Message from ASHE President

This message was sent to the ASHE community on September 16, 2021 by ASHE 2021 President Dr. D-L Stewart.

September 16, 2021

Dear colleagues,

We have written to you recently, and over the course of the past several months, regarding our upcoming conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We have heard many concerns about holding our conference in Puerto Rico during a time of COVID and also, the decision to hold our gathering in Puerto Rico at all, which was announced at the 2019 conference in Portland, Oregon.  

As the current President of this association, this community, I think it is time that I speak. Having said that, I don’t carry this responsibility alone, but rather it is shared with our Executive Director, Jason Guilbeau, as well as, perhaps most significantly, with our Board of Directors, an elected and representative body of our membership.

I hope to engage the heart as much as the mind. As a seeker in the practice of Buddhism, I come into this message committing to practicing “loving speech and compassionate listening,” the fourth of the five Mindfulness Trainings. As also a seeker in the practice of Judaism, I hope this message reflects chesed (caring) and my deep investment in our kehillah (community).

ASHE’s Guiding Values
I want to begin with an exploration of the values of our association. The following questions come to my mind: What are our values? Where are they stated? In what tangible ways are we operating in accordance to them? If you search the ASHE website—as I have done on various occasions—there is no concrete statement of values. What we do find on our About page are “a commitment to diversity in its programs and membership,” that the association “values rigorous scholarly approaches,” and the Board’s reaffirmation of its “commitment to diversity in point of view and perspective in scholarly deliberations.” Elsewhere in the association’s bylaws, section 3 gives our Statement on Diversity, which notes that “diversity is a core value.” A “broad understanding” of diversity is used that covers what is sometimes called “the big eight” social identity categories. Another reference point is our strategic plan where ASHE is noted to strive toward being an “organizationally just” association.

To be honest, what we have in these places is neither concrete nor explicit enough to serve as a universal lodestar. This statement in the bylaws is currently under review and revision by a workgroup chaired by Dr. Lori Patton Davis. I am grateful for their efforts. What we do have however is our oral history. As a historian of Black student experiences, I can assert that the archives—the written documents—do not tell the whole story. So how does our oral history guide and instruct us? For this I turn to two entities within ASHE that have led the way in challenging and demanding that ASHE live an ethic of equity and justice—the Council for Ethnic Participation (CEP) and the Indigenous Scholars Collective (ISC). Both these groups, through their board membership (CEP) or consultative work with multiple association leaders and program committees particularly since 2019 (ISC), have borne the labor of making ASHE live into and beyond the words on paper toward a fleshy, embodied organizational character. Association and conference leadership consistently ask questions now that have not always been consistent practice. Due to the diligence of our Executive Director, more of these informal practices have been codified so that it does not matter who the president is or who the committee chairs are. Has ASHE “arrived?” Certainly not and so the work continues. The work always continues.

Choosing Puerto Rico for our General Conference
Let me talk about the initial decision to choose San Juan as a conference destination in the first place which has been challenged numerous times since site locations for 2021-2025 were announced in Portland. These processes are not necessarily well-known perhaps to the general member. In the interest of transparency, this information has been shared on the website in a summary of the 17-page Board report. As I mentioned earlier, this decision was made over the course of the 2019 year, through deliberations by the site selection committee, a diverse body of ASHE members appointed by the Board of Directors. Those deliberations were not done in an isolated room, but instead included reviews of the relationships of hotel entities with their employees, their policies related to diversity most particularly sexuality and gender expression and identity, the municipality’s non-discrimination laws (or lack thereof), the cost of travel to and lodging in the potential host city, and excluding locations that are on the State of California’s travel ban for public employees and states that have enacted harmful legislation affecting undocumented communities based on a policy brief written by H. Kenny Nienhusser. Our eminently capable legal counsel, Karen Miksch, supports those investigations. Among a host of other site stipulations, we require and write into our contract that hotels allow us to convert a bathroom on each meeting floor to serve as an all-gender facility so that trans and non-binary conference attendees don’t have to travel to their hotel room. In 2019, 50 hotels in 11 cities submitted bids to host our conference and underwent this evaluation. This was further extended by site visits by ASHE staff and a member of the site selection committee to each location, which included speaking with hotel management and staff, conversations with the local convention and tourism bureau, and ongoing conversations between our executive director, Jason Guilbeau and director of conference and events, Sendi Brewster, and the central entities involved. This all resulted in a 17-page report, linked earlier in this message, for approval by the ASHE Board.

