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Bracing for Back-to-School

Students everywhere are heading back to campus and gearing up for the start of a new semester. Cue scenes of ivy-covered brick buildings, strolls across campus greens, students hunched over laptops in every available library nook.

I may have mentioned once or twice (or several times) that I love back-to-school time and being on campus. This year, I find that in addition to all of the standard college nostalgia, I’m kind of holding my breath for something.

And I think that something is crisis. Colleges and universities seem to be uniquely seated to be dealing with crisis events in the national spotlight, and right now, there’s no shortage of potential issues.

There is palpable tension, even resentment, across the country right now and a whole slew of issues that directly affect colleges and college students. Pick your topic—race, the environment, sexuality and gender identity, immigration, sexual assault, finances, free speech, general politics—they all are playing out on campuses everywhere. I’m wondering what’s going to capture national attention this year. And, I’m also wondering how colleges and universities will respond.

Oftentimes, we think of a new school year as a fresh start, a chance to set new expectations and take on new challenges. But truly, how will that be possible this year following such a dramatic shift in our national climate?

Think of the strange political atmosphere, the blatant racism and bigotry, the information overload. Think of all the recent protests and counter protests, student activism, debates about free speech versus hate speech, and especially the violence spawning from issues. And think, finally, of the youthful students coming into their own, experimenting with beliefs and ideologies and new ways of thinking. I wonder how it’ll be possible to not bring all of this to campus. Students, faculty and staff, administrators, community members, everyone, really, must have baggage going into the year.

I do think colleges and universities can get a fresh start with managing these issues on campus and in their communities. Everyone can wipe the slate clean with how they act, interact, and react on campus and off campus. While I think it is naïve to hope that these tensions won’t boil over into some sort of crisis somewhere at some point, I do hope campuses have taken a hard look at their communications and management strategies to ensure that civility and safety ensues amidst all of the potential conflicts.