2022 Theme: Humanizing Higher Education
Written by 2022 President Dr. Joy Gaston Gayles

As I was thinking about my remarks for today and my vision for ASHE 2022 the weight of what has happened over the last year and a half, almost two years has been heavy on my heart and I’ve been thinking about what it means for us. The past couple of years or so mark one of the most challenging periods in recent world history. As people and a scholarly community, we’ve experienced (and continue to experience) a traumatic global pandemic that has changed life as we knew it. I hope all of you took the time to view the visual call to remember exhibit directed and curated by Drs. Michelle Bryan and Toby Jenkins -- Do they see Us?. This powerful display showed the ways in which we all have been affected by the global health pandemic and racial trauma over the past year (and some change). It has taken a toll on us in ways that are seen and unseen and I appreciated reading and seeing your stories -- it truly brought me to a place of compassion and deepened my appreciation for not only what we’ve lost and sacrificed but what we must do as a scholarly community dedicated to the study of higher and post-secondary education to take better care of ourselves and each other. 

The title of the display is powerful -- Do they see us? In many ways, the global health crises further exposed and exacerbated disparities and inequities that many of us know already existed in schools and communities. In the midst of this global health pandemic, we have also experienced and continue to witness heightened racial injustice and trauma due to the senseless murders of Black and Brown people. It’s not so much that racial violence is a new phenomenon, but it’s that it is being captured in a way nowadays that forces all of us to see for what it is -- it’s not a faceless person that can be easily ignored or dismissed -- it is and has always been a human being experiencing unjust violence and we see it happening over and over again with little to no accountability nor change in policies and practices. We have work to do and it’s going to require effort from all of us, not just some of us. 

In 2020, political actors around the world continued to do harm through state-sponsored violence and discrimination, including a controversial and politically charged U.S. presidential election. These divisions sowed by those in and with power have left us deeply divided socially, culturally, and politically. But let us not be fooled, much of the socio-political divide sowed by those in power is designed intentionally to maintain a racial caste system of control. In reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste, they remind us -- using the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- that a racial caste system does not need overt racism to thrive -- the only thing that racial caste systems need to thrive and survive is racial indifference. But what I saw in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is that “people are waking up... not necessarily because they want to but because as Alexander also said  --there comes a time when truth stares you in the face, daring you to look away and say nothing.” 

So if we are not careful (and critical), if we stay silent when we should speak, if we keep navel-gazing in our research and scholarship (as D-L put it in his presidential address) instead of asking questions that matter and give Power to the People (in the worlds of past president Shaun Harper) we will end up perpetuating and fast-tracking systemic oppression because again, it doesn’t take much for it to survive especially if we are not careful to disrupt it by decolonizing our minds as Julio Ricardo Varela reminded us yesterday during his keynote fireside chat address. 

As the world slowly opens up and we adjust to a new normal we must bring with us the lessons we’ve learned and are learning during this period in world history. One call to action that resonated with me as I thought about the Presidential theme for ASHE 2022 involves the opportunity to “come back” from the global health pandemic differently from how we entered it. The trauma and hurt, coupled with deep-seated social and political divides across the world, require healing, and that takes a lot of vulnerability and courage. 

Amidst the urgency to go back to life as it was before the pandemic we must not forget that going back to life as it was is where many of the problems in education and society reside. Therefore, a return to life as we knew it will not get us to a place of healing and transformative change necessary to irradicate systemic oppression and social injustice. In the words of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, crises have a way of providing opportunities for social change. In many ways the bigger the crisis, the bigger the opportunity for change. As a scholarly community, we have an opportunity to learn from the atrocities that have occurred (and are still occurring) and imagine and innovate together for the greater good. In fact, many are depending on higher education to lead the way. 

Thus, the presidential theme for ASHE 2022 is “Humanizing Higher Education.” I see this theme as a challenge/call to action for our scholarly community to revisit what we’ve learned, and what we are learning from this period in history (and the centuries of systemic oppression that precede it).

So what does a humanizing future look like? As I said the theme out loud I’m sure it resonated with each of you in different ways. My hope is that over the next year we can learn from each other what it means to humanize higher education and what a humanized future might look like. In my mind, there are many dimensions of what it means to humanize higher education through research, scholarship, and practice that involve moving away from dehumanization to humanization, moving away from the marginality and the politics of invisibility to mattering and visibility, moving away from individualism towards collectivism, and moving away from violence towards healing. 

I’ll start the collective discussion by sharing my thoughts on what one dimension of humanizing higher education in research policy and practice means for me --- humanizing higher education means that I SEE YOU! I choose to see your humanity as a scholar and a whole person within this scholarly community. Not only do I see you, but I want to do something to honor and recongize your humanity so that you can bring your light into the world. I was listening to a podcast recently about ICUs (no pun intended) during the pandemic considering the vast amount of patients needing ICU care due to COVID-19. I’ve heard so many stories including my own and even yours in the visual call to remember about how this global pandemic has caused many of us to stop, pause, reevaluate life, shift and reprioritize what is important to us, and to “see” each other, even in ICUs. As I was listening to the podcast the ICU doctor shared something that was pretty powerful that stuck with me. The doctor shared that instead of asking patients, “what’s wrong with you” the question shifted to “what matters to you?” That simple, but powerful question turned out to be a lifesaving one. As they listened to patients share what mattered to them/what was important in their worlds it shifted their focus such that they clung to and focused on what was important and it had life-saving energy. Further, focusing on what mattered to patients provided a space for doctors to help and humanize patient care in small but mighty ways.

As I was listening to the podcast and the doctors talk about shifting the question from what’s wrong with you, to what matter’s to you -- I wondered what humanizing higher education could look like if we did the same. Many of us study complex problems and we often start by focusing on the problem -- what’s wrong with our educational system or worse because we inappropriately assign problems to people these days -- what’s wrong with the people within our educational systems? What if we shifted our focus in solving complex problems by focusing on what matters TO people, the people we study, within our educational systems, particularly those who find themselves on the margins of society and education? I have a hunch that we would probably get better solutions to complex problems, solutions that drive authentic action, address problems closer to the root of the problem, and ultimately solutions that provide greater educational opportunities within schools and communities. 

During the 2022 annual conference and throughout the year, I invite us as a community of engaged scholars, policymakers, and practitioners to participate in discussions and deep thinking on how our past, present, and future research, scholarship, and practice can support, integrate, and enact the theme of “Humanizing Higher Education.”