It’s Not All About Me

“Our students come first.”

That’s what it says on page five of George Mason University’s Strategic Plan. As one of the authors of that document back in 2014, I’m always happy when this simple sentence is deployed to explain a new policy or rule. And I’m equally unhappy when we, too often in my view, make rules and policies that are grounded in the revenue needs of our various academic units rather than what’s good for our students.

Because the internal contest for revenue that drives so much of our decision making makes me crazy, it’s useful to be reminded, by students, that they come first. They are under such pressure and face so many problems–excessive debt, an unpredictable job market, political disunity at home, a looming climate disaster everywhere. We owe them more than just an excellent course. What we do as educators transcends the syllabus.

And it’s good to be reminded, by students, that it’s not all about me.

Those who know me know that I’m a person of very strong political opinions and that I’m very passionate, and sometimes even a little intolerant (if I’m honest), on certain issues relating to individual rights, climate change, and the twinned issues of equity in access, not just in higher education, but in our society generally.

My students will tell you, I hope, that I also keep all of those opinions to myself in the classroom. This is an issue with lots of strong feelings on both sides — professors shouldn’t be afraid to express their political and social views in class/professors should keep those views to themselves. I get why some of my colleagues bring their views into the classroom and I don’t condemn them for that. I just don’t teach that way. That’s just me.

But I still have those strong opinions and the events of the past 12 months have just made me even more committed to what I believe.

When one of my former students came to see me back in late November to ask for letters of recommendation for graduate school, I asked the obvious question: “What have you been doing since you graduated two years ago?” As it turns out, he had been very engaged in the recent election, working for a congressional candidate who I had really, really hoped would lose (she didn’t). A part of me wanted to scream, “How could you possibly work for someone like her?”

Fortunately, I remembered, it’s not all about me.

So, I wrote him glowing letters — he was, after all, an excellent student and a nice person — and I’m happy to say he was admitted to several excellent graduate programs.

Just today I received a phone call from the executive director of a local NGO seeking a reference on a former student — one of my favorite students of the past several years. She began the call by explaining the mission of her organization and it was clear immediately that their goals and beliefs are antithetical to mine. Really antithetical. A part of me wanted to call my student right away and scream, “How could you possibly work for such an organization?”

Fortunately, I remembered, it’s not all about me.

So, I gave her the excellent recommendation she deserved — she is, after all, a wonderful person and was one of the best students I’ve taught in the past several years. I suspect, given the tenor of the call, that she’s their first choice and I hope she gets the job.

These two students have done exactly what we hope our students will do. Get a good education, and then apply what they’ve learned to launch themselves onto career paths that they’ve chosen for themselves. In short, the system worked. I’m proud of them both, even if I might wish they had political or social views aligned with mine.

As we head into tomorrow’s change of presidential administrations, I’m going to try hard to remember the lessons I’ve learned from these students, namely, that just because I disagree with your position on issues I care passionately about, the odds are really good that you are a fine person, doing the right thing according to your own lights. We just don’t agree.

If we can all remember that it’s about all of us, then maybe, just maybe, it won’t be quite as I fear it will be. And so, on his last day in office, I’ll let President Obama have the last word:

“Sometimes I get mad and frustrated like everybody else does, but at my core, I think we’re going to be OK.”