Viewpoint diversity criticisms have become increasingly commonplace within higher education. While most concerns focus on the potential chilling effects of ideological disparity among faculty members, criticisms aimed at student affairs administrators have started to gain traction in recent years.

Sam Abrams, professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, began the discussion with his 2018 study that examined the political leanings of about 900 student-facing college administrators. Abrams found that, on average, liberal administrators outnumbered conservative ones by a surprising ratio of 12-to-1. Given the role student affairs professionals play in college student development, Abrams argued, ideological disparity of this degree may negatively affect the ways in which students are socialized. Several comparable criticisms have followed Abrams’ initial assessments.

Unfortunately, serious responses to these concerns appear to be absent from conversations among professionals in the field. There has been little to no coverage of viewpoint diversity in the print/online publications issued by the major student affairs organizations, nor has much attention been paid to the recent criticisms at those organizations’ most populated professional conferences. As an example, of the hundreds of presentations given at the NASPA 2018 national conference – the field’s largest and most prominent convention – only one focused on working with students who hold opposing viewpoints. This is worrying, not least because research shows that interacting with those who differ ideologically can lead students toward cognitive and personal development – two major aims of student affairs work.

The Promise of Holistic Development

In 1996, the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) published the now-classic Student Learning Imperative (SLI). The document was written in response to growing demands for accountability in higher education and urged student affairs administrators to view student learning/cognitive development (traditionally the work of faculty) and personal development (traditionally the work of student affairs) as intertwined. It called for student-facing professionals to redefine their work toward a more “holistic” learning philosophy, to see themselves as educators and as equals in the learning process alongside faculty. And it accelerated the field’s shift from being considered complementary to student learning to being considered a part of student learning.

In the 23 years since, the unbreakable connection between students’ intellectual and personal development (along with the critical role student affairs plays in fostering them) has come to define the field. This is driven by the wealth of empirical evidence that “interactional” diversity experiences are associated with student development. A considerable amount of student affairs graduate training, for instance, involves exploring the ways in which student development occurs. Once in the field, professionals attempt to promote learning and development in a variety of ways, though some of the most visible efforts are those concerned with equity, diversity and inclusion – often in relation to identity characteristics like race and gender. Such efforts are, again, driven by the empirical research outlining the connections between diversity experiences and student development.

Fostering diversity and inclusion with regard to race, gender and other factors of identity is a noble and necessary goal. Interestingly, however, the same research that drives this aim also shows that interacting with ideologically diverse individuals can promote comparable cognitive and personal development. Yet, focus on interactions of this kind has taken a backseat to those concerned with racial, gender and ethnic diversity.

In fact, there are important relationships between demographic and ideological diversity. Creating a campus environment that is inclusive of different ways of seeing the world can help render campuses and classrooms more welcoming to students of historically marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds. Placing more attention on promoting ideologically diverse experiences for students can help the field to further refine the quality and breadth of its work.

Opportunities for Enrichment

As we have seen, interacting with those who differ ideologically has the potential to bolster student development in a variety of ways. Therefore, the field of student affairs would undoubtedly benefit from a more ideologically diverse workforce. Additionally, it would be prudent for leaders in the field to ensure that dissenting views are considered and taken seriously in key discussions.

Attracting a more ideologically diverse staff and welcoming a broader range of beliefs and values raises the probability that students are exposed to views that differ from their own. This can ensure that staff are successfully preparing their students for life after college, where, in their personal and professional lives, they will often be forced to tolerate and engage with opposing viewpoints. Student affairs staff actively influence students’ intellectual progress (e.g. academic advisors), their personal lives (e.g. residence life professionals) and their social/civic habits (e.g. campus event coordinators, inclusion officers). More viewpoint diversity can go a long way in making these experiences even more developmentally stimulating.

To promote the types of development it has promised, the field must go beyond simply welcoming a wider range of viewpoints. Professionals themselves must be willing to consider and discuss views with which they disagree so that they can pass these constructive practices on to students. Major organizations like NASPA and ACPA should look to instill such standards within their conferences and publications, and provide professionals with opportunities to constructively disagree with one another on the critical issues of higher education today. In the same vein, faculty teaching in student affairs administration graduate programs should follow suit within their curricula. On a smaller scale, those already working in the field should look to ensure that viewpoint diversity is sustained in their departments’ hiring processes and within the programs and initiatives offered on their campuses.

As a field, student affairs has long committed itself to student development. Put simply, more viewpoint diversity can improve the ways in which staff view, communicate about and enhance the work they do.