What student affairs professionals do, and how they do it, has never been more important.
That was the message student development expert George Kuh relayed in his keynote address at Florida State University’s 26th annual Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values held February 4-6.
Kuh, an adjunct research professor at the University of Illinois and Chancellor’s Professor of Higher Education Emeritus at Indiana University, was one of four speakers at the conference.
More than 160 student affairs professionals, campus ministers, faculty and students representing more than 40 public and private institutions from across the nation gathered at the Dalton Institute with the common goal of preparing students to become active individuals of integrity.
This year, the Dalton Institute’s theme “Student Activism and Advocacy: Higher Education’s Role in Fostering Ethical Leadership and Moral Commitment” engaged participants in an examination of the most current issues, research and educational activities pertaining to character education in college.
“This open dialogue, in a welcoming, personalized atmosphere, emphasizes personal development, character, intellectual growth and a return to the core values necessary for college student success,” said Craig Beebe, a graduate assistant in the Office of Student Affairs who organizes the conference.
Since 1991, the Dalton Institute has promoted research, trends and good practices related to the character and values development of college students.
“The idea of public discourse on important topics in today’s society is extremely important, and the Dalton Institute is one of the most renowned institutions for examining these critical issues,” said Mary Coburn, vice president for Student Affairs at Florida State and director of the Dalton Institute.
Originally the Institute on College Student Values, the conference was renamed the Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values in 2010 to honor the work and commitment of Jon C. Dalton, the institute’s founder and faculty-in-residence. Dalton still attends the conference every year.
“Students expect college to prepare them not only for jobs, but for lives of meaning and purpose,” Dalton said. “Successful leadership in today’s world requires individuals who have clarified their core values and have the strength of character to face difficult tasks and persevere.”
Each of the Dalton Institute’s nationally recognized keynote speakers examined student advocacy and activism, and their role in leveraging this important piece of the student experience to encourage personal development and intellectual growth.
“We pride ourselves on the quality of the keynote speakers at The Dalton Institute,” Coburn said. “Their expertise in the topics of activism and advocacy places an important focus on addressing current trends and ensuring student engagement and success.”
This year’s topic of advocacy and activism was especially timely.
“The words social justice create different kinds of energies for folks, which connects to advocacy and activism,” said the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington, who has served as an educator, administrator and consultant in higher education for more than 32 years. “What’s the way that I as a person, given my skills, talents and experiences can be most effective in creating more change, in creating more equity?”
Kuh believes there are many reasons why the circumstances facing students and student affairs professionals today are more complicated than ever.
He says the differences between actions that are perceived to be right or wrong are riddled with ambiguity and complexity, and he is convinced that this work has never been more challenging.
Kuh said creating the conditions for meaningful collaboration moves at the speed of trust.
“We can’t do it without students’ support,” Kuh said. “Trust is not something you switch on and off. Trust is about spending time, developing a relationship. Communicating … not just in words but with eyes and ears and emotion that I hear you, and we need to figure this out together, so trust is the key.”
With college students’ long, rich history of advocating for change both on campus and in society, colleges and universities often must navigate a fine line between empowering student voices and maintaining academic communities that are safe, civil and welcoming.
“Injustice has long been the curriculum of the college student,” said Penny Rue, vice president of Campus Life at Wake Forest University. “I stand in the balance between fostering the most robust speech dialogue and dissent on campus, while also ensuring the ability of the university to function in times of stress.”
Rue believes that a university should be a place with the widest freedom of expression, and a safe, civil environment.
“We are about ideas, and we should be able to talk about disagreements in a civil fashion,” Rue said. “But that’s different from behavior. And there’s a very fine line between speech, ideas, advocacy and things like abuse, harassment and threats. I think we have failed if we do not also connect students to larger moral and ethical issues, to prepare them to be engaged citizens throughout the lifespan.”
For more information on the Dalton Institute, visit https://studentvalues.fsu.edu/.