The Sensemaking and Construction of Political Narratives in Academic Settings

Richard T. Marcy and Valerie J. D’Erman, Telos


In recent years, there has been something of an explosion of news stories about various college and university campuses across North America experiencing heightened levels of political advocacy and political unrest. Visible examples include the “canceling” of invited speakers who have been deemed offensive by select student groups[1] or petitions calling for the removal of instructors who have been accused of using harmful language.[2] While these examples shed light on some of the more intense political debates circulating in higher educational institutions, they are also newsworthy stories precisely because they suggest strong divisiveness in worldviews in action—the contradiction between different conceptions of “truth” within the campus venue. Less newsworthy, but no less important, are the introductions of new narratives that have become “truth” over time via general acceptance on the part of campus populations. As established organizations, academic settings are also sites of group behavioral norms and values in and of themselves, with self-contained perceptions and assumptions of what ideas ought to become institutionalized norms and what ideas ought to be excluded. Put another way, the college/university campus is an important site of political narrative-making as well as social debate.

Our aim in this paper is to explore how some political narratives are helped in becoming institutionalized “truth” on campus through particular strategies and tactics that rely on an evolving sensemaking process. Universities have long been sites of multiple narratives—whether via organizational norms, disciplinary debates, or individual assertions—and our focus here is on the process by which some truths become the only acceptable truth on today’s campuses. We delineate the way in which the worldviews (the “truth”) that underpin the employment of advocacy statements go from being an individual statement of challenge to the status quo, to becoming a new group norm and organizational truth. Using as a case study the example of the use of territorial acknowledgments, we further rely upon literature from various disciplines to highlight the sensemaking processes at work through this evolution. The relationship of this topic to that of the Telos symposium is twofold. First, the very examination of statements such as territorial acknowledgments is a provocative exercise in and of itself, as doing so could be perceived as calling into question the typically expressed rationale underpinning such acknowledgments, which we are not doing. This rationale is presently a part of administrative meaning-making at many institutions, making this type of inquiry somewhat novel. Second, the recent institutionalization of some advocacy statements, such as the territorial acknowledgment, showcases the process of how political narratives can, over time, become entrenched as new organizational “truths.” The case of the territorial acknowledgment is ripe for this investigation because issuing the acknowledgment has gone largely uncontested on campuses, despite some instances of contestation outside of academia.[3] While initially a political statement, the offering of the acknowledgment has now become normalized behavior within regular campus life—in effect, the primary “truth” considered appropriate for both organizational norms and individual assertions. This case study is notable for a consideration of the pursuit of truth on academic campuses for a number of important reasons, not the least being that not all forms of political advocacy have been absorbed as truth in the same manner within university settings. One critical example of non-absorption can be found in the University of California’s 1950 requirement that all faculty members must sign a statement pledging their disavowal of the Communist Party or face dismissal. This requirement was met with wide-scale resistance, and the resulting pushback and lawsuit rendered the statement unconstitutional.[4] Another more recent example of a large backlash to an administrative nudge would be the Danes’ rejection of a new organ donation proposal (of which there were typically high acceptance rates) due to the government’s recent altering of policy that clearly had the intention of further increasing donation rates.


Categories: Education, Left and Right

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