Decolonizing Higher Education Requires a Growth Mindset and Compassion

April 6, 2019

Decolonizing Higher Education Requires a Growth Mindset and Compassion

Marilee Bresciani Ludvik, Ph.D.

For as long as humans have dwelled on this planet, they have lived, worked, and survived together within groups.  There may be specific common characteristics across the human groupings and there may be characteristics unique to the groupings. Regardless of the groupings, a set of values emerges, often articulated by the dominant members of those groups and then those values are carried forward across generations of the groupings. These values actualize themselves in the form of ritualistic practices, rules, or norms for which the humans within that grouping live by.  These ritualistic practices, rules, and norms are often upheld and reinforced by the dominant members of the organization or by the ones who are given authority over the group. Violations of these rules and norms result in a continuum of reprimands for the violator.  The continuum of reprimands could include public or private shaming for the behavior, educational approaches/interventions, a variety of sanctions, an invitation to restore justice, imprisonment, or death.

Whenever a specific human grouping holds a value as an absolute truth to live by, that human grouping often wants other human groupings it comes across to adopt that value.  It is a sort of a, “this works so great for us, we have to tell you about and you just have to try it” kind of thing, but it can also be, “we had to jump through this hoop so you have to also” kind of a thing.  However, when that absolute truth is viewed  (whether real or perceived) as key to a particular human grouping’s survival, groups of humans will do whatever they need to do in order to keep that value alive, which may include doing whatever is necessary to extinguish any opposition to that real or perceived absolute truth.

This is not a new discovery for those of us who work in the education industry.  We witness the declaration of various groupings of human beings’ absolute truths to live by on one another every day.  This assertion of these truths among diverse groupings of human beings can take many forms.  For example, it can look like formalized academic debate with agreed upon rules for engagement, an assertation of unwritten rules that people are just supposed to know as in the process of getting tenure, a compassionate dialogue, or an emotionally vulnerable difficult conversation.  When one grouping’s absolute truth to live by is adopted above all other versions of human groupings’ absolute truths to live by, it can look and/or feel like a microaggression, a macroaggression, demands, oppression, harassment, hate speech, racism, sexism, or violence to name just a few.

Moving to agreement of what our common values are within higher education that inform our rules to live by can be difficult.   However, agreeing on our absolute truths to live by and describing what it looks like when we are living those out within a diverse community within higher education can be daunting.   As I have heard Jamie Washington, Past President of ACPA, proclaim on a number of occasions, “this is not a value free dialogue we are trying to have here”. Value laden discussion are messy. People’s feelings get hurt in value rich discussions. And people can understandably feel that the core of their identities are under attack, which means they may feel or experience emotional harm.  To critically examine the previous absolute truths that we have been consciously and unconsciously living by within higher education in order to explore, adapt, and adopt new absolute truths to live by so that allhuman beings feel heard, seen, and valued within this diverse community, then a growth mindset is in order.

Carol Dweck, Stanford University Professor and author of the book Mindset, defines a growth mindset as the understanding that skills, abilities, and intelligence can be cultivated.  With emerging neuroscience research, we know that there are many skillsets, once thought to be fixed, that are in fact malleable. Cultivating malleable neurocognitive skills such as openness, conscientiousness, empathy, compassion, emotion regulation, self-regulation, and a growth mindset may be crucial for our continued engagement in decolonization dialogue, design, assessment, and evidence-based informed actions within higher education.

What could this growth mindset look like for us as educators in the examination of and understandable challenge of previous absolute truths to live by so that we can collectively adopt new ones?  In their Bold Vision Forward Framework, the Association for College Personnel Administrators (ACPA, INC) has defined this explorative process as decolonization.  The definition of decolonization is “a long-term process of first recognizing and then divesting bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic, educational, and psychological power from colonizers” (p.11).  ACPA goes onto explain that “as a part of this process, it is essential to:

  • Be self-aware of our words and practice in order to develop and nurture a mindset different from the dominant paradigm,
  • Honor the land which has belonged to Indigenous people who were exterminated and/or removed against their will [we add here to also hold in reverence the continued existing pain and suffering of the land and the people], and
  • Not assume Indigenous people need fixing or need to adapt to the currently dominant culture” (p.12-15).

If you are reading this and don’t identify as a colonizer, I share this.  The family I was born into  migrated to Nebraska because the human grouping they belonged to in Eastern Europe were being oppressed  by another group who wanted their absolute truth to be adopted.   The family I was born into refused to adopt the other groupings’ absolute truth and resistance resulted in persecution and often, death.  So, they moved across the ocean and settled into a place where they worked for landowners who were descendants of people who stole the land from Indigenous people.  Eventually, my parents purchased land from descendants of people who stole the land from Indigenous people.  And then eventually, I purchased land from  descendants of people who stole the land from Indigenous people.  In a nutshell, to escape colonization, we bought into a colonized nation… as in literally bought into.  We didn’t buy into just the land we now call home, but we also bought into what we understood that it meant to be American.

