Dr. Ifeyinwa Onyenekwu
As we are traveling home from the largest higher education conference in the country, the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), we cannot help but reflect on the role of higher education and student activism, more specifically in the context of our campus: The University of Missouri-Columbia. The #MizzouHungerStrike is a protest started by educational leadership and policy analysis (ELPA) graduate student Jonathan Butler, associated with the student activist group: #concernedstudent1950, which started on Nov. 2. Through five sleepless nights, between tears and anxiety, worry and pride, we write this for the purpose of change. We write this for all of the Jonathan Butlers on college campuses globally whose lives do not matter under the costume of social justice. During ASHE, we wrestled with the discourse and rhetoric around the role of scholars in activism/advocacy. As we navigate how to fulfill our “social justice” missions across college campuses, we are going to need to stop hijacking the language of social justice to mean something that it is not. Social justice means challenging injustice, which addresses systems of oppression in institutions of higher learning. Valuing social justice means treating the outcomes of these structural problems as human rights violations. Given this context, we offer six recommendations for educators who are change agents grappling with the politics on their campuses.
After reviewing these points, if you are not challenging injustice on your college campuses in your role as an educator, you are merely wearing a costume of social justice. This is not fulfilling the department, college or university’s mission. We are empathetic to the plight and tensions that exist for educators in toxic political environments. However, we are stronger as a collective force that is bound to students who are vulnerable bodies on our campuses. If we truly believe in the public good of higher education and creating critically engaged students and members of society, we must continue to promote student agency on campus. While our focus in this piece has been on postsecondary education, these suggestions are applicable across the P-20 education system. We must use our knowledge as educators and stop playing dress-up. Dr. Amalia Dache-Gerbino and Dr. Ifeyinwa Onyenekwu are scholars of color at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) who engage with student activists on their campus. They use critical race and postcolonial approaches in their teaching, research and service. Their thoughts and opinions do not represent the University of Missouri.