As Bani Amor wrote for Medium about their work as a travel writer, while travel and tourism cannot exist without power and dominance of some parts of the world over others, “we have to locate ourselves within the spectrum of power—which is hardly ever as linear or binary as basic white travel narratives paint them to be—to tell the truth about place” (para. 4). Place and place consciousness has been one of the pillars, not just of this year’s theme, but of how we have approached our work from the ground up.

So, we did not just decide to go to San Juan, without the foreknowledge, cooperation, and receptivity of not just people who happen to be located in Puerto Rico, but of Puerto Ricans with agency and competency to act in their own self-interest. Ultimately, places like Puerto Rico but also New Orleans, Las Vegas, Honolulu, and elsewhere do not have to be dehumanizing sites of tourism-driven capitalist consumption. What makes the difference will be how our behavior changes as visitors, not just avoiding them altogether for the relative comfort of predominantly white cities and spaces. The joke would be on us because “wherever you are, you’re on Native land, wherever you go, anti-Blackness follows” (Amor, para. 3).

Being Ethical Visitors to Puerto Rico
There have been comparisons made to colonialism but specifically to how the invasion and occupation of islands, archipelagos, coastlines, and interiors by European colonizers and conquistadors ravaged populations through the spread of diseases that were previously unknown in this hemisphere. This concern comes out of the current realities of COVID and the question of why we are going to Puerto Rico (why would we go anywhere?) during a pandemic.

I believe at the heart of this characterization of ASHE is a responsibility to be ethical travelers and visitors, aware of other’s potential vulnerabilities. Since we know that being unvaccinated increases the risk of contracting COVD, becoming seriously ill, and dying from COVID, I trust that this same desire for ethical practice is exercised traveling to and throughout the Deep South, for example, where vaccination rates hover only between 39% and 50% of people with at least one dose. To compare, Puerto Rico’s vaccination rates are significantly higher reflecting the government’s depoliticizing the vaccination conversation and acting with diligence to vaccinate its people while also putting in place strict restrictions on travel to and lodging within the territory above, beyond, and independent of anything happening in the continental U.S. Hard lessons were learned from when the then-governor of Puerto Rico had to decide whether to allow a cruise ship off the Port of San Juan to disembark at a time when cruise ships were still operating and ignoring the growing global health crisis. The Governor’s choice to let them in brought the first known cases of coronavirus to Puerto Rico. Why? Because tourism is a vital industry in Puerto Rico, made such by the vulture capitalism practiced by the US federal government. Our conference does not even come close to being comparable to that situation. Why? Because the Puerto Rican government has severely restricted access to its ports of entry with the requirement of either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival. You can read about these at the TravelSafe: Keeping Our Island Secure webpage. Puerto Rico and its people are exhibiting agency and competency to act in their own self-interest.

And yes, we must recognize the political positionality of Puerto Rico as a territory vis-à-vis the United States federal government. As a territory, like Guam, Micronesia, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it has little political clout as it does not have a voting, elected representative in Congress. In terms of being able to exercise self-determination related to its economy, Puerto Rico has been undermined, first and still by the Jones Act, and currently through the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), known by Puerto Ricans as “la Junta.” Its own agricultural economy and industry has been stripped progressively overtime to the point where it must rely on tourism—the portrayal of what Ed Morales has called a “fantasy island”—to bring in some semblance of independent revenue.

There is deep pain and the conversation is highly politicized with no monolithic understanding or approach to Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States (statehood, independence, status quo?) among its people. What we can assert is that Puerto Rico is not an international destination and its citizens are U.S. citizens—full stop. Moreover, Puerto Ricans—no matter who you talk to—are fully aware of their positionality to the U.S. and are not naïve. They have been living, learning, and developing under colonial oversight, first by Spain and then/now by the United States, since 1493. Much of this is covered in the conference’s Reflections on Puerto Rico, the Boriken Syllabus as well as the extant Puerto Rican Syllabus about the debt crisis.