One day when I came home from school, I told my father that people were asking where we came from. I saw a fearful and then angry face as he sternly said, “whenever anyone asks you that again, you tell them you are an American. You are an American.”  I heard him repeat this over and over again. I never asked him another question about what all that meant.  Around the dinner table in the evening is where we received our behavioral lessons. We learned how we were supposed to sit at a dinner table, hold utensils, dress, speak, use proper grammar, and we were told to never answer any questions about where we came from or what we believed in.  We were to work hard, get as much education as we could, go to church, pray our prayers, be generous with what we have, avoid becoming materialistic, fly under the radar at all times, and to stay very close to the family.  According to my father, these were the rules we had to learn in order to become successful.

I never thought that this was colonization; but I did know that it was an assimilation process which we were involved in and I willingly engaged out of deep respect for my father and all that he and his family had been through to give me a shot at becoming educated.  Later, I would learn that assimilation is a process inherent in colonized societies.  What didn’t escape me is that apparently, the family I was born into left a country where the colonizers were forcing absolute truths in which they couldn’t assimilate and moved to a country whose absolute truths they could assimilate.  And in this country, I experienced the most violent form of a colonized mindset; the one that often acts from a place of, “I can hurt you and get away with it.” In other words, “I can steal your land and kill your people and no one will hold me to justice for doing that.”    Many people dismiss this dialogue here as if colonization was a past act and not a present mindset.

Well, perhaps we have mis-characterized it and perhaps we have not.  Consider for an instance that there may be other forms of a colonized mindset that may appear less violent, yet are effective at causing internal harm.  Could one of them be, if you just work harder, you will get your degree?  And if you fail, it will be because you didn’t work hard enough.  It is a belief I was required to buy into in order to complete my degree.  Yes, I worked hard to get my college degree, but if a family I barely know wouldn’t have covered the $1,000 tuition, room and board bill that I literally had no way of paying in my senior year, it wouldn’t have mattered how hard I worked.  My degree would have been stalled.  With the course transfer policies in place in most states,  there was no less expensive way I could have found to complete my degree in one year; than to accept the generosity of a family I barely knew who paid the bill so that I could finish my undergraduate degree.  And still, in my academic journey to becoming a tenured full professor with a PhD, I have encountered all kinds of “I can do this to you and get away with it” experiences that had nothing to do with the work I was doing and all to do with who I was as a human being and sadly, I know I am not alone.

Colonized thinking is the thinking that we were told to “buy into” in order to “make it” through college and in this profession.  The colonized mindset, along with other fixed mindsets such as the SAT score is the predictor of academic student success,  influence how we examine our policies and practices and deem them fair.  In essence, without our examining the fixed mindsets – termed as a decolonization process – we will never understand what is needed for all students to achieve at a high level.

As a person wearing white skin who once believed several mentors and professors who told me I had no place in this conversation because I am wearing white skin and because of my passage as a colonizer, I share some lessons thus far from my growth mindset journey.  I trust that you will receive these lessons with loving kindness and a commitment that growth mindset for me means leaning into learning more and continually revising my lessons learned so the resulting actions open up more possibilities for genuine connection with and loving kindness and empowerment of all human beings, rather than the preservation of a system’s previous way of doing.

As I share these lessons, I thank the leadership of ACPA’s Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization conversations (particularly Jamie Washington and Craig Elliott), my colleagues at San Diego State University (particularly Lisa Gates and Frank Harris III), my colleagues within NASPA (particularly  Larry Roper and Penny Rue), and all the students I serve for teaching me these lessons that I am still learning.

