Experts: In Wake of Orlando Massacre, Higher Ed Must Reaffirm Commitment to Diversity

Updated Jun 23, 2016

Academics on the front lines of higher education around the nation say their institutions should be taking steps to deal with the aftermath of this month’s tragic mass shootings and murders at a gay night club in Orlando, despite the incident’s occurrence being off a college campus and not directly involving students, faculty or an issue with an institution.

Statements by authorities investigating the atrocity suggest the shooter was motivated by messages on social media channels that stirred the gunman’s emotions on a myriad of issues ranging from sexual orientation to religion, politics, ethnic and racial appearance.

The possible impact of social media access and messages suggests academics on the front lines have their work cut out for them, as the higher education community inherits an increasing number of students who may be personally wrestling with the psychological effects of the Orlando shooting and other agonizing issues.

“You’ve got to go ahead, take this on and reaffirm your school’s commitment to diversity and religious freedom,” says Dr. William Russell Robinson, an assistant professor of communications at North Carolina Central University, echoing colleagues around the globe about the initial steps academics should take with their students.

As important, Russell and others say, the Orlando incident should prompt educators to think and ask whether society, and young college students in particular, is experiencing social media overload.

“We have to know whether enough is too much,” says Russell, referring to the fact that modern communications via social media allowed people to instantly communicate about the Orlando shooting from inside the club as people were being murdered.

“As these messages are readily available, it makes it (society) more vulnerable,” he says. Russell taught pop culture and has done extensive research and writing on the impact of social media.

Susan Mango Curtis, a veteran news journalist and multi-media professor at Northwestern University, near Chicago, says the Orlando incident demonstrated how light speed communications via social media outlets are a fresh reminder to her and others who teach of the breadth of challenges social media present their efforts to educate.

“Physically, they (students) are in the classroom; mentally, they are not,” says Curtis who says students are distracted more than ever by various mobile communications gadgets.

Social media devices for “texting” may be of priceless value to students faced with Attention Deficit Syndrome ailments, she says, as such applications allow students to get lessons and replay them again later. In other hands, a different application, commonly called an “app,” could be loaded with sexual pictures and messages, while another could be loaded with hate messages and pictures aimed at women, a particular kind of people or a society of people.

Some apps can get foreign students in real trouble back home, she said, noting as an example the rigid internet rules of China. If a Chinese student studying in America at an American institution is caught by Chinese monitors viewing an app via social media, that student could be returned to China for punishment.

“Students see social media as part of their lives, a deep part of their lives,” says Curtis, referring to numerous academic and social studies on the increasing emotional impact of social media on society.

“We (academics) have to educate ourselves on social media and keep up to date while we are trying to educate our students,” says Curtis, acknowledging that social media changes nearly every day and creates a rich mix of challenges.

“For years social media scared us,” she says. “Now, we really can’t stop its use. So we need to try to teach students how to use it to their advantage.”