I want to spend the last portion of this quite lengthy message, by addressing what I see as the toll of the current dialogue and the opportunities I hope we will embrace.

“Nothing is Innocent and Everything is Dangerous” (Foucault)
First, the toll. I want us to reflect seriously on the perpetuation of nativist and settler colonial logics through value-signaling rhetorics that seek to perform otherwise. The infantilization of Puerto Rico and its people betrays an attitude that fixes Puerto Rico, an entity comprised of people of Igneri, Taíno, European Spanish, and African descent, permanently in the vulnerability of the Igneri and Taíno people of Boriquén over five centuries ago. Such paternalism does not serve our values as an association. As an organization that is not an entity of the U.S. federal government, we have approached, worked with, and followed the guidance of our Puerto Rican hosts as colleagues and equal partners as we do with the hotel and community at any conference location. They don’t need us as much as our assumptions of their vulnerability would portend. However, we do need them to have any semblance of a successful conference. The toll of the current dialogue is the misuse of criticality and the loss of an authentically grounded critique.

Secondly, through engaging in such narratives of paternalism and infantilization, we harm and discredit the work of those who have moved with intentionality, care, and seeking right relationship as they have planned for this conference and community gathering. That includes our ASHE office staff, not just full-time staff but also graduate students, who have been thought partners, engaging with our local contacts, and receiving the pushback. This also includes our conference leadership team and notably the work of the Local and Community Engagement Committee, led by Heather Shotton, a citizen of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, and Awilda Rodriguez, living in the diaspora but for whom Puerto Rico is home. The toll is devaluing and disregarding our community and its members.

Being Ethical Conference Attendees
I acknowledge that the decision to attend is hard—concerns about colonialism aside, we are each of us reckoning with what the pandemic means for our health and those of our families, near and far. There are power dynamics related to fulfilling program requirements and meeting promotion and tenure review expectations. Proposals were submitted and acceptances were sent out under more favorable conditions. The Delta variant has thrown many things up in the air when they were just seeming to settle down.

For one reason or another, you may feel the press to attend in person. For those of you who are traveling to Puerto Rico, I want you to know that ASHE Staff, conference leadership, and the Board have continually discussed how we can keep our attendees safe. Food at the conference will be served individually wrapped/boxed instead of passed or left open to grab and go. Attendees will be required to wear masks in all meeting spaces and hallways. The hotels each have a mask requirement by government mandate. As noted earlier, Puerto Rico requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival to a port of entry, but also now requires that to stay in any travel lodging (e.g., hotel, Air BnB, hostel). It should be noted that we would not have the benefit of those umbrella restrictions were we to have been located stateside.

Accomplishing that goal also requires a collective commitment to keep each other safe. We cannot require it, but we do strongly recommend, if you can, that you receive the vaccine and that you are tested receiving a negative result before coming to the conference and that you practice masking indoors. It will be tempting to want to embrace and shake hands when we see each other again. Honor each other’s boundaries. Practice restraint and check in with each other to learn what someone else is comfortable with—a hug, a handshake, a fist or elbow bump. The best way not to bring disease to Puerto Rico is not to bring disease to Puerto Rico. This is something that we can and should individually monitor and control.

The Opportunities Before Us
I would rather direct our attention to the opportunities I invite us to embrace. When I learned, alongside many of you, that the 2021 conference—the conference that caps my presidency—would be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I was immediately convinced of three things:

1) the theme needed to reflect the issues of place and space that this choice made front and center;
2) we especially needed to not just show up and take up space but make a sincere contribution; and,
3) we needed to create the conditions for the ASHE community to deeply engage with the meaning of being in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Let me talk through how this has come about.

The theme, Spanning and Unsettling the Borders of Higher Education, reflects my awareness and knowledge that not only has our field become siloed from other disciplinary engagements, but also we needed to reach beyond the fictive borders of our work. We needed to become discontent with and divest from narratives that isolate our scholarship and engagement from affected communities, from various sectors of higher education (like Puerto Rico), and from spaces and places of “multiple relationalities of belongingness and alienation.” As I wrote in the theme:

With this in mind, we situate ourselves as relations 1) to honor the land resisting anthropocentric narratives and assumptions; 2) to recognize the place(s) and space(s) higher education institutions occupy among their local communities; and, 3) to engage in spanning the boundaries of the multiple places and spaces in which higher education and its participants exist and function.

