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Trauma and Resilience

I joined the faculty of the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University in July 2017. In the five and a half years since we have experienced the gradual uncovering of one of the worst sexual abuse scandals in national history. We've had a president and a provost ousted as a result of the failures of their leadership that allowed the abuse to expand unchecked. We've had an interim president ousted due to the ways he repeated and worsened the trauma that too many in our community had experienced. And just last semester, we had a president resign thanks to an entirely dysfunctional relationship with and within our board.

And all of this was surrounded by our larger cultural traumas, by the rise of a populist demagogue to the highest political office in the country, by the repeated and relentless violence enacted against Black and brown men and women across the nation, by the plot to kidnap and murder our governor, by the riot at the capitol seeking to overturn an election, by the deaths of nearly 7,000,000 people worldwide in a pandemic that still remains uncontrolled.

And the shootings. At concerts, in churches, at nightclubs, in schools. In schools.

Last night, that trauma came home too.

I have spent the hours since the first alerts went out physically sick with worry, grief, anger, and sorrow. And I just spent a difficult hour in a meeting with other college administrators who are all feeling much the same.

Back in early 2018, as the horror that had been allowed to take place was being detailed through the brave testimony of the survivors, I told a friend that the thing that most gave me hope was the fury, the absolute rage of the faculty, staff, and students of MSU, that this trauma had been inflicted on their campus, in their community. That rage gave me hope, because it made change possible.

I want to believe the same thing today. I want to believe that the collective trauma that we have experienced over the last five years on this campus, in this state, across this nation, around this world, might mean something, that we might come together to demand better.

I'm not giving up on that, though it's hard today. This is the kind of day when we hear a lot about resilience. And that's hard to swallow, unless we heed my friend Bethany Nowviskie's call (issued about a year ago on Twitter, now removed) to focus on building and sustaining resilient systems, adding that relying on personal resilience is a sign that we have let our systems fail.

We have let our systems fail. They failed our students and their families with devastating results last night. Building more resilient systems will require us to resurface our collective rage and put it to use.

That's hard today. But I'm hoping we might gather it in the days ahead.


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