National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Keynote

March 12, 2019

President Janet Napolitano gave the keynote address at the2019 NASPA Annual Conference in Los Angeles, CA on March 12, 2019. Here are her remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Kevin! It is truly an honor to receive the NASPA President’s Award, and it is an honor to be here today. You are all the unsung heroes of higher education, and to be recognized by this group means a great deal to me.
Before I go on, I’d just like to ask: is there anyone here today from the University of California?
Please stand up.
I want to give these folks a special shout-out. I am really accepting this award on behalf of all of their hard work and dedication. They do so much to make sure that students at the University of California have what they need not only to succeed, but to thrive, and I thank them. Let’s give them a hand!
Now, NASPA has come a long way since its founding 100 years ago. After all, this organization started out as a “Conference of Deans and Advisers of Men.” You all are much more than advisers of men now, that’s for sure.
Today, the sphere of student affairs encompasses so much more than it did a century ago. Students and their families have higher expectations in terms of the support they receive on campus, and that presents tremendous challenges and opportunities for American colleges and universities. Expertise in supporting students and helping them succeed is increasingly valued, and resources toward this goal prioritized.
That’s why we see more and more talented people transitioning from leadership in Student Affairs to leadership of entire universities – as is the case with four terrific UC student affairs alums who recently went on to become presidents at the California State University.
This shift reflects the critical work that you do on behalf of our core constituency: students. And that is exactly what I’d like to discuss today. I want to highlight the superpower of today’s students, and how your talent and commitment helps them find that superpower.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, there’s an awful lot of talk about snowflakes these days. In fact, the former Attorney General of the United States took time out of his busy schedule last year to give a speech in which he warned that the nation’s colleges and universities are creating, “a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.”
First, I’ll just observe that the Justice Department probably has more pressing concerns than the sensitivities of American college students.
And second, I have to say, I am skeptical that we are witnessing a crisis of coddling at the American university. Despite the hand-wringing, I am starting to suspect that the whole snowflake debate is, in fact, a straw man.
Now, I will admit that when I first took the job as President of the University of California, I felt wary of trigger warnings and worried that students were preemptively closing themselves off from different perspectives and difficult material. After a career tackling complex legal problems, managing major conflicts, and working in the world of counter-terrorism, I tended to side more with the “brave spaces” than the “safe spaces” end of the spectrum.
I don’t think it is too much to expect that we, as educators, prepare students to be able to think critically, engage with concepts that make them uncomfortable and grapple with views they disagree with. Former UC president Clark Kerr once said that the University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students; rather, it is engaged in making students safe for ideas. That still resonates with me. Kerr did so much to establish a proud tradition of free speech at the University of California—a tradition we carry on proudly today.
But, I also don’t think we should get distracted by false laments about the decline of free speech on college campuses.
And let’s not ignore that on our campuses, we are facing new and complex threats due to social media, due to the proliferation of falsehoods and false equivalency, and due to a highly volatile political climate. It takes a toll on calm, evidence-based, respectful discourse – not just on university campuses, but in our larger communities, and certainly in Washington D.C.
We can’t deny that protecting free speech as fiercely as UC does comes with very real costs to our campuses and that our most vulnerable student populations disproportionately shoulder those costs. For example, we did not – and would not – infringe upon the free speech rights of a group of students at UC Merced last year when they held up signs encouraging people to report undocumented immigrants. But we also recognize the damage this behavior causes. And we won’t be complicit by remaining silent in the face of that kind of mean-spirited attack intended to antagonize and intimidate a group that is already dealing with fear and uncertainty. We will raise our voices to counter hateful speech and ensure that every member of our campus community knows that they are safe and welcome.
Indeed, from where I sit now – at the head of a university system that educates more than 270,000 students – I see that today’s students are not spoiled, or weak, or incapable of handling adversity. In fact, this Millennial and Generation Z wave of college students is battling—and overcoming—certain economic, political, and social headwinds that previous generations didn’t have to face.
They came of age in the Great Recession, or immediately after, in a nation not fully recovered from that financial crisis. In today’s America, a college education costs more, the cost of living continues to increase, and wages have stagnated.
These students grew up watching news reports of increasing political divides at home, two lengthy and bloody wars abroad, and the threat of climate change looming over the entire planet.
So, instead of ridiculing them for reflecting these hardships and conflicts, perhaps we should listen with a sympathetic ear and lend a helping hand?