  1. Acknowledge that we are living in and among the pain of oppression; the past is always in the present. And no amount of good-person-ness or good intentions will make that go away.  That doesn’t mean goodness is not appreciated; it means that we can’t expect to get pats on the back for demonstrating goodness.  There is simply too much work to do to restore past harms and heal.It can indeed take place with goodness, but good intentions alone are not going to help us all figure out a different way of being and doing that serves all human beings well.
  2. Love for all  human beings is at the center of this exploration and action; ithas to be. To quote Brene Brown from her 2018 book of Dare to Lead,we need to be in these conversations and resulting actions without armor and with a vulnerable, compassionate  heart.  However, the students I serve have told me countless times that being loving and vulnerable is not enough. Being loving may allow individual student empowerment, but across the organization, funding formulas undergirding policies and practices continue to prohibit individuals from succeeding. I firmly believe that being loving and vulnerable will open up doors to wisdom that can emerge, however, it must be tried on to see who it works for and how.
  3. Practice critiquing what is “not enough” in a way that invites movement toward understanding whatis enough for each human being and all the ways it can look depending on who is answering the question. It is easy to criticize, but it takes wisdom and courage to dive into the dialogue, create pilot programs and assess their effectiveness in a way that informs what we need next.  Questions such as those that follow allow us to discover the individual nature of human learning and development and also help us recognize when we are asking students and colleagues to make it work when it really doesn’t.  What does it look like for you when you feel you are being heard? What does it look like for you when you know you are being seen?  What does it look like for you when your identities matter in this place and time or in this difficult conversation?
  4. Accept that you are going to fail and learn from that failure in a way that informs what’s next. Barb Snyder, former Vice President of the University of Utah and University of Nebraska-Kearney, once told me that if you want to do this work, you have to accept that you are going to have the best day in your life and the worst day in your life and experience it all in the same day.  Since that piece of useful wisdom was adopted, I would add to it another piece of advice from Brene Brown’s 2018Dare to Lead book, “embrace the suck.” It hurts to fail and it hurts to not know how to fix it, but that is not an excuse not to engage in trying on something that may work well for at least one more human being. Ask, what about this failure worked for whom?  And what about this failure did not work for whom?  And why, if possible to discover.
  5. Inform the work that needs to be done with explicit honoring of the work that has been done. This is not to say, as ACPA leaders attest, that we can hide behind a statement about all the work that still needs to be done by focusing on what we have accomplished.We have accomplished a great deal. However, consider analyzing what is working well within the context of informing what’s next. Engaging in outcomes-based assessment where you involve the students’ voice and your colleagues’ voices in describing what it looked like when it was working for whom and what was happening when it worked and how did you know that, can be incredibly useful for validating what did go well while also informing what needs to be done next for whom.
  6. All identities matter and there is work to do to hold all identities with reverence while meeting the shame that arose, arises, or is still present from perhaps skillfully hiding in, behind, or simply hiding that identity or intersecting of identities.  In essence, shame can arise when the implicit is not made explicit or when identities are mis-appropriated and as a result, dialogue closes.   In the same context, it is important to recognize that not all of the human beings we serve within higher education want their identities brought forward.  Some religious and spiritual practices seek to embody a self-less presence.  In essence, identifying with the self at all is not welcomed or invited.  No-self is an identity that also must be honored and respected if we are to practice what it looks like when all identities matter.
  7. Whois saying what   I need to hold with reverent awareness and compassion that identities may be visibly present, mis-appropriated, or assumed. I need to learn from the pain that was created by how my words landed.  For me, receiving compassionate coaching or feedback from people who know my heart and expect me to get back into the dialogue to discover what is possible next is pertinent to cultivating a growth mindset.  As Jamie Washington says, this is not a performance of the political correctness in which we used to train people. When he states that who is saying what matters, he is talking about a genuine way to cultivate the self-awareness aspect of the growth mindset that begins with an individual, moves into social grouping(s), and then moves onto organizational functioning.
  8. Actively practice compassion and self-compassion. We keep telling the students we serve that if we knew how to serve each one of them in a way where they felt fully honored for who they are at all times, we would have written a book and been making money off of the consulting.  We remind them and ourselves that we are in this practice of living social justice as a way of being with them in all of this and that means I’m going to mess up and you are going to mess up.  If love for all human beings is at the center, as ACPA leaders remind us, then we can give each other space, time, and resources to care for ourselves so that we can return to the dialogue, dynamically discover, and subsequently act upon what we do and don’t know while holding the question,what does respect,  justice, and genuine care look like for you in this situation?  Are we resourced (internally and externally) to co-create that for everyone in every situation?  And if not, what would it look like to be able to co-create that?
  9. Actively practice self-compassion and give permission to others to do the same. This is repeated for emphasis here because I have so many, “oh s _ _ t” moments when I amin this;  as in, “oh s _ _ t, I just did that or said that or didn’t do that or didn’t say that” moments.  Without the mindfulness-based self-compassion practice, I wouldn’t know when to withdraw to re-fuel or re-source (e.g., re-building internal resources) so I can re-enter the dialogue.  Instead, I would be out lost in my story of “not enough,” which I have done in the past.  And that in and of itself is an “oh s_ _ t” painful memory moment.  One of my mentors continually reminds me to write out a stack of mindful self-compassion permissions slips to use for myself and to also hand out to others for their own personal use.
  10. Practice mindful compassion with mindful compassion. Mindfulness and compassion are grossly misunderstood terms and practices. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that while they are powerful evidence-based practices to decrease stress and anxiety, decrease implicit bias, stereotype threat, and implicit racism, and increase a myriad of other positive outcomes, many of the practices are intended to invite one to detach from the identities that one holds as important so that we can connect with each other first as human beings.  This can leave a mindful compassion practitioner who cares deeply about being seen and honored for their identities with a feeling that mindful compassion is covert colonization. That is not its intention but it could be its felt outcome if not practiced with awareness that identities do matter to many and they are in the room.  The practice of mindful compassion requires an explicit statement of what common humanity is – an avenue to connect with self and others in a genuine way.  It is not the marginalization of identities.

In closing, it seems apparent that we don’t need any more evidence that what we have been doing for centuries within American higher education is working for everyone.  And even for those who it appears it has worked as in they have graduated within four-years, or been promoted to professor with tenure, the health and well-being costs for many have been enormous. I don’t know how to fix that or heal those who have been harmed.  As such, I welcome hearing the lessons have you discovered and how have you discovered them in your journey with a growth mindset to co-create a new set of absolute truths that will work for everyone within our higher education community.

Marilee Bresciani Ludvik, Ph.D. serves a professor of postsecondary educational administration at San Diego State University. She can be reached at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *