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Mindful Resistance:

Student Affairs Educators Challenging Neoliberalism

by Doing More with Less

· Higher Education

Synopsis: As expectations rise and funding sources dwindle, college educators find themselves working harder and longer hours to meet the growing needs of today’s college students. In order to disrupt the frenzied pace of our work that often leads to burnout, student affairs educators can engage in Mindful Resistance. Specifically, college educators can mindfully resist the dehumanizing effect of neoliberalism in higher education with the tools of Rest, Reflection, and Recovery. In this essay featuring insights from Dr. Sam Museus, Dr. Judy Marquez Kiyama, and Geralyn Williams, I discuss the dehumanizing effects of neoliberalism and outline the Mindful Resistance model in order to provide tools for student affairs professionals to challenge neoliberalism by doing more with less. (15 minute read, 3 minute skim)

The field of student affairs is changing. Economic and political upheaval have drastically altered higher education, and student affairs educators are struggling to maintain the values of the profession, and their own wellness, amidst pressure to do more with less. From campus safety and mental health to shrinking budgets and declining enrollment, student affairs professionals are growing more and more worried about their students, their institutions, and their jobs.

Many of these concerns can be traced back to the rise of neoliberalism in higher education, or the idea that the best and most efficient way to distribute goods and services, including education, is through the economic marketplace (Letizia, 2015). Neoliberalism has shifted the focus of student affairs professionals away from developing college students and building inclusive campus communities toward satisfying students as customers and their ever-increasing expectations to have more comfort, control, and convenience in college (Giroux, 2002).

Neoliberalism has shifted the focus of student affairs professionals away from developing college students and building inclusive campus communities toward satisfying students as customers and their ever-increasing expectations to have more comfort, control, and convenience in college.

To learn more about neoliberalism in higher education, I talked with Dr. Sam Museus, Professor of Education Studies at the UC San Diego and author of over 200 publications and conference presentations focused on campus environments, diversity and equity, and college student outcomes. “If there is any urgent conversation that needs to be had in higher education right now, I believe it’s the one about neoliberalism,” said Museus. “I’ve shifted much of my intellectual and scholarly energies toward these issues.”

Dr. Sam Museus, Prof. of Education Studies at UC San Diego

Additionally, I spoke with Dr. Judy Marquez Kiyama, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Higher Education at the University of Denver, who in addition to a robust social justice research agenda, has extensive professional experience in the field of student affairs. “Student affairs has been working with and against neoliberalism for a couple of decades now,” Kiyama noted. “Over time, we’ve seen more and more student affairs partnerships being influenced by outside industries, through direct resources or knowledge. More and more, students are seen as products in terms of what is needed for the workforce. When we’re being influenced to take direction from outside entities, we’re losing knowledge as a public good for local communities.”

More and more, students are seen as products in terms of what is needed for the workforce. When we’re being influenced to take direction from outside entities, we’re losing knowledge as a public good for local communities. - Dr. Judy Kiyama

Dr. Judy Kiyama, Associate Professor and Department Chair of HE at the Univ. of Denver

As expectations rise and funding sources dwindle, student affairs professionals find themselves working harder and longer hours to meet the growing needs of today’s college students. Dr. Kiyama expounded on this phenomenon by saying, “Due to significant decreases in state funding for institutions and financial aid – coupled with increases in tuition costs – we’re seeing behaviors to incentivize students to attend institutions, including an emphasis on enrollment management strategies and the building of elaborate student unions or residence halls with more and more amenities. These are all aspects of the university that student affairs folks have to oversee.”

To better understand how neoliberalism is impacting working professionals on the ground, I chatted with Geralyn Williams, Program Coordinator for the Pace Center for Community Engagement at Princeton University. “We can’t do this work if we’re always running on empty,” Williams said. “How do we take care of ourselves in this hyper-capitalist culture we’re in? I try to be as real as possible about stress in my work. I embed holistic care into my work, which means challenging how we often do not take care of ourselves and others.”

Many in the field feel as though they cannot turn off work because everything seems like a priority. Rather than feeling joyful and passionate about working with college students, many college educators feel anxious, overwhelmed, and stressed (Lynch, 2017). “There are days when I’m at work very late. I feel like I have to get everything done and I don’t have the time to do it,” shared Williams. “On busy days, it’s hard to find time to step away. I care so much about the work, the community, and students, so everything is a high priority for me. Technically, we get two fifteen-minute breaks and an hour for lunch, but on stressful days that doesn’t happen. Sometimes I don’t really even eat lunch. Even though the time is there to take breaks, I don’t always take advantage of it.”

Geralyn Williams, Program Coordinator for the Pace Center for Community Engagement at Princeton Univ.

Sometimes I don’t really even eat lunch. Even though the time is there to take breaks, I don’t always take advantage of it. 

- Geralyn Williams

Neoliberalism is intimately connected to other systems of oppression, including White supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity (Goldberg, 2009; Inwood, 2015). “It’s an ideology,” noted Dr. Museus. “It’s a system of structures. It’s a logic. It’s a way we think about the world.” The logic of neoliberalism discourages educators from taking time to reflect on the escalating corporatization and consumerism in higher education. As a result, educators have less capacity to recognize and challenge systems of oppression in their work.

Ultimately, neoliberalism undermines student affairs educators’ efforts to achieve social justice in higher education by contributing to a field that is more and more defined by comparison and competition than by collegiality and collaboration (Museus, in press). Competitive individualism and the myth of meritocracy create conditions where some student affairs educators are more focused on critiquing one another than they are on challenging systems of oppression (Alvorado, 2010).

“We are almost taught that the only way to engage in anti-racism and anti-oppression work is to adopt these competitive rationalities,” shared Dr. Museus. “I have adopted some of these mentalities myself, in the past. I didn’t understand the neoliberal system and how it works. The more I learned, the more I realized I was actually reinforcing the things I was trying to combat. Nobody wants to admit that they are reinforcing these systems, but it can be liberating once you start to think deeply about these issues because you develop agency to do something about it. Personal transformation needs to be a part of the conversation.”

We are almost taught that the only way to engage in anti-racism and anti-oppression work is to adopt these competitive rationalities... Nobody wants to admit that they are reinforcing these systems, but it can be liberating once you start to think deeply about these issues because you develop agency to do something about it. - Dr. Sam Museus

In a recent book titled, Navigating neoliberal organizational cultures: Implications for higher education leaders advancing social justice agendas, Dr. Museus and Dr. Lucy LePeau (2020) outline what they’ve identified as the five key tenets of neoliberalism in higher education, including:

  • Consumerism: Neoliberalism is founded on ideals of consumer choice, contributing to a culture in which the value of people, actions, and priorities are determined by how much revenue they might generate;
  • Competitive individualism: Neoliberal ideologies prioritize free-market individualism and competition, which reinforce false beliefs in meritocracy, and create a culture in which every person prioritizes their own self-interest;
  • Surveillance: The neoliberal regime constructs dehumanizing systems of surveillance (e.g., monitoring and reporting) to ensure that members of the system comply with neoliberal ideals, and trust is eradicated;
  • Precarity: As neoliberal forces economically starve and place responsibility of fiscal sustainability on individuals, the latter finds themselves in a precarious existence and feel an increased need to fight for their own survival;
  • Declining Morality: The aforementioned neoliberal structures converge to reinforce an increased focus on fiscal exigency and profit-making, while eradicating beliefs that government and social institutions have any responsibility for the public good. (pp. 209-224)

Mindful Resistance

Student affairs professionals must develop new tools and strategies in order to push back against the destructive and dehumanizing influence of neoliberalism in higher education. The most effective forms of resistance against the endless demands of neoliberalism are those that utilize mindfulness and contemplative practices (Berg and Seeber, 2016; Berila, 2016). Mindfulness can counterbalance the stress, apathy, and despair produced by a corporate, profit-driven university culture. The resulting stillness creates time and space to reflect upon the impact of systems of oppression on the lives of educators and their students. This critical awareness can inform actions toward a shared liberation.