Some people might argue that there is nothing new about this sort of inter-generational strife. Every generation seems to relish taking pot shots at those who preceded and followed them. But the generational contempt of the anti-snowflake crowd seems to be a little different. I think the mocking and the scolding emanates from willful ignorance and a lack of empathy. I suspect it masks a touch of discomfort about the immense talent, the big dreams, and the collective power of this idealistic group of young people. Perhaps it is even tinged with a bit of guilt about the kind of world we are passing down to the next generation.
Because let’s be honest – if you want to talk about safe spaces, we all know that the safest spaces on earth are the halls of power. Yet, it is the people who roam those exclusive—and exclusionary—spaces who are often criticizing students.
The young people I interact with at the University of California hail from a wide variety of backgrounds and bring with them an array of experiences and viewpoints. Their conscientiousness and sensitivity are not weaknesses. They are incredible strengths.
Many of our students are trailblazers, too. Forty-one percent of UC undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college. Thirty-seven percent qualify for Pell Grants, which means they come from very low-income families. Having worked directly with students, every single person here knows the fortitude and inner strength it takes to apply, enroll, persevere, and attain your degree when you are the first person in your family to do so, or when you must overcome great economic challenges to achieve the dream of a college education.
I am inspired every day by these UC students – remarkable and resilient students like Sequoia Thompson.
Sequoia used to work as a Metro bus driver here in Los Angeles. Her route took her not far from here, through Downtown LA, down Sunset Boulevard, and into Westwood. She parked her bus at UCLA every morning for her shift layover. Sequoia describes feeling jealous as she sat in her bus watching students walking to class. You see, she wanted to go back to school. She had a hunger to learn. But financial struggles and persistent self-doubt held her back – for a time.
After graduating from high school in the Inland Empire area of California, Sequoia took a job with FedEx. Meanwhile, she was curious about human psychology, so she signed up for a class at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga. But without a car, moving between work and the community college was difficult.
After working as a package handler and then a switcher for Union Pacific Railroad, Sequoia tried again to pursue her dream of a college education: she enrolled in a class at Pasadena City College. There, she found supportive professors and she met Santiago Bernal. And that’s when her life really took a different route.
Santiago is the Assistant Director of the Center for Community College Partnerships at UCLA. He works one day a week as a transfer student advisor at Pasadena City College, where he met Sequoia. Santiago immediately recognized that UCLA offered opportunities that would feed Sequoia’s curiosity and meet her needs as a scholar. Yet, she had never considered UCLA. She assumed that it wasn’t a realistic option for her.
Santiago convinced her otherwise.
Last year, Sequoia graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in LGBTQ studies. Throughout her time at UCLA, she gave back to others by serving as a transfer student peer counselor at Pasadena Community College. An aspiring clinical psychologist, she now dreams of helping queer black youth—and I have no doubt that she will achieve her goals.
The University of California is full of resilient students like Sequoia. They are tougher than they get credit for. In fact, I’d venture to say that UC students are exceptionally brave, creative, tenacious, and innovative.
But they are also caring and conscientious. They value diversity and inclusion. They want to see justice, and they want to make the world a better place for the generations who follow them.
One of the most important outcomes of their drive is that they push those around them—as well as the institutions they inhabit—to become more inclusive and caring, too.
They are part of the generation leading the charge on the #MeToo movement, and they have helped guide UC’s work on preventing and responding to sexual violence and harassment on our campuses.
They pushed for UC to change its undergraduate application to be more inclusive of gender nonconforming and transgender students. We also listened to their input as we launched an ongoing systemwide effort to make our facilities more gender-inclusive.
We heard them when they told us that their fellow students were homeless and hungry, and worked with them to fight food insecurity and to expand affordable student housing options on campus.
Today, American college and university students are driving real, concrete institutional and systemic change – on their campuses and all over the country. I’d argue that is an incredible strength – a superpower if you will.
You see, I believe there is a way to preserve free speech rights, all while lifting up vulnerable populations of students and honoring their caring spirits. I believe we can use better speech to stand up to hateful speech, deploy good ideas to fight bad ones, and embrace kindness to defeat cruelty.
I believe in and trust the innate strength of our students – and I believe that nurturing them helps to bring out their undervalued superpower. That is ultimately what will help our society become more equitable, help our economy become more robust, and help our country get back on track.
Cultivating that superpower in students absolutely requires the daily, difficult, often thankless work that all of you do. I’d like to recognize NASPA, and each and every one of you for that work. Our students themselves are living proof of the value you provide.