Your “frill” is not my “frill. “ My frill, in fact, is an essential component of the work I do, which is an equally essential aspect of our institution’s mission. Maybe you say the same about yours.
And therein lies the heart of the difficulty in discussing what has recently become a phrase bandied about in the world of higher education. “No-frills education” has been touted by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, the president of Southern New Hampshire University in recent attention-getting interviews, and pundits commenting on the out-of-control costs of college. If we can just strip the college experience down to its most basic form, the argument goes, we can restore sanity to the price structure and access to those who need it.
But the first challenge comes when we begin to discuss, and decide on, what constitutes a “frill.” Unfortunately, the contentious and fractured nature of higher education, long a hotbed of competing priorities, makes that a difficult conversation.
Shopping for a college education is not like buying a new car, and building an effective institution to provide that education is not like building one. If one of us goes into a car dealership with a plan to buy the most stripped-down vehicle on the lot, and we stick to that plan, we have a pretty good idea of what we will drive away owning: a car without many of the nifty features now available. No GPS, no satellite radio. We will have a smaller engine, which we understand will leave our simple little car a bit underpowered on the highway.
But we know too that we will have a car equipped with the basic safety features required by law -- seatbelts and airbags -- and that it will have the components necessary to drive off the lot: four wheels supporting a frame, powered by an engine.
But what is it about a college education that is truly essential? And how do we arrive at that conclusion? We can start with the curriculum, but if there is an institution out there that has not suffered through lengthy debates about the components of that curriculum, neither of us knows where it is. The only thing constant about the “essential” components of a curriculum has been the regular change each institution imposes on it.
Foreign languages, for example, have been a mainstay of a liberal arts education. But as demand has lessened and resources have dwindled, a number of institutions have reduced or eliminated this requirement. Skill in writing has long been one hallmark of a college education, but at many large research institutions, students can graduate having written fewer than a dozen substantive papers, many of those having been graded and returned with few comments and corrections. Colleges and universities have added, and then removed, requirements for courses addressing diversity, gender issues, global concerns.
What was essential in one decade is seen as frivolous in another. At the furthest extreme is an institution as esteemed as Brown University, which has no required courses among its thousands of offerings.
Is academic support a “frill”? If one agrees that writing is indeed an essential component, then is a writing center that provides intensive tutoring in this skill also an essential component? That’s a fairly easy argument to make. And yet, in a time of budget cuts, we have seen writing centers forced to reduce their hours and staff. At what point does this essential component become so limited that an institution’s mission is threatened?
To return to the car-buying analogy, we know that tastes and needs have an impact on standard equipment in a car, and that over time, we adjust our expectations of that equipment upward. One would be hard-pressed, for example, to find a car without a radio today. It doesn’t mean the radio hasn’t added to the cost of the car, just that we are in agreement that we will accept the cost as part of the price of the car.
But easy acceptance has never been part of academic culture. We can, and do, argue over everything from the lack of vegetarian options in the dining halls to class schedules, from the awarding of tenure to a less-than-stellar instructor to the political correctness of a mascot. Debate is, one could argue, an essential component of our mission (though we have to admit there are days when we wish it were a frill that we might be willing to do away with). The risk for our institutions is not in the content of this debate, but in the oft-reflexive assumptions we bring to the debate, which can then degenerate into a harsh and morale-sapping exchange between groups of colleagues.
“No-frills education” discussions have their common fodder: gleaming recreation centers, posh residence halls with concierge desks, heavily-funded student activities events, athletics and all its attendant costs. These are among the items that proponents of “no-frills” education seek to eliminate. The “no-frills” education offered by Southern New Hampshire University, for example, is a commuter-based approach to garnering credits; many classes are taught by the same faculty who teach at the university’s “heavily frilled” other campus. But are those students getting the same education as their peers down the road? Perhaps they don’t need a recreation center, but is there any doubt that students learn valuable skills from activities outside the classroom?
Over the past 20 years, service learning as a component of the curriculum has become increasingly common as faculty and students alike, supported by data, acknowledge the deep level of learning that takes place when students must put their classroom skills to good use in the community. What about learning to develop a budget for an organization, motivating volunteers, evaluating the success of an effort? And practically speaking, how does a no-frills education impact a student’s relationship with the institution? Will these students be loyal alums 10 or 20 years after graduation?