Mindfulness can counterbalance the stress, apathy, and despair produced by a corporate, profit-driven university culture. The resulting stillness creates time and space to reflect upon the impact of systems of oppression on the lives of educators and their students.

In addition to improving the wellness of individual student affairs professionals and preserving the values of the field, utilizing contemplative and mindfulness practices are an ethical imperative. The forces of neoliberalism discourage stillness through narratives of scarcity, resulting in a constant feeling of lacking and the compulsion to compensate through self-sacrifice and hyper-competitiveness. Practicing mindfulness allows student affairs educators to create space for reflection, critically observe what is happening, and then act to change their behavior so that it aligns with their values. Taking time to pause creates the conditions necessary to question and challenge dehumanizing systems of oppression in higher education.

In order to disrupt the frenzied pace and constant busyness that often leads to burnout, ignorance, and apathy, student affairs educators can engage in Mindful Resistance. Mindful Resistance is defined as a model of educational practice that aims to foster critical awareness, compassionate contemplation, and collective liberation through actions that prioritize, protect, and promote individual and collective humanity. Mindful Resistance practices foster joy, community, and purpose in the lives of student affairs professionals. Specifically, college educators can mindfully resist the dehumanizing effect of neoliberalism in higher education with the tools of Rest, Reflection, and Recovery.

Rest

Prioritizing rest in Mindful Resistance enables educators to create stillness in everyday life by pausing to observe what is happening in the present moment. Finding the time to get rest can be challenging, especially in a culture driven by the speed of neoliberalism. Research is very clear about the importance of rest, especially in the context of a hectic work environment. In a recent book called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (2016) demonstrates how getting more rest can help improve thinking, creativity, and productivity. Taking time out of a busy day for restful activities like going for a walk, sitting outside, or taking a short nap can help boost innovation and efficiency in work.

Growing in popularity, mindfulness practices are accessible and approachable methods that student affairs professionals can use to incorporate more rest into everyday life. Contemplative and mindfulness practices are ways of being that facilitate increased awareness through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). The goal of mindfulness is to become aware of what is happening around us by waking up our mental, emotional, and physical processes. In the context of work, mindfulness practices have been shown to improve cognition, including visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.

Growing in popularity, mindfulness practices are accessible and approachable methods that student affairs professionals can use to incorporate more rest into everyday life.

In addition to the many health benefits, mindfulness and contemplative practices have been shown to be effective tools in the effort to dismantle systems of oppression. A study by Lueke and Gibson (2014) demonstrates mindfulness exercises can be used to help reveal and reduce implicit biases related to race and age. Moreover, a study by Magee (2016) found that mindfulness can be used to help increase awareness of the connections between internalized racial bias and patterns of systemic racism. In the context of higher education, mindfulness and contemplative practices have been used to promote the racial awareness of college students (Ashlee, 2017).

Reflection

Practicing reflection in Mindful Resistance allows educators to consider the impact of what is happening in the present moment and do so from many different perspectives. Rather than simply going through the motions or racing through the week without pausing to consider the long-term implications of daily decisions, taking time to reflect allows educators to make conscious choices about how they spend their time and resources. Reflection can be defined as a process of self-examination which facilitates personal growth and development through understanding one’s values, thoughts, and actions (Di Stefano, Gino, Pisano, Staats, 2016).

Rather than simply going through the motions or racing through the week without pausing to consider the long-term implications of daily decisions, taking time to reflect allows educators to make conscious choices about how they spend their time and resources.

