Dean McKnight’s Job Made More Crucial by Current Political Climate

For John McKnight, recently installed Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, the biggest shock of his inaugural semester was not exactly Conn-specific.

“I couldn’t have imagined we would have elected Donald Trump as President,” McKnight admitted, “and it has had a direct influence on, certainly, the campus climate, the current environment and the way I think about my work.”

While academics’ commentary on the the new presidency has a tendency to sound ominous, McKnight assumed a concerned but not devastated perspective, clarifying: “The truth is, it hasn’t changed anything in terms of my vision for an engaged campus community…But I guess what has changed is [that] it has intensified, and it has made the work even more urgent.”

McKnight stressed passion and pragmatism, noting that “There’s so much to be on fire about right now…And I think there’s this general perception that colleges want to somehow hamper that or reign it in in some way, and I think that’s a misguided notion. What I want from the student body is to be really clear about the issues that matter to you, know exactly what questions to ask, and find ways of engagement that will be productive and that will really bring about the change that they wanna see.”

Noticeably aware of the critiques that this message of productivity might bring about, McKnight added: “Sometimes that happens in the form of protests or demonstrations, and other times it happens in a more strategic way of approaching a problem…But I don’t want people to hear or read that and think: ‘they just don’t want us to protest.’ That’s not it at all.”

After the election, McKnight’s office immediately got to work. He began with programming catered both to potential protesters and strategic deliberators. “Our division had already planned kind of a gathering, to be able to discuss the implications, for people to celebrate, or mourn, or whatever it is. Not expecting the outcome that we ended up with, it very quickly turned into a very large gathering,” McKnight remarked.

Since that initial gathering, the work has become more technical and rooted in policy. McKnight said that at a luncheon to which all international students were invited, he “ brought in an immigration attorney to talk about what we imagine might be coming down the road,” an opportunity which he believes was crucial.

“The number one advice we’ve been hearing from our legal counsel in advising these students is: they all need to have an immigration attorney kind of on speed dial,” McKnight explained. Regarding Conn’s part in making that happen, he added: “We’ve established a fund for people who are seeking legal counsel and may be unable to afford it.”

Because Conn’s student body includes students from countries listed under Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban,” McKnight noted that those students are of particular concern at present. But, he clarified: “The focus keeps shifting. The first week after the election, we were really focused on DACA and undocumented status.”

McKnight added that while Donald Trump’s election has led Americans to shift their policy priorities, one issue’s elevated urgency does not diminish the importance of another. He mentioned that the identities of individual students are so varied that Conn and other institutions must provide support across a spectrum of diverse national, racial, religious, socioeconomic and sexual identities.

When asked if he was worried about Trump’s vow to disrupt sanctuary cities, McKnight stated: “Yes, I worry about everything he says.”

“Part of the issue with the word ‘sanctuary’ is that it doesn’t actually have any legal bearing right now for any of the institutions that have claimed it,” McKnight admitted. He continued: “But what I love about Conn’s stance on this is we defined, for ourselves, what it means to be a sanctuary…[President Bergeron] said what that meant, and what that meant was we would go to extreme lengths, within the confines of the law, but to extreme measures to protect our students.”

“If this new presidential administration wants to challenge sanctuary statuses,” Dean McKnight posed, “would he start with colleges?” He added that we must critically consider: “What does it mean to ‘go after’ sanctuaries?”