Wednesday, September 16, 2009

 

Levers

A longtime correspondent sent me this article in Academe by Lori Messinger, a professor of social work at the University of Kansas. It's about the methods that activists on various campuses around the country have used to get LGBTQ-friendly policies enacted on their campuses.

It's worth reading, both for the inherent interest of the subject and for the largely counterintuitive findings.

My experience with these issues as an administrator has been exclusively in the Northeast, and at secular institutions. In these settings, the objections I've heard on LGBTQ issues have been either practical/logistical ("how do we define who's covered?") or confined to some guilty eye-rolling. (Guilty eye-rolling usually goes in three stages: the initial eye-roll, the sheepish moment of self-awareness, and the apology.) I haven't actually heard a religious argument, let alone a vociferous objection. My guess -- and it's only a guess -- is that in some of the deeper red states and/or at the more devout religious institutions, the reactions would be very different.

The local political situation has also made it relatively easy to be LGBTQ-friendly. I'm in a state in which Republicans can win when they run on an "I'll cut your taxes" platform, but they get slaughtered when they run on God, guns, and gays. So techniques that have worked here may not work as well in, say, South Carolina.

That said, though, the process Messinger's article describes rings true, and is consistent with what I've seen.

I had been taught over the years that civil rights are gained through advocacy, mass protest, and the force of credible electoral threat. In the case of LGBTQ issues on campus, though, I've seen something different. Here, the concrete victories have come through top-down leadership at key moments. (Messinger's piece notes that the one campus she studied that adopted the 'adversarial' model, it backfired badly.) Without giving away too much, I'll just say that the two levers that have seemed to lift the most weight have been, in order:

1. So-and-so, who is crucial to the college, is L/G/B/T/Q. We have to keep hir! Maybe this will work!

or,

2. Our counterpart/competitor colleges have done this, and we haven't. We risk losing good people to them!

These are basically HR arguments, rather than moral or political ones. They're about attracting and retaining the best people. That's how they were sold to some Board members who, um, wouldn't ordinarily be on the cutting edge of progressive politics. At all.

Of course, HR arguments like these require that a great deal of groundwork has already been done. Once you have a critical mass of conspicuous high performers who are out, the argument from 'employee retention' can be very compelling. And it's harder to demonize people you know and respect personally. But getting to that critical mass requires the slow cultural work of many at all levels.

Messinger mentions in passing that new Presidents often have a honeymoon period in which to make changes like these. I think that's true, though I've personally seen a longtime President become a sudden champion of this cause when the makeup of his cabinet changed. The personnel changes that drive policy changes can happen at many levels.

Again, with this issue more than most, context matters. In a state with a hostile political climate, or a college with a distinct religious identity, the external constraints may be prohibitive, at least for now. No argument there.

Wise and worldly readers, I invite your thoughtful insights. If your campus has made strides towards LGBTQ-friendliness, how has it happened? If it hasn't, do you know what's stopping it?

Comments:
LGBTQ HR (geez, that's a big bowl of alphabet soup) policies that provide benefits--especially health care--to "domestic partners" also cover unmarried heterosexual couples.

That will usually shut most straight people up.

--Philip
 
That will usually shut most straight people up.

Out of curiosity, does it shut most gay people up, too? I mean, in your experience.
 
Out of curiosity, does it shut most gay people up, too? I mean, in your experience.

I think it would, especially on a campus in a state where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal.

In my department, LGBTQ folks outnumber women with children 3:1 - I think our diversity/discrimination issues are a little more basic than most.
 
Phillip--The problem with that is when you're in a state (as I am) where the majority of the population is against any kind of shacking up--gay or straight. So a move toward covering domestic partners is seen as a shot across the bow, offending the dominant culture here. We've had a terrible time with LGBTQ issues on my campus, and all of the progress has been top-down. When a grassroots effort starts (even one as innocuous as mourning Matthew Shepard), the opposing grassroots goes nuts and starts spewing hate.
 
At Mid-Atlantic Research U, the competitive advantage argument coupled with on-going status anxiety were key to passing progressive LGBT policies. Since the administration and alumni consider the institution to be historically "elite," if there is a chance of looking like "redneck u," the administration can change things fairly quickly.

The status anxiety is quite acute. Fear of embarrassment, of looking retrograde, is the stick that propels action here.
 
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