Diversity and Democracy

Owning Your Own Mind

Trust yourself, be open to different ideas, and continue to learn. That is what it means to “own your own mind.” At San Francisco State University, we see owning one’s own mind as a key outcome of a college education. But with today’s students facing complex challenges related to social media, global conflict, and civic leadership—and with an educational system that is under pressure to focus on helping students secure jobs rather than on ensuring their good thinking—a life of the mind can seem like a distant, romantic, and dated goal.

Nevertheless, our library is filled to capacity until closing with diligent students earnestly seeking peace where they can find it. Clearly, the value of liberal education—which liberates the mind for higher-order thinking—persists on our campus. At the same time, the physical, psychological, and social manifestations of a world in conflict are real to our students. As a microcosm of that world, our campus has experienced significant challenges, including disruptions of speakers and ugly social media entanglements. This reality has required students to incorporate their lived experiences alongside the wisdom they gain in the classroom.

Experientia Docet

San Francisco State prides itself on the powerful learning that comes from experience, as reflected by our motto: Experientia docet, experience teaches. Our campus has a long and proud history of social and intellectual activism, a deep respect for community, and a commitment to excellence that inspires our students and faculty. We not only support difference and encourage activism that speaks to injustice, we also provide the conditions necessary for students to achieve our collective goal of owning our own minds—an outcome that is critical to contending with and confronting a complex world. 

Within the storm of modern life, a liberal education provides the tools to think deeply, broadly, and differently from the crowd. Today, however, liberal education involves more than interacting with an inspirational professor or exposing oneself to a world of books and ideas. Owning one’s own mind requires thinking beyond anything one has ever encountered, and activism is one way of practicing such thinking. Participation in activism, like practice in intellectual inquiry, arms students with methods of thinking and doing that can help them navigate a world that may love them at one moment and despise them the next. 

Activism can also lead students to a place of belonging. In a complicated and challenging world, where intellectual anchor points are hard to find and messages rarely endure beyond a social media blast, the notion of belonging and the chance to make a difference can infuse a student’s education with a unique sense of responsibility. And so, students aggressively seek those anchor points, those moments of inspiration that motivate them on their educational journeys.

The College President as Model

Far too often, students of color—especially those of mixed heritage—approach me (Leslie Wong) respectfully and remark, “You’re the first president (or campus leader) I know who looks just like me.” It is a deeply symbolic gesture suggesting a connection that is unique in their own educational histories, and it conveys an important message about the welcoming and supportive environments that they desperately seek. Perhaps it also provides a glimpse into the challenges they face in a world that, all too often, doesn’t look like them.

But for me, these exchanges also suggest a real conundrum. As the university’s president, I am not president for these students alone, nor will I always be on their side of every issue, even if we look alike. Our campus is diverse and robust, with more than thirty thousand students striving to excel. My own behavior, public and private, serves as a model for these students, including those who rightly identify me as someone who comes from their neighborhood, who looks like them, and who often thinks like them (as demonstrated by my frequent support for social issues). Each moment of every day, I have to include in my own repertoire the very behaviors I want all students to learn and cultivate.

The way in which college presidents and other campus leaders engage with the full range of emotions and conflicts—and, more importantly, how we manage our solutions and successes along the way—means much to the public and to our students, who carefully watch us. As a college president, I am guided by the following observations:

  • One’s presence at events signals a lot about one’s personal values. I attend athletic events with the same passion as those related to theater, philosophy, or science. I participate in the vast array of speaker engagements on campus; some speakers I agree with, and some I don’t, but all offer something I want and need to learn. I tell students that it’s not whether I agree or disagree that counts. In order to think meaningfully, I need to put myself in conversation with others holding ideas across the spectrum of viewpoints. If I am not a learner, the odds are, neither will students be. Excitement over learning and understanding of its value start at the top.
  • I want to be seen not only attending to bureaucratic questions, but also reading and exploring in the library, fueling my addiction to learning with my own curiosities. I am far from being an expert in many things, and I’m sure that the people around me tire of my questions and queries. Each year, I focus on learning something about which I know little: poetry, math, literature, welding, woodworking, farming, or information technology.
  • In the face of student activism, I want to make sure students see that I am listening intently, measuring my own words out of respect for their voices, and asking questions that help me better understand their positions. Their activism will result in sharper thinking, which I expect will shape their positions as authentically theirs. I hope that students will see their input reflected in my decision-making and thinking processes, whatever actions I take.
  • I recognize that owning one’s own mind is of particular importance when making tough, politically charged decisions. I want students to see the members of my leadership team weighing the evidence, seeking input, collaborating, and coming to a shared position that allows us to collectively face the issues and meet our responsibilities.

Modeling the very processes expected of students is not easy, but that is the beautiful challenge of leadership on today’s campuses. When the campus leadership team looks like our students (and at San Francisco State, it does), shares their values (we do—more on that below), and collectively confronts challenges with good thinking, compassion, and strength—that is when we can show students that it’s possible to confront a world that upsets us, gratifies us, and confuses us, yet somehow enables us to make a difference.

The Heart of What We Do

In tough moments, we always pull out San Francisco State’s strategic plan, which was crafted through an extensive, highly public process. We ask ourselves whether the decisions of the leadership team and our collective approach to these challenging times reflect, to the best of our abilities, the fundamental values that the strategic plan articulates: courage, life of the mind, equity, community, and resilience.

These values are at the heart of what we do, of when we do it, and of the high level of accomplishment we expect of ourselves. And it is most heartening to experience how important these values are to our leadership. If students can see how we engage with difficult, important, and often threatening circumstances, we will succeed not only as administrators, but as educators modeling the deep and consequential learning that our students need in order to thrive in a complex and uncertain world.

Leslie E. Wong is President and Alison  M. Sanders is Chief of Staff at San Francisco State University.

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