It’s equally critical that we remember that very few frills are either/or propositions. Most exist on a continuum of cost and usefulness. Perhaps a climbing wall (a “frill” often cited as an example of an unnecessary expenditure) isn’t a good use of campus dollars. But is a fitness center with basic cardio equipment that gives students, as well as faculty and staff, a convenient way to relieve stress and stay healthy in that same category? Similarly, a residence hall with a spectacular view of Boston’s skyline, such as the luxury accommodations recently opened by Boston University, can hardly be discussed in the same conversation as the standard double-room, shared-bath residence halls still operating on most campuses.
These debates about “amenities” versus “necessities,” about what our students need versus what they want, rage on, as they should. It is our responsibility as the keepers of our institution’s educational integrity to own these debates and decisions. If we abrogate our responsibility to do this, someone else, like a state legislator or policy maker or a popular magazine that makes a bundle on its “rankings” issue, will step in.
Who should get to decide that a particular outside-the-classroom activity is a frill? Living on campus is a “frill” in the minds of some higher education policy makers, and certainly the community college system in American has shown for a century that students can receive a good education without experiencing dorm life. But who would argue that learning to live with others isn’t a valuable skill? It’s certainly one we hope our neighbors have learned before they move into the townhouse next door.
Is residence life essential? No. Is it a frill? No. Is it somewhere in the middle? Most likely. So who on any given campus is best positioned to determine whether it stays or goes as part of a move toward “no-frills” education?
An athletics program is similarly difficult to gauge. At one of our institutions, a small, professionally focused college, athletics was eliminated without much of a fight, and the college hasn’t missed a step.
At the other of our institutions, a small, selective liberal arts college, a quarter of the students participate in an intercollegiate sport. The budget to support these efforts, while modest compared to larger schools, is not insubstantial at a time when every dollar is scrutinized. There are on this campus, as we’re sure there are on every campus, those who would characterize athletics as a “frill.”
But if we eliminated the entire program, or even a few sports, enrollment would suffer greatly as those student-athletes sought other opportunities to continue their athletic pursuits, and we would have a hard time keeping our doors open for the rest of our students. It’s also worth pointing out that on this campus, as is the case on many small college campuses, our athletes are retained at a higher rate, and receive less financial aid, than the student body in general.
Some of the “no-frill” efforts being proposed are closely aligned with a view of higher education that is more vocational in nature, more targeted at providing students with skills essential to building an effective and pliable work force to rebuild the American, and global, economy. Setting aside the enormous question of whether this should be the true purpose of a college education, we nonetheless need to consider the role of career services in this equation.
Does a “no-frills” institution help its students find jobs after education? Perhaps, but how? Does it help students identify possible internships with employers? That would be a good idea. Does it invite recruiters to campus to interview students? That makes sense. Does there need to be an employee whose responsibility it is to arrange these internships and visits? That is helpful. Should someone work to prepare these students for these interviews? Review their resumes? Help them determine which recruiters might be of interest to them? Offer a workshop on interviewing skills? Those services make sense if the institution is truly committed to helping students move successfully into the workforce. So now perhaps this institution needs a career services office to provide these opportunities, replete with staff, a small resource library, some career-oriented software supplied on office-located computers.
Frills? Yes, no, and somewhere in between, depending on the vantage point from which you approach the matter.
The point of these examples is not to lead us down a path of endless debate about residence halls, athletics, career services, student activities, or any of the “frills” that proponents of “no-frills” would like to eliminate. It’s to point out that we have, at this point, no agreed-upon framework with which to discuss and define “essential” versus “frill.”
Will these “no-frills” campuses take a pass on academic support services? How about orientation or a campus conduct system? Will faculty at these no-frills institutions be any more comfortable dealing with students in serious academic or emotional distress than our faculty colleagues are now, most of whom appear grateful to have a counseling center (which some might consider a “frill”) to refer these students? Will students with learning and physical disabilities still be able to get the assistance they need, or will anything beyond the bare minimum required by the federal government be considered a “frill” and cast aside along with the climbing wall, spring concert, turf field and whatever else is the frill-of-the-day as portrayed in the media?
We can’t, and won’t, answer yes or no to these, though we each have our opinions. We just want to propose that each institution should own its discussion about these matters. Casting aspersions on the work of others, on the contributions of that work to students and to an institution’s core mission, is not productive. What is productive is an ongoing, civil conversation about those students and that core mission, and an effort to first build a framework for that conversation that educates each of us in the work of one another.
Every institution must have its own conversation, and no two institutions will reach identical conclusions. One institution’s frill is another institution’s essential service: ours to decide, and ours to defend. Leaving the definition of “frill” to others puts us at grave risk of losing control over our very purpose. We must look inward for the anchor points of this conversation. Who are our students, and what do we owe them? What do they need from us (rather than want from us) to ensure they have the best chance of succeeding at whatever it is we have crafted as our institution’s goals? And then we must measure what we offer against those goals, rather than against the college down the road that is awash in apparent frills (which, perhaps, they don’t define that way, and that is, of course, their prerogative).
What each one of us believes is essential may not be what another believes is essential, but we do share, at our best, a deep commitment to this work of educating college students, and we each deserve a voice in the conversation.
Lee Burdette Williams and Elizabeth A. Beaulieu
Lee Burdette Williams is vice president and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, and Elizabeth A. Beaulieu is dean of the core division at Champlain College.
"Students today are so industrious!" My colleague blurted this after learning students had replaced labels on their water bottles with exact replicas — but with the test answers typed in the ingredients section.
However, another colleague disagreed with any positive attribute for today’s students. She recently summoned a failing Comp 101 student to inquire about his surprisingly excellent final paper. After he repeatedly claimed to have written "every word," she replied, "Then I have just one final question. Young man, exactly when did you have your abortion?" She concluded, "Students today are lazy. For 40 years I’ve caught students copying papers — but at least they had read them first!"
The academy at-large is also divided over this generation’s profile. We tend to classify today’s students as either lazy (putting our country’s future in peril) or industrious and creative (offering national hope). It appears that we have a “Janus Generation;” researchers continually picture its students with contrasting faces, like the two-headed Roman god, Janus.
This discussion of student profiles is hot press — the recent Boston Globe articles on “My Lazy American Students” garnered around 800 blog responses and discussion on this Web site as well. The combined Google entries for any of the topic’s name holders (e.g., Net Generation or Millennials) surpass 200 million. Likewise, the Digital Natives project has drawn a diverse community of collaborators from Harvard University and the University of St. Gallen. Don Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital (1997) and Grown Up Digital (2008) continue to draw considerable attention — though he presents a rather positive view of the same collegians derided elsewhere as "lazy Americans." Michael Wesch’s "A Vision of Students Today" is approaching four million YouTube views and now exceeds 10,000 blog responses; helping to earn him the 2008 Carnegie/CASE Professor of the Year Award — and many others.
During several conference and campus presentations this year, I've found audiences generally negative about student performance, much like responses Wesch notes among his respondents and narrated in "Lazy Americans." However, I also present sharply divided research to frame the discussion. A chart of the leading resources on today’s students helps to categorize negative and positive conclusions.
Student characteristics that appear as "laziness" to some are categorized as "technologically preoccupied" to others. "Entertainment" for one professor is labeled "sophistication" by another. Like Abelard’s Sic et Non, participants are asked to draw their conclusions — but with a utilitarian goal of improving student learning and enhancing student success efforts. Nearly all audiences are struck by studies like that by the University of New Hampshire -- showing no correlation between social networking and grades (n=1,127 UNH students from campus-wide sample).
And some scholars have rather positive perceptions of this much maligned generation, e.g., Marc Prensky (progenitor of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants") and Neil Howe and William Strauss (authors of various millennial studies).
If we consider the Janus Generation as a gathering of neologisms for students born from 1977 through 2001, we can talk generally about those students whose educational experiences overlapped with the modern technological revolution. A few major terms used to describe aspects of these overlapping groups include: Net Generation, Digital Generation, Millennials (b. 1982), Digital Natives (though qualified), Generation Me, Y (and now iY), Screenagers, and Mosaics. The watershed of 9/11 recognizes new socio-religio-politico realities, and Strauss and Howe have already started calling those born after this time "The New Silent Generation" while others prefer "Generation Z" and "iGeneration."
The Janus Generation faced another reality, the coming and going of troops. The two faces of the god Janus had appeared on opposite sides of Rome’s War Gates (or, the Gates of Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings, the namesake of January). Emperors bragged if these gates were shut (time of peace) and not open (time of sending to battle as Janus watched in both directions).
This last connection with Janus struck me while watching Wesch’s video for the first time during an engagement in Ireland. Though this international audience of educators could identify with what Wesch himself observed as "a disheartening portrayal of disengagement," we could also sense the students’ intensity about the human condition.
Painting a Negative Face on the Janus Generation
Kara Miller’s provocative Boston Globearticles remind me of David French’s National Review Online entries "Low Graduation Rates and the Total Lack of Student Effort" and its sequel. These also drew a wave of comments, including one from a high school teacher in Phoenix: “One bright light, ironically enough, is reading (trying to read!) Heart of Darkness with my seniors. Even though they do not "get it" and the majority do not actually read it (Sparknotes!), when we get to the section about "the flabby weak-eyed devil" of laziness, they sit up and take notice. That passage usually generates an interesting discussion about how lazy they actually are."
The bulk of the comments on Miller’s op-ed are likewise empathetic with her "lazy" generational attribute, and some laud heroic status on her for such a candid appraisal. However, others note the gaping holes in her logic, or at least the lack of scientific evidence for assertions and comparisons with international students. Miller seems to assume that at some point anecdotes become data sets and data sets reflect anecdotes — but leaves both sides of the equation to researchers.
And she’s correct — researchers abound. A wave of books concur with the essence of her anecdotal reflections. Mark Bauerlein’s title alone stigmatizes our students: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). Jean Twinge’s books do the same: Generation Me: Why American Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable than Ever Before and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Mel Levine highlights students’ lack of preparedness in Ready or Not, Here Life Comes (urging secondary schools to focus on life prep instead of college prep — admissions tests). And for a rather bold stereotype, see Morley Safer’s “The Millennials are Coming” (60 Minutes, parts 1-2, and the various responses by Twixters).
In 1993, Alfie Kohn had tried to warn of these forthcoming college performance ills in his “controversial” Punished by Rewards, a book more likely considered prophetic today. Many think the same about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985).
Painting a Positive Face on the Janus Generation
Judy Woodruff’s national interviews bring to life the depth of many of today’s students, i.e., Generation Next: Speak Up and Be Heard – PBS videos (2007). Don Tapscott and Marc Prensky can easily be aligned with this positive group. And Strauss and Howe’s "Seven Characteristics of Millennials" dominate the Web searches – including hundreds of presentations by others.
These Millennial characteristics include: Special, Sheltered, Confident, Team-oriented, Achieving, Pressured and Conventional. About the only noticeable negative in their study is students’ aversion to taking risks. Similar to the critiques of Twinge’s Me Generation, various reviewers challenge Strauss and Howe’s research for being too narrow and not indicative of national norms.
Kali H. Trzesniewski and her colleagues may not be as overtly positive, but defend this generation against Twinge’s works in Do Today's Young People Really Think They Are So Extraordinary? An Examination of Secular Trends in Narcissism and Self-Enhancement. Based on their research (n=25,000 high school seniors) they concluded that “Today’s youth seem to be no more narcissistic and self-aggrandizing than previous generations.” Courtney E. Martin gives a helpful assessment of this revision of Twinge in “Misunderstanding ‘Generation Me’ ” (2008). She surmises that the true picture is likely somewhere in between the two studies, though Trzesniewski’s has a much bigger sample and was from California, "the home of the self-esteem education movement."
Various other studies see the Janus Generation as simply unique, and suggest ways to move forward: The Millennium Matrix (Jossey-Bass, 2004), Serving the Millennial Generation: New Directions for Student Services (Jossey-Bass, 2004), Connecting to the Net Generation: What Higher Education Professionals Need to Know About Today’s College Students (NASPA, 2007), A Brief Guide for Teaching Millennial Learners (Triangle, 2007), Love Is the Killer App. (Crown, 2002).
