Hard Questions, Difficult Answers

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

A friend of mine who came to the University of Texas at Austin from a small Texas town told me that her most common stress dream was being lost on the UT campus. Which is a perfectly reasonable stress dream. My most common stress dream is my teeth falling out, which apparently is not that uncommon. Dreams are one way we process stress so it’s no wonder if we are having strange dreams. This morning my husband dreamed I had managed to paint and stencil the entire house while he was gone for a couple of hours. I think my staying home is starting to get to him. Multiple research studies are documenting the weird dreams many of us are having during the pandemic. An article in Tuesday’s Chronicle, first printed in May, begins with a description of the author’s stress dreams.

The point of this article, linked in the box below, is not about our dreams but about one of the causes of our stress right now – the decisions we are having to make with little or no concrete information. Often we can predict outcomes of our decisions with some level of confidence about the results, but that’s no longer true. The author provides a series of five questions to ask oneself before committing to big decisions. While some of the biggest questions have been answered at this point, there are still many more questions that flow from those first decisions, and these questions may be helpful to you as you move forward.

However, as all of you know, the questions raised by the public health and resulting financial crises are not the only ones campus administrators will be called to address over the next few months. In fact, this fall semester is shaping up to be one of the more challenging on record. We can expect students, faculty, and staff to become ill over the coming months. We can expect nationwide protests to come to campuses with specific campus-related questions that deserve to be addressed. We can expect the current political polarization to become more fraught as we move toward a presidential election that has the potential to create more tension on campus as we all experienced in 2016.

Therefore, in addition to the questions from the Chronicle article, I encourage each of you to look beyond COVID-19 questions to the broader questions facing your campus. I think one of the ways you can begin to prepare and to educate other campus leaders is to look at your campus history and consider the existing flashpoints. Here are a few questions to get you started.

  • If you have statues of people on campus or in your local community, who are they? What is the history of the person they memorialize? Why are they on your campus? Are there any women or people of color represented in your campus statuary?
  • Building names – who has been recognized by having a building name on your campus and what is their history? What is your campus policy for naming buildings? Are there any women or people of color represented in your building names – and how prominent are those buildings?
  • What is the founding story of your campus? Is it a true story or does it slip over uncomfortable spots that people prefer to forget? It can also be true that there are positive elements that have been left out over time, but can help remind us of core values.
  • Do you have traditions that are rooted in exclusionary practices even if they have changed over time? What is the history of your mascot? School song?
  • If you aren’t on a campus, what are the equivalent versions for your organization? Named programs, gift funds, etc.?

You may not know the answer to these questions, but trust me, somebody does. Understanding your campus history and the questions that are likely to be asked by stakeholders over the coming months can help you prepare to answer those questions and make decisions about the issues. What conversations do you need to be having this summer to help decision-makers be better informed?

Like the questions raised by COVID-19, there won’t be easy answers, you and your campus leaders won’t be able to make everyone happy, and you’ll still have to make the difficult decisions. However, a bit of thought and discussion ahead of time can help you feel more prepared to face the challenges the second half of this year is likely to bring to campus.

Take care,


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