Reflection also allows educators to situate themselves in relation to various professional institutions and systems of oppression (Kelchtermans, 2007). Research conducted by Park (2010) indicates that reflection results in learning at the global and the situational levels. In other words, people make meaning by evaluating specific situations and then comparing those experiences to their broader beliefs and desires. A process of introspection allows individuals to determine whether or not the situation aligns with their understanding of the world, and if not, to take action and mitigate the problem. These actions might include changing the circumstances that lead to the problem, leaving the environment where the problem occurs, or altering one’s perspective about the problem.

While self-reflection and introspection are incredibly important aspects of Mindful Resistance, there are also significant benefits that result from reflecting with others. Relying solely on self-reflection privileges a single way of thinking (Lin & Lucey, 2010). By combining individual with group reflection, on the other hand, educators can hear and understand different perspectives aside from their own (Lucey, Ransdell, & Anderson, 2008). Research has shown that perspective-taking through group reflection has many benefits, including increased concern for others, decreased stereotyping, and improved relationships between those who reflect together (Galinsky, Ku, & Wang, 2005).

Recovery

Mindful Resistance empowers educators to recover their own humanity and the humanity of others by taking actions that are aligned with their values. Mindful Resistance practices offer educators agency to take action in their sphere of influence (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007). Whether it be rediscovering the joy of working with college students, remembering one’s genuine purpose in student affairs work, or building authentic community with colleagues through meaningful partnerships, striving for recovery allows educators to reclaim ownership over how they engage the escalating neoliberal environment in higher education.

Historically, taking action is something that student affairs professionals have done very well. This tendency toward leadership and problem-solving can be a double-edged sword, however, creating conditions where educators consistently sacrifice their own wellness for the greater good of their students, their institutions, and their jobs. With even a small amount of rest and reflection, this transformative energy can be channeled into actions that reliably promote joy, purpose, and community in the work of student affairs professionals. Although specific actions will vary depending on the individual discoveries made during rest and reflection, educators should focus their efforts on aligning actions with their own core values and the values of the field of student affairs, when possible.

With even a small amount of rest and reflection, this transformative energy can be channeled into actions that reliably promote joy, purpose, and community in the work of student affairs professionals.

Mindful Resistance practices hold the possibility of a world where student affairs professionals can find stillness, make meaning, and recover the joy, purpose, and community that has historically defined the field. Through this framework, educators can push back against the dehumanizing effects of neoliberalism in student affairs, reclaim their humanity, and promote the liberation of all students and educators in higher education.

Working Toward Recovery

Student affairs educators can work to recover their humanity, and the humanity of others, by raising awareness about the corporatization of higher education. “Neoliberalism is very nebulous,” noted Dr. Museus. “Understanding it is not something that people in our field have historically prioritized. The field is only beginning to have in-depth conversations about it. We haven’t yet gotten to a place where people can collectively enact their agency and make a difference. Now is a good time for us to do that.”

Student affairs educators can also recover from the dehumanizing effects of neoliberalism through focused efforts to build coalitions on campus that work collectively for social justice. “So much of neoliberalism is about cultivating individual gain. Collective efforts can counter that in a culturally responsive way. When we see populations on campus not being served well and not being retained due to systemic oppression, we can come together and collectively resist,” noted Dr. Kiyama. Williams echoed the effectiveness of developing a supportive resistance network by saying, “I have folks who I go to for community. I often look to the people in my community to talk about our experiences. If I can find them, these are loving people who can help ensure that I’m taking care of myself.”

When we see populations on campus not being served well and not being retained due to systemic oppression, we can come together and collectively resist. - Dr. Judy Kiyama

Engaging in solidarity movements can be an incredibly healing resistance strategy for college educators. “We need to practice solidarity-building between identity-based communities on campus, and also units within the institution that don’t often work together,” concluded Dr. Kiyama. “Because of neoliberalism, we compete for resources, time, and space. If we work to cultivate community across campus, with the moral imperative to serve students for the public good, that in and of itself, is a resistance strategy.

