
  • Hire our alums.
  • Apply for open faculty, staff, and administrator positions.

A few days ago, I received a flyer for an official university event to be held this week on our campus, a panel and teach-in titled, The First 100 Days: Lessons Learned and Future Implications in Matters of Social, Political, Legal and Environmental Justice. The flyer for the event includes this description, which seems an apt way to close this essay:

“ As our university motto states, per aspera ad astra — through adversity to the stars. We believe we are in a time of adversity and we encourage you to join us in this event to promote critical thinking, genuine dialogue, and civic engagement so that we are not bystanders but engaged community members who not only use our voices to shed light on important truths but to also pass the microphone to individuals most marginalized.”

I think this is a project progressives can get behind.

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