I endeavored for ASHE to make a sincere contribution to Puerto Rican higher education. This has been in my mind since 2013 when ASHE went to St. Louis, MO. Amalia Dache, then one of the graduate student representatives to the Board issued a challenge for us to not just show up and take up space, but to give back in a meaningful way. As a result of her initiative and efforts, we did a book drive for K12 schools, connected with Harris-Stowe University, an HBCU, and Shaun Harper and I both gave workshops for K12 teachers in one of St. Louis’s charter schools about how to apply higher education scholarship to their work. That has stayed with me for the past eight years. I’ve seen ASHE presidents—guided and sometimes prompted by Indigenous and other scholars within ASHE—continue to connect the conference and our scholarship to local concerns, most recently under President Shaun Harper in Houston (2017), President Lori Patton Davis in Tampa (2018), President Kris Renn in Portland (2019), and President KerryAnn O’Meara in New Orleans (2020, despite being virtual).

What contribution would I make? With deep gratitude to the Ascendium and Lumina Foundations, the University of Denver, and the work of Excelencia in Education, ASHE will be convening an institute with local Puerto Rican college and university participants. There are three teams of ASHE scholars working together and in concert with local community liaisons, those familiar with and embedded in the Puerto Rican higher education sector, to bring research-informed largely by stateside norms and metrics into conversation with the Puerto Rican context. We come together to share, learn, and vision the day before the general conference sessions start. I am excited about this institute and am deeply grateful to Vanessa Sansone for her leadership of it and the 20 fellows that have committed their expertise, skills, and time to this work.

In the townhall recorded from San Juan in July, I spoke about the “expansive opportunities for engagement” with Puerto Rico, not just the conference. Prior to the conference, there’s the Boriken Syllabus; invitations to engage with certain topics every month have been going out. Let us take up Bani Amor’s call to “locate ourselves within the spectrum of power” and revise our narratives about what Puerto Rico is and who its people are. We have the opportunity to be outside of our comfort zones and, for a few days, not to reside in white norms and values of language, time, and movement.

Through the conference program, we will experience spanning the borders of our scholarship with sessions that were intentionally designed to bring the knowledge and perspectives of different conference sections into conversation with each other (e.g., Students: Outcomes with Policy, Economics, and Finance with Community Engagement). I am grateful to Natasha Croom, co-chair of the Program Committee for envisioning the structure of these sessions and to the program committee, co-chaired also by Z Nicolazzo, and the section chairs for working to realize that vision. I also acknowledge the inspiration given by Rachel A. Smith and Michael G. Brown in their 2020 article in the Review of Higher Education. We learn best when we can learn from each other.

Due to the hard and necessary work of our Accessibility Working Group, led by Edlyn Peña, Kirsten Brown, and Autumn Wilke, we are making sure that the conference is accessible to all our attendees, regardless of modality.

Moreover, COVID has made us rethink how we can offer our conference and make it accessible in other ways. This year, the Virtual Ticket is a wonderful way for attendees who cannot or do not want to travel to still be engaged, to still learn, to still share. Even if you are not attending in person, nothing changes regarding how you can attend to place and space in Puerto Rico and wherever you will be presenting or attending from. In addition to the Virtual Ticket, Pre-Conferences and Professional Development events will also be offered virtually and are another way to engage with research, learning, and networking.

If you’ve gotten this far, I want to thank you for reading this and, for some, engaging with a perspective that you still might not agree with. I think that’s okay. As an association of scholars, our goal is not homogeneous agreement, but rather to engage in the practice of dialogue to arrive at mutual understanding, if not consensus.
D-L Stewart, PhD
ASHE 2021 President

I am grateful to Sendi Brewster, Natasha Croom, Jason Guilbeau, Z Nicolazzo, Awilda Rodriguez, and Heather Shotton for their advice as I completed this message. I do not hide behind them to validate my words. Any faults herein are my own.