Feature: When Is a Campus a Sanctuary?

By Zoë B. Corwin, Associate Professor and Director of Research, Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California

In the documentary The Light in Her Eyes,[1] filmmakers Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix tell the story of a small group of women who create a tiny school in Damascus, Syria, where conservative Muslim women congregate to study the Qur’an and secular subjects. The head of the school takes great pains to ensure that students are protected, and students are careful to constrain any public displays of their learning. In creating the school, the women effectively cultivate the right conditions for learning. The all-female space evolves into a sanctuary where the women converse, share ideas, and challenge each other intellectually; the women flourish, not only academically but also socioemotionally. In this regard, the school functions not as an official sanctuary campus, but as a place of refuge for learning and empowerment.

Institutions of higher education in the United States may seem to have little in common with the small school in Syria. Many colleges and universities in the United States claim to be beacons of free inquiry, freedom of speech, and academic freedom. Students do not have to mask their participation in higher education or study in secret. On the contrary, students are often praised for their academic achievements and postsecondary institutions are often lauded as places where students can safely experiment and explore. Further, until recently, most campus student safety policies dealt with random acts of violence or natural disasters; they were not designed for protecting particular student groups on campus.

In response to the recent executive order banning travel from selected Muslim-majority countries and the possible elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, colleges and universities have been forced to grapple with student security in new ways. Many institutions have quickly opted to declare themselves as sanctuary campuses and thus extend protections to students without legal documentation; others are still struggling to figure out the best way to serve students, staff, and faculty who feel threatened by the new policies.

To address the lack of clarity around the concept of “sanctuary campuses,” the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California (USC) created two documents—one outlining the history of the DACA program and offering suggestions for postsecondary institutions moving forward,[2] and the other delving into the concept of a university as a sanctuary.[3] But even after creating these documents, we at the Pullias Center felt that our treatment of the concept was limited. We recognized that the Black Lives Matter movement on college campuses served as a key indicator that many African American students do not feel safe or valued in higher education. In addition, an uptick in acts of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and bias toward the transgender community has emphasized a need for higher education to scrutinize and expand upon the concept of sanctuary on college and university campuses.

If a primary purpose of higher education is to cultivate critical thinkers and an active, informed citizenry—and if students are most likely to develop those skills when they feel safe in expressing their views and experimenting with novel ways of thinking and interacting with others—then surely the concept of sanctuary takes on greater importance. Given the diversity of US-born students, as well as the significant number of international students studying at US colleges and universities, it becomes critical to consider when, where, and how students, staff, and faculty are best positioned to experience deep intellectual and socioemotional growth.

Our Bringing Theory to Practice campus dialogue grant[4] has enabled us to turn attention to the concept of “sanctuary” at our institution. We have focused on issues concerning USC’s status as a potential sanctuary campus but have also pushed the concept further.

We are interested in understanding what it might mean to provide not only physical sanctuary but also intellectual sanctuary. To date we have involved over seventy students, staff, and faculty in dialogues about who feels safe on campus and under what conditions. The dialogues have enabled stakeholders from across an expansive campus to meet each other, listen, and brainstorm possibilities for improving campus

Four preliminary themes have emerged from the dialogues:

• Creating a forum for stakeholders to delve into complex issues is critical. The postsecondary environment often functions as a series of silos. Stakeholders (students, staff, administrators, and faculty) seldom convene across groups—within a university, for example, members from different schools seldom interact. Without cross-pollination, policy discussions run the risk of excluding important voices.

• Identifying potential challenges or barriers leads to troubleshooting possible solutions. For example, it can take a long time to gain support for and implement new institutional policies, yet policies are key to university-wide change. Individual interactions occur at the micro level and do not necessarily lead to wide-scale change, but they can improve the day-to-day experiences of students, staff, and faculty. 

• Developing trust among participants is imperative. Selectively recruiting individuals to participate in dialogues leads to more meaningful interactions. Once confirmed, key participants can serve as helpful advocates in recruiting others to join the conversation.

• Self-care matters. While issues of sanctuary at the institutional level are paramount to fostering a positive campus climate, equally important to the climate is the practice of meaningful self-care among diverse campus constituents. The most active change agents often overlook their own self-care.

In the fall, we will draft an action plan for the university that is informed by these dialogues, and we will create materials to inform similar national and international conversations.

[1].  Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, The Light in Her Eyes (Los Angeles, CA: Clockshop, 2011), http://thelightinhereyesmovie.com/.


[2].  Pullias Center for Higher Education, “Understanding DACA and the Implications for Higher Education,” Pullias Center for Higher Education, accessed April 20, 2017, http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/understandi....


[3].  Pullias Center for Higher Education, “The University as a Sanctuary,” Pullias Center for Higher Education, accessed April 20, 2017, http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/The_Univers....

[4].  BTtoP recently awarded thirty-one “campus dialogue” grants to campuses interested in facilitating the "greater purposes of higher education”: learning and discovery, well-being, civic engagement, and preparation for living meaningfully in the world. The dialogues will convene core groups of diverse campus constituents, and they reflect each institution’s unique campus culture and attentiveness to current issues. For more information, see http://www.bttop.org/grants-funding/campus-dialogue-grants.