Doorways and New Beginnings
Janus was also known as the god of doorways and beginnings, and our students need these. From Kohn’s 1993 warning through Jossey-Bass’s recent release, Helping Sophomores Succeed, the key is helping them to find their life calling and sense of purpose. Whether we see the face of laziness or sophistication, nearly all major studies show a student core interested in spirituality and purpose. I have come to conclude that "the dream needs to be stronger than the struggle," and when students commit to causes they deem worthy they are more likely to succeed. The Purpose-Guided Student is my effort to operationalize this in a textbook, and Habitudes, On Course and The Explorer’s Guide are other notable approaches; Strengths Quest (Gallup) accents these efforts, and researchers like Ed St. John (University of Michigan) and Christian Smith (Notre Dame) have contributed valuable research. St. John led the Indiana Project on Academic Success that tracked the purpose-guided approach with 1,700 students and found all positive odds ratios — and 20 percent graduation rate increases over six years.
The profiles of the Janus Generations help to frame and present the questions, and discovering a sense of purpose opens an important doorway.
Jerry Pattengale is assistant provost for scholarship and public engagement at Indiana Wesleyan University.
The New York Times last month reported a story about several politically active students who crossed the line from what the Times called “high jinks” to allegedly committing a federal felony (by breaking into the office of Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to learn whether the Senator’s office was deliberately not answering phone calls). While this criminal activity is nothing short of outrageous, I assume it is an aberration. It is, however, connected to a bigger problem.
These students are part of an organized group of conservative students whose tactics are already well-known on many college campuses: selling cookies at reduced rates to women and students-of-color in protest of affirmative action; sneaking video cameras into classrooms and campus forums and posting out-of-context excerpts, often anonymously, as evidence of liberal indoctrination on campus; hosting a gun raffle; researching and publicizing campaign contributions of faculty members and staff. High jinks? Really? Check the campusreform.org Web site, which advises, “Why take action? Because it will shock your opposition.” Is that why activism matters, to shock and discourage others? Are faculty members and other students “the opposition?”
We need to be clear about what these acts are: attention-seeking tactics that intimidate faculty, students, and guest speakers, distort facts, reduce public issues to simplistic sound-bites, and inhibit the thoughtful exchange of ideas and deliberation, both in and out of the classroom. The students named in the Times are not trying to offset liberal bias – they are trying to prevent learning and chill, if not stop, civil discourse.
Recently, everyday citizens, columnists (including Tom Friedman, also in the Times), newspaper editors, and President Obama have amplified their call for the end of partisan gamesmanship and tactics that promote vitriol, conflict, and stalemates at the national level. It’s time that colleges and universities demand the same of their students.
We know what we should do:
Create spaces on campuses for better political discourse. When children act out, as my grandmother used to say, it’s because they haven’t been given constructive opportunities to “get the starch out.” Campus venues for public deliberation don’t need to be free-for-alls, like some (not all) of the health care town hall meetings in the fall. They can be structured learning opportunities in classrooms and beyond where students are expected to study an issue and engage in a process of open-minded and reasoned dialogue, respectful communication across differences, and collaborative problem solving. These should be venues where members of the campus community can “call for” dialogue on hot-button public issues. They are also venues where “high jinks” have no place.
Teach the arts of democracy: It’s no wonder the state of public discourse is so pathetic. Some of the structures that once were places where individuals learned how to behave as citizens in a democracy have broken down (families, neighborhoods, places of worship, newspapers, civics classes). Facilitating, establishing rules for engagement, active listening, issue framing, managing conflict, consensus building, and democratic decision making are skills most students simply don’t have. Campuses can offer certificate programs, weekend workshops and trainings, for-credit programs in intergroup relations and conflict resolution and leadership, and summer institutes. They can support faculty development in dialogue and deliberation as classroom pedagogy. The arts of democracy need to be taught. And they need to be practiced, to become habits on campuses.
