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Interview with Becky Crandall, Ph.D. from Oregon State University on LGBTQ+ Students, Religious Diversity, and Student Athletes

About Becky Crandall, Ph.D.: Becky Crandall is Associate Professor of Practice in the Adult and Higher Education Program at Oregon State University. Dr. Crandall’s work on equity in education aims to foster worldview diversity with a focus on students from religious and nonreligious backgrounds and LGBTQ+ students. Her scholarship also advocates for equity for student athletes, for which she received the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Student Athlete Knowledge Community Research Award.

Dr. Crandall’s publications have appeared in journals including Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Homosexuality, and Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. Alongside her teaching and research at Oregon State, Dr. Crandall is currently Project Director at Rankin Climate, a leading campus climate assessment organization.

Dr. Crandall holds a Ph.D. in Educational Research and Policy Analysis with a specialization in Higher Education from North Carolina State University. She also holds a Master of Divinity with a specialization in Christian Education from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication with a specialization in Electronic Media from Louisiana State University.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your personal, professional, and academic background? How did you become interested in educational equity work, particularly as it pertains to supporting LGBTQ+ students, student athletes, and students from differing religious and nonreligious backgrounds?

[Dr. Becky Crandall] My journey is a bit nontraditional compared to a lot of the folks that I know that are in this type of work, specifically faculty work. I grew up in a mid-sized town in northeast Louisiana. I will offer that my dad spent his career as a Southern Baptist pastor and my mom is an educator who has spent the bulk of her career serving children from under-resourced families.

When I look back, I can see how equity underpinned the work that both of my parents modeled for me. Although I do not honestly recall us talking about things through overt DEI language, I know that my parents, their approach to their life, and their work really planted the seeds for the work that I now do. I need to thank them for that.

I say my journey is a bit nontraditional because when I was in college, I felt drawn to working with young adults, but I really only thought that I could do that through ministry. That is what I had seen modeled. I had gone to a Christian school from first through 12th grade. I had that one lens of how to do work with young people. I was also in college in the mid-1990s. Back then the field of student affairs was not something that people seemed to talk about as much as they do today. I knew that I did not want to be a K-12 teacher, so I thought I had to become a minister in order to do this work.

After finishing my Bachelor’s in Mass Communication, I went to seminary where I completed a Masters of Divinity degree. From there, I went on to serve as a campus minister at universities across the Southeast for about seven years. Then, I made the shift to what I would call traditional student affairs roles before ultimately pursuing my doctorate.

Those campus ministry roles laid the foundation for the student affairs and faculty work that I do now. The work with intercollegiate athletics that I do today began when I worked with student athletes and coaches throughout those years in ministry. I saw the complexities of their student experiences firsthand. I walked away from that work with an interest in telling the stories of those students. Similarly, my interest in research on LGBTQ+ students was primarily due to the issues that I watched those students navigate in the overtly evangelical religious spaces where I worked. It was also informed by the complexities of my queer journey. As I wrestled with that part of my identity while serving as a conservative evangelical minister, I knew that this was a vein of research that I would ultimately want to pursue.

When I left campus ministry, I was not forsaking it. Certainly, I still carry that with me. It just felt like it was time for me to make a shift into a more traditional campus role. I took a position working as a director of student involvement, and that work really underscored patterns that I had only seen to a limited degree as a campus minister. Specifically, I saw systemic inequities manifest in a variety of realms, including for students from diverse religious backgrounds. This played a role in confirming the direction that I wanted to take moving forward. I stepped away from a secure, full-time, director-level role to pursue my doctorate and live on a graduate student stipend. In every way that choice transformed my life, and so I am incredibly grateful for it.

[] Would you introduce us to how you define equity in your own research and practice? In particular, while LGBTQ+ students are more often included in DEI discussions, student athletes and religion are less frequently discussed in these terms. How does focusing on these students extend or nuance our understanding of equity in education?

[Dr. Becky Crandall] I wrestled with this question a bit. Of course, I could rattle off a textbook answer about what equity is. But to be honest, in thinking through this question, I became convinced of the reality that, particularly in a scholarly space, it is easy for us to become so academic about equity. Language and terminology absolutely matter, but my initial reaction was to go textbook on you, which I think means losing sight of the heart and the power behind the question of what equity means. Just as I want my students to humanize and apply information, I never want to be someone who knows a lot of an issue but forgets the people who are impacted by inequity.

When I think about equity as defined in my work, I think of that classic illustration of the three different children who are looking over a fence to watch a sports game. Because they are different heights, if you give them each the same sized box to stand on, only the tallest child can see the game clearly. Equity is giving each child a box that suits their height so they can all enjoy the game. That always comes to mind for me. It is not about giving folks a cookie cutter set of tools and then expecting them to end up at the same outcome.

In my scholarship and teaching, I think equity is about taking time to recognize and appreciate differences. I think that appreciation piece is critical. We need to appreciate the full humanity of folks and take time to account for the different ways that each of us show up in different spaces. Equity means not always looking at things through a deficit-based perspective that sees difference as a problem. We need to approach the learning community and what people bring to the spaces from an asset-based perspective.

Recognizing and appreciating the full humanity of students also means that we have to take time to disrupt our thinking about specific student subgroups, which I hope my work does. Going back to the examples we have discussed, people make assumptions about student athletes. They see them as a very privileged population, and, yes, they have a certain set of privileges, but this is a reductionist perspective. It does not account for the totality of those students’ experiences.

Specifically, it overlooks the fact that college athletics is incredibly racialized and the way gender inequity also manifests within it in very distinct ways. I want to specifically shout out the work of my colleague at Oregon State University, Dr. Kirsten Hextrum, who has been drawing attention to inequities as they manifest in athletics. I think it is important to name scholars who are also continuing to trouble these issues.

We do not often talk about religion in K-12 or higher education because of the discomfort that it can prompt within people. But students, faculty, and staff hold a variety of religious and non-religious identities. We all hold perspectives about people who have worldviews that are different from ours. We need to talk more about these issues because they manifest in practical ways within education: for example, in policies around holidays, religious accommodations, which religious groups have opportunities for student support, and which groups have physical gathering spaces on our campuses. It is important for us to talk about it, because to not talk about that aspect of identity within our DEI conversations means that we are ignoring a big part of who many people are.

I am always struck by the reality that it takes time, thought, and intentionality to make change. This does not necessarily make for easy, large-scale shifts in programming and policy. I know this can be very frustrating because you cannot just apply a blanket approach and then say, “Here, we have solved the problem.”

[] Would you put your interest in religion into conversation with your scholarship on “worldview diversity?” In particular, I was interested in your reflections on the significance of your work on interfaith dialogue and your publication “Bridging Political Divides on Campus: Insights from the Study of Worldview Diversity” to our current political and educational context.

[Dr. Becky Crandall] It is so messy. There is no other way to describe it. The bottom line is that we cannot isolate conversations about politics from conversations about religious identity. They are one and the same. Whether it is the rise of Christian nationalism in the country or the ways that people vote, many important aspects of political identity are strongly correlated to religious identity. I think as we head into another election cycle it is incumbent upon us to think about these issues as existing together.

Some of the most complex days of my life as a faculty member played out immediately after the 2016 US Presidential Election. I recognize that sounds wild, given that there was a global pandemic that happened shortly thereafter. But I will never forget how I walked into class that day after the election completely ill-prepared for the wide range of emotions that students were feeling. These were emotions that were tied to a variety of identities and ideologies, including religious identity. Again, it is important for us to think about these topics as existing together.

“Bridging Political Divides on Campus” was informed by IDEALS [Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey], which is a national longitudinal study that was done to understand students’ experiences and outcomes related to interfaith diversity on college campuses. The study started in 2015 and followed a group of students throughout their college career. Admittedly, the data is a little bit old now, but the fruit of that study continues to prompt conversation. “Bridging Political Divides” was written to add some nuance to how we discuss the interplay between politics and religion and explore the opportunities for understanding that are fostered when students engage across worldviews.

The IDEALS project was done in partnership with a group called Interfaith America. I want to recommend them as a resource for us as we consider how we might address and support students within today’s highly divided political space. I also recommend that folks take a look at Dr. Matthew J. Mayhew and Dr. Alyssa Rockenbach’s work. They are the primary researchers behind IDEALS, and they continue to do a lot of work to trouble these issues and facilitate appreciation for diverse worldviews. We cannot isolate politics and religion. They intersect. We need to do our homework to understand how these things are operating in concert so we are not caught being naïve like I was in 2016.

[] An important thread of your research explores the relationship between religiosity and the experiences of LGBTQ+ students, for example, your publications, “Examining Institutional Support Structures and Worldview Climate for Sexual Minority Students in Christian Higher Education,” and “Interfaith Experiences and their Relationship with Heterosexual Collegians’ Attitudes Toward Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual People.” Would you tell us a bit about the dynamic between faith on college campuses and LGBTQ+ student experiences, as described in this line of your work?

[Dr. Becky Crandall] There is a strong correlation between religious identity and how folks relate to people who are LGBTQ+. This is a well-established relationship, and there is a huge body of work on it. There is another body of work, which includes pieces that I have helped to author, that highlights the power that lies in relationships and opportunities for students to engage with folks who are not like them, including people with different worldviews.

The interesting thing is that, when we provide opportunities for students to engage with folks that are different from them in terms of worldview, it increases understanding and reduces bias. This might mean, for example, religious identity or non-religious ideology: an evangelical Christian spending time with somebody who identifies as agnostic or atheist. Similarly, when we provide formal or informal opportunities on campus for religious students to engage with queer students, whether in a classroom space or on an interfaith service project, they come away with a heightened appreciation for LGBTQ+ folks.

This highlights the ways in which religion structures our thinking about other people and the social order. We cannot isolate conversations about sexual identity and the experiences of LGBTQ+ students from conversations about religious identity. A lot of times, what it takes to deconstruct bias is simple. It is students sharing a meal or studying with someone of a different religious or non-religious perspective. We are not talking about things that require grand budgets and huge programmatic shifts. It is folks sitting down at the table from different religious traditions, identities, or political ideologies. It means providing a context where students are doing life together.

Drs. Tara Hudson and Alyssa Rockenbach are doing some really interesting work on what they are calling “interworldview” friendships. It reminds me of something I heard someone say to me years ago. It stuck with me and probably will for the rest of my life. They said, “In you the black and white became flesh and blood.” That is what these friendships do. They provide opportunities for the black and white to become flesh and blood for students. We have to create opportunities, whether it is in Christian higher education spaces or secular higher education spaces, for students to engage with and come to appreciate folks who see the world differently than they do. It has profound implications for how they see the world and see others.

[] One of your most recent publications is, “Social Justice in Student Affairs Graduate Programs: Exploring the Perspectives of Senior Student Affairs Officers.” Drawing on this piece, could you discuss the importance of social justice curriculum in graduate student affairs programs? How do you see the current state of social justice education in the field, and are there important ways it needs to develop that you would emphasize?

[Dr. Becky Crandall] I think it is important to acknowledge that this piece was published before the recent wave of anti-DEI legislation. That has become an incredibly complex norm that institutions are having to navigate. At the same time, I will share that in that study, my colleagues and I discovered that senior student affairs professionals like Vice Presidents of Student Affairs and upper-level administrators found value in the field offering social justice curriculum. They thought it was important for graduate programs to equip future student affairs professionals in this way.

However, there were some tensions that emerged when it came to early career professionals, specifically being able to integrate their administrative duties with their desire to serve in an activist role. To put it simply, sometimes it seemed as though programs were preparing activists and not administrators. Some of this may be due to where people are in their own identity development or in their development as professionals.

There are growing pains that come with learning how we can integrate our values with the realities of our job. Not every aspect of my job is inspiring and joyful. I do not love grading, but I have to do grading as a part of my work even though there are other things that animate me more. Early career professionals may not want to do the less glamorous stuff but want to really focus on activist and social justice initiatives.

Even with this tension, I agree with the senior student affairs officers that a social justice curriculum is important. I have now taught in both a higher education student affairs program and a more general higher education program. In both programs, we centered social justice and equity. We talked about power and privilege and how those have shaped and continued to shape our educational experiences in the US. It is of critical importance to talk about those things. You cannot erase the realities of the world and work. I do not know how we can effectively prepare folks to do good student-centered work without having these conversations.

Now, with these actual barriers to the work that are being imposed by legislative actors, I think that we are going to have to be creative in how we think about framing these issues moving forward. I think it might require us to adjust our language. When before we would overtly describe our work as social-justice-focused, now we may have to be a bit cryptic in how we talk about these things. I do not know what that is going to look like moving forward. I just cannot fathom that we are going to erase these issues from the conversations in the curricula, because it is like the air we breathe and the water in which we swim. It would be like teaching math but not talking about numbers.

[] You are currently Project Director at Rankin Climate. Would you tell us a bit about this organization and highlight some of the projects you have worked on with them? What does a data-driven approach allow for in tackling issues related to campus climate and equity?

[Dr. Becky Crandall] Rankin Climate is an organization that has existed for over 20 years. The funny thing is that the organization came to be almost as an accident. Dr. Sue Rankin is an expert in campus climate and a legend in the field. During her time as a faculty member, Dr. Rankin started a research project on campus climate that became so popular that it gave birth to this consulting group. As I remember her telling the story, she had limited funding to do these studies on a couple of campuses but soon so many started to reach out that it was more than she could manage at the time.

Today, Dr. Rankin’s legacy of excellence in this work lives on through the 250-or-so campuses that have walked through very robust campus climate assessments with our team over the years. I have been part of the team since 2015 as a data analyst, a report writer, and now as a project manager. One of the things that I love so much about the work that I get to do with Rankin Climate is our evaluation process. Campuses do not just receive data about the experiences of their students, faculty, and staff. Instead, campuses are given that data, then campus members co-construct action steps to address the issues that are highlighted in the data. Built into that process is transparent accountability for achievement of those action steps.

Transparency undergirds so much of the work that we do. I find that to be incredibly rare. Oftentimes, these campus-wide surveys produce huge reports that just sit on a website or somebody’s desk. There is nothing done with it. But, as a case in point, in a few months I will travel to a campus where my colleague and I have been working for a year and a half now. We will present the results of their survey at a community town hall. Then, typically there will be affinity groups or forums of campus members that come together to make meaning of those findings and come up with action steps that they take to campus leadership. As part of the contract, they have to enact those. The action steps are put on a website with month-by-month progress updates. I think it is a really amazing way to ensure accountability.

This is what a data-driven approach allows for when we actually use the data, but so often we do not. I think the other important piece is not just using the data but also co-constructing action steps. Many times, campus leaders get the data, and they are the ones making the decisions. Change-making is not inclusive of students, staff, or the people who are actually impacted by whatever the decisions are.

[] Based on your research and experience, do you have advice you would give scholars, educators, or practitioners seeking to advance educational equity in their own work?

[Dr. Becky Crandall] Many studies have highlighted the degree to which faculty and staff have experienced and are experiencing mental health challenges and heightened stress since the onset of COVID-19. In line with those studies, I will share that I hit a professional rock bottom a few years ago. I was absolutely burned out. I did not realize that I was headed in that direction until it was too late. But as the research also tells us, the body keeps the score. For me to recalibrate from the physical, emotional, and mental toll of my previous way of operating, it basically took a move across the country.

Ultimately, recovering required me to learn the power of saying no. I realize that we have jobs to do. I am not naïve in that regard. But I have gotten to a point in my life where I have begun to really ask myself how much of that is due to socialization and the ways that we have bought into this busy-ness culture. Even those of us who care about disrupting oppressive structures within education sometimes unintentionally perpetuate those oppressive structures. I would argue for embracing the power of “No.”

We have an opportunity to push back on oppressive systems in sometimes subtle but meaningful ways. For example, because I often overextended myself during the day, my administrative work in grading got repeatedly pushed until late at night. Over the years, students started to notice this and to lovingly call me out on my self-care hypocrisy. They also shared with me how, when I worked that way, it created a culture wherein they felt pressured to respond late at night and always be working.

Late-night emails seem relatively minor, but the unhealthy patterns behind them represent how I was missing opportunities to more fully center love and account for the fullness of who my students are as humans. Learning to say “No” allows us not just to account for our own humanity but to also be more clear-headed and to have greater capacity to account for our students’ humanity.

I am also realizing that making space for my humanity and that of my students requires intellectual stimulation and professional development. Creativity is critical to my productivity, but my creative goals would get pushed off because there is always another meeting. It may sound simplistic, but learning to embrace “No” as a complete sentence gives me more space to say, “Yes,” to the things that allow me to more fully support my students and to continue to push toward equity.

Thank you, Dr. Crandall, for sharing your insight on fostering equity for LGBTQ+ students, collegiate athletes, and promoting interfaith and worldview diversity!