Discussion

  • How does neoliberalism impact your work as a student affairs educator?
  • Do you see the tenets of consumerism, competitive individualism, surveillance, precarity, and declining morality play out in higher education?
  • What strategies, tools, and resources do you use to resist the forces of neoliberalism?

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts below. Also, subscribe to the quarterly digest of Higher Education meditations to get a recap of the trends shaping higher education and student affairs today.

Resources

Here are a few resources that college educators can use to learn about neoliberalism in higher education and develop Mindful Resistance practices:

References

Adams, M., Bell, L. A., & Griffin, P. (2007). Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge.

Alvarado, L. A. (2010). Dispelling the meritocracy myth: Lessons for higher education and student affairs educators. The Vermont Connection, 31, 10-20.

Ashlee, K. (2017). Utilizing mindfulness and contemplative practices to promote racial identity development for White college students. Understanding and Dismantling Privilege, VII(2), 54-65.

Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Berila, B. (2016). Integrating mindfulness into anti-oppression pedagogy: Social justice in higher education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Di Stefano, Gino, Pisano, & Staats. (2016). Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning. Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-093; Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 14-093; HEC Paris Research Paper No. SPE-2016-1181. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2414478 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2414478

Galinsky, A. D., Ku, G., & Wang, C. S. (2005). Perspective-taking and self-other overlap: Fostering social bonds and facilitating social coordination. Group processes & Intergroup Relations, 8(12), 109-124.

Giroux, H. (2002). Neoliberalism, Corporate Culture, and the Promise of Higher Education: The University as a Democratic Public Sphere. Harvard Educational Review, 72(4), 425-464.

Goldberg, D. T. (2009). The threat of race: Reflections on racial neoliberalism. Brentwood, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Inwood, J. F. (2015). Neoliberal racism: the ‘Southern Strategy’ and the expanding geographies of white supremacy. Social & Cultural Geography, 16(4), 407-423.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Bantam Books.

Kelchtermans, G. (2007). Teachers’ self-understanding in times of performativity. In L.F. Deretchin & C.J Craig (Eds.), International Research on the Impact of Accountability Systems. Teacher Education Yearbook XV (pp. 13-30). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Letizia, A. (2015). Revitalizing higher education and the commitment to the public good: A literature review. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 11(2) [online journal].

Lin, M. & Lucey, T. A. (2010). Individual and group reflection strategies: What we learned from preservice teachers. Multicultural Education, 18(1), 51-54.

Lynch, R. J. (2017). Breaking the silence: A phenomenological exploration of secondary traumatic stress in U.S. college student affairs professionals. Doctoral Dissertation. Old Dominion University.

Lucey, T. A., Ransdell, M., & Anderson, C. (2008). Uncommon perceptions: Beginning understandings of preservice teachers’ multicultural interpretations. Southern Social Studies Journal, 33(2), 3-53.

Lueke, A., & Gibson, B. (2015). Mindfulness meditation reduces implicit age and race bias: The role of reduced automaticity of responding. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(3), 284–291. http://doi.org/10.1177/1948550614559651

Magee, R. V. (2016). Teaching mindfulness with mindfulness of diversity. In D. McCown, D. Reibel, & M. S. Micozzi (Eds.), Resources for teaching mindfulness: An international handbook (pp. 225–246). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Museus, S. (in press). Humanizing scholarly resistance: Toward greater solidarity in social justice advocacy within the neoliberal academy. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.

Museus, S. D., & LePeau, L. A. (2020). Navigating neoliberal organizational cultures: Implications for higher education leaders advancing social justice agendas. In A. Kezar and J. Posselt (Eds.), Administration for social justice and equity in higher education: Critical perspectives for leadership and decision making (209-224). New York: Routledge.

Park, C. L. (2010). Stress, coping, and meaning. In S. Folkman (Ed.), Oxford handbook of stress, health, and coping (pp. 227-241). New York: Oxford University Press.

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