Posted July 20, 2015 by Joanna M. Iwata 

Acts of Compassion: The Choice of Noticing

In response to the tragedies that surround us not only within and around our campuses—such as the murder in Chapel Hill, N.C., of three innocent Muslim students from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University earlier this year—to the national stage, from Ferguson, Mo., to Charleston, S.C., and to what is occurring globally—can we give ourselves permission to pause for a moment?

As we do so, what images or feelings immediately come to mind? Forgiveness. Despair. Hope. Fear. Love. Hate. Compassion. What are we either sensitized to notice or not notice related to the fuller impact of these events and their ripple effects in either our lives, our students, and/or on our campuses? How have you, as a leader, observed what can occur in positive and healing ways when we can mindfully operate from our individual and collective acts of compassion to positively transform the norms within our workplace, workforce, or community as leaders?

I am reminded of an inspirational 2007 TED Talk by Daniel Goleman, who is psychologist and the author of Emotional Intelligence. He has also written extensively on this subject (EQ) as it applies to our best practices as leaders and managers. This particular talk was different and timely, focusing on the important topic of compassion.


In his TED Talk, Goleman checks in with the audience about the choice or act of noticing and/or not noticing what is occurring right in front of us due to what we are oblivious to. He challenges us about what we notice but do not notice and how, in our acts of self-absorption (whether that’s running to a meeting, talking or texting on our cell phones, eating on the run, etcetera), we fail to recognize or pay full attention to what we can do differently in our personal lives (and as leaders) that would transform our lives, our work, and—in our case—our campuses.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like if we paid fuller attention to both the challenging and uplifting situations occurring around us. Imagine if we paid fuller attention to the universal relationships we hold sacred as we tap into being more fully present with one another as opposed to being too busy to notice or care or, better yet, being puzzled or pissed off (“pizzled”—refer to Goleman’s TED Talk).

I am grateful that in my volunteer work with ACUI not only as the inclusivity coordinator for Region I but now as a representative on the new ACUI Diversity Council that we can intentionally create pauses in our exchanges to reflect, examine, and “notice” key issues emerging nationally (and/or globally) that are related to framing our key team priorities (especially for ACUI and the Diversity Council as we begin our work together). 

Our colleague from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented one of the first topics for the council to examine deeply; we discussed the rash of hate crimes emerging from Ferguson, Mo., to Charleston, S.C., as well as other unreported crimes of this nature—such as the burning of six southern churches, which was not covered as heavily by the national media.

compassion handsThis naturally made us consider other relevant issues affecting our campuses, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. When Diversity Council members compared notes, we identified several responses to this movement around the country, ranging from full-blown activism to lukewarm acknowledgement to, in some cases, nothing being visibly articulated by university administrators.

As most of our student unions and student centers serve as focal points for rich and challenging student engagement and even debates about civil rights movements, with a focus on issues of inclusion and social justice, one of the compelling questions several of us had during the Diversity Council meeting was this: Why do some of our university administrations choose to remain silent about—or choose not to notice— these critical quality of life issues affecting our communities?

We are fortunate that as an association, ACUI has a long-standing and rich history of advocating against such injustices; a recent example of this is the Association’s response to anti-gay legislation from Indiana. This response was orchestrated in both a timely and mindful way to inform our membership about their deliberations. The Association’s courageous choice reflected a significant “act of noticing,” which is to be commended if not celebrated (as much as the recent decision made by our Supreme Court).

In closing, to me, Goleman’s TED Talk has a direct correlation to what is going on both nationally and globally when he speaks to our choice of “noticing” and acting on what we can do differently. His talk is especially relevant to the Diversity Council as we consider what we can do differently on our campuses. This consideration only serves to elevate a key virtue that we perhaps do not have the time to exercise regularly but should in operationalizing our acts of compassion and “noticing” within our different roles as advisors, as advocates, and as leaders.

The Dalai Lama so eloquently sums this up in this insight: “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Likewise, our institutions of higher learning and the Association cannot survive without embracing these virtues of love and compassion on a 24/7 basis.

Our challenge to pay attention within our universities and colleges as visionary leaders then becomes even more compelling… because whether we like it or not, our choices do dictate our actions or non-action. Given that, what will you choose to “notice” and do differently today?

Joanna M. Iwata

Joanna M. Iwata is the AS Senior Coordinator for Governance and Operation at California State University–Monterey Bay.

Joanna has served ACUI in volunteer leadership roles since 1998, formerly as director of Region V and currently as inclusivity coordinator for Region I. She has authored articles on a wide range of topics, including leadership, management, diversity, teamwork, and organizational development, which have been featured in publications for ACUI, NACAS, and NASPA.


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