OACES Corner: Changing Campus Climate
by Joel Lane, LPC, Ph.D, ORCA President
Photo by Gianna Russo-Mitma
Given the focus on intersectionality in this special edition of The Counselor, I wanted to devote this OACES Corner to sharing some of my observations working in higher education over the past few years. I work as an Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at Portland State University, and in my four-plus years at PSU, I have witnessed some monumental shifts regarding campus climate and the overall university experience for students. There is a good chance you have heard about some of these shifts as well. There have been a multitude of think pieces in recent years about safe spaces, trigger warnings, and related concepts, with much of the coverage being negative (concerns generally involve free speech, coddling, etc.). I would like to take this opportunity to offer my perspective on why these changes are positive, important, and long overdue.
While there is considerable debate about campus climate trends, there is greater consensus about inequities in higher education on the basis of gender identity, race, sexual orientation, ability, and mental health status. There is a wealth of data demonstrating that some groups have historically enjoyed greater access to higher education, as well as higher retention rates once enrolled. It is my firm belief – and also the consensus among education researchers – that these inequities are self-perpetuating. That is, given that dominant cultures have been overrepresented among college attendees, we should expect this same overrepresentation to exist among those providing education to college students (which is unequivocally the case; for a clear example look no further than the demographics among counselors as a whole versus the demographics of counselor educators). This overrepresentation among educators means that we can also expect an overrepresentation of dominant culture perspectives in higher education curricula, which in turn makes it more likely for students with dominant cultural identities to thrive in higher education, perpetuating a cycle that makes it disproportionately difficult for individuals with minoritized identities to enjoy hte upward mobility that comes from a college education.
This brings us back to the topic of recent changes in the campus climate, which are being enacted in direct response to these inequalities. Providing safe spaces on campuses, for example, provides individuals with minoritized identities an opportunity to connect with their communities in an environment that is disproportionately comprised of non-minoritized individuals. It also makes it easier for these communities to organize and voice their experiences to the broader campus community. Similarly, despite the overwhelmingly negative public narrative around the issue of offering trigger warnings in class, doing so provides students with trauma histories or mental illnesses greater opportunity to learn and thrive in higher education.
These types of provisions are important even in a community like Portland (in fact, perhaps even more so), which prides itself on its openness and acceptance of alternative lifestyles. Many Portlanders would be shocked to know the number of times students have confided in me about being harassed on campus due to their transgender identity, ability status, race, and/or sexual orientation. Sadly, this harassment comes not only from other students, but sometimes from other campus faculty and personnel.
I see this issue as having implications for our counseling practice. Being a counselor has taught me time and again that all clients have different needs and perspectives, and part of what I love about our work is the creativity required of us to be responsive to diverse client perspectives. As an able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white man, it is especially important for me to be open to feedback and perspectives from individuals with non-dominant multicultural identities, as without such feedback I am likely limiting my effectiveness as a counselor and as a counselor educator to clients and students who share my identities. I implore all counselors and counselor educators (myself included), regardless of identity status, to strive to better understand how our identities and experiences have shaped our values and worldviews, and to continually learn about the values and worldviews of those who hold identities different from our own.
Joel Lane, Ph.D is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Portland State University. He provides supervision to registered interns and conducts research related to the mental health implications of emerging adulthood. He lives in Portland with his wife, Megan, son, Ari, and dog, Magglio.