Involve the broader community, not just enrolled students, in discussions about pressing issues. Doing so will increase the likelihood that students will be exposed to a diversity of perspectives. Getting to know, listening to, and learning alongside people with very different life experiences, including those with varied levels of social and political power and privilege, will help students keep an open mind and find solutions they hadn’t previously considered. At the same time, campuses can model a better way to do democracy, teach everyday citizens the arts of democracy, provide neutral venues for informed political deliberation, and serve as catalysts for reasoned, citizen-driven solutions to public problems.
Colleges and universities shy away from political discourse, partly because it is unpredictable and stirs up hornets, but that’s short-sighted and ill-advised. Some students are acting out as a result. And they don’t have to be so timid. Colleges and universities are not “the public square,” nor should they be. They are learning environments, and shocking and intimidating “high jinks” (again, felonies aside) cross a line and disrupt the educational process.
Higher education need to be more intentional about creating places where free, open, reasoned, and respectful speech takes place and where people’s opinions, including thoughtful conservative perspectives, are heard. Perhaps a place to start is with the state of political discourse and activism, on campus and off.
Avatar harassment and sexual assault remain controversial issues because institutions hosting virtual worlds are not accustomed to dealing with — or even discussing — digital forms of these distressing behaviors.
Harassment and assault are frequent infractions in virtual environs, including those frequented by students and professors. London journalist Tim Guest, author of Second Lives: a Journey Through Virtual Worlds, estimated that "about 6.5 percent of logged-in residents" have filed one or more abuse reports in Second Life. By the end of 2006, he writes, Linden Lab, creator of Second Life, "was receiving close to 2,000 abuse reports a day."
Current statistics are unavailable. But you can monitor the types of offenses and where they occurred in Second Life by accessing its community incident report chronicling the 25 most recent infractions and resulting penalties. On Dec. 28, 2009, five of the 25 infractions concerned "indecency: broadly offensive content or conduct"; three, sexual harassment; and two, intolerance. Most penalties included warnings with four one-day suspensions and one three-day suspension. (In fairness, Linden Lab has tried to crack down on these community infractions, hosting guides such as this to inform users about abuse and how to file reports about repeat offenders.)
Educational institutions with a presence in or that introduced students to virtual worlds might want to analyze the phenomenon of avatar rape, which presents a unique challenge to traditional jurisprudence. Rape is assumed to be both physical and geographical, as in a crime scene. Both dimensions are missing on the Web. Nevertheless, avatars are symbols of the self. As such, it behooves us to investigate:
How avatar rape happens in virtual worlds.
What concepts and theories apply when the act is neither physical nor geographical.
Why the discussion is even necessary.
Before delving into avatar rape, I should note that such a discussion could have the unintended consequence of desensitizing the topic of real rape, whose ramifications, physical and psychological, are extreme. However, silence about virtual assault also has consequences in that many colleges and universities view virtual worlds as learning environments and may not know how to resolve issues when infractions occur.
Those unfamiliar with virtual worlds may wonder how avatar rape even happens. (You can access a short bibliography of online content devoted in part or in whole to issues involving virtual assault.) Typically, users encounter the act through three scenarios: You can lure others or be lured into it yourself. You can purchase or role-play it. You can “grief” it — a term that means to cause grief — or suffer it because of a griefer.
I became interested in avatar rape after I read an account in Gawker Media, titled “Second Life: Rape for Sale.” The post noted how users could indulge in rape fantasies (options: Rape victim, Get raped, or Hold victim) "for a trifling 220 Linden dollar things." Diana Allandale (not her real name) shared her experience with avatar rape in response to an online article, “How exactly does ‘virtual rape’ even occur in Second Life?” Her incident happened on a beach — a typical landscape as avatars interact with each other on "islands" — when another avatar invited her to go skinny-dipping.
"Being the newbie I was, I didn’t understand that the word ‘love’ hovering over the top meant ‘intercourse.’ "
When the rape began, she recalled, "my first thought was — ‘Hey! I didn’t consent to this!’ " Allandale rebuffed her attacker, dressed her avatar and left, "feeling ticked off that someone would take advantage of my newbie-ness, but having learned a little about human nature."
Allandale is no prude, by the way. She’s a high school teacher and author of erotic novels under the byline of Diana Hunter.
Then there are griefers who have haunted multiuser domains for years. In 1993, Julian Dibble published “A Rape in Cyberspace” in