Frank Harris became interested in researching college-aged men when he worked for a university’s student affairs office. Part of his job was supporting young women who had been the victims of violence.
“When you’re working on those types of incidents, you develop a deep empathy for what these women go through, and you decide maybe there are things we can do to prevent these things from happening,” Harris said, in a recent interview. “It is one thing to be responsive; it’s another thing to be proactive. Being proactive is getting to the people who have the opportunity to make a difference.”
For Harris, those people are young men. “Why shouldn’t we be targeting men? Why shouldn’t we help young men be leaders, to make better choices and to make better decisions?” he asked.
Last week, Harris, who is an associate professor of postsecondary education at San Diego State University and co-director of the Minority Male Community College Collaborative, led two workshops at Bowdoin. The first was a development program for staff, the second a summit for male students. Associate Dean of Student Affairs Allen Delong invited Harris to campus and organized the programs.
“My goal is to share some insights from research I’ve done over the years about how best to support college men develop a positive male identity,” Harris said. “To support guys who embrace opportunities for leadership and who help do the things that make campuses better places to be, for all students.”
Harris’s research is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t focus on the men who do the things that garner negative attention — the assaults or the harassment. Instead, he studies men he calls “culture changers.” These are men who, for example, challenge sexism, homophobia or racism when they observe it; who critically reflect on who they want to be; who get involved in campus leadership beyond sports or fraternities; and who behave according to well-defined values. “These are men who are willing to change and disrupt masculine cultures,” Harris described.
When he visits college campuses, Harris said he advises staff about how to support “positive male student leaders.” For example, he says employees can be on the lookout for these types of young men and reinforce what they are doing by letting them know their behavior enriches the college community. He also urges colleges to hold young men accountable for behavior that contradicts the institution’s values. And he advises colleges to create spaces and opportunities to encourage students to reflect on masculinity today.
“It is good for colleges to take responsibility for helping the men on their campuses grow to be better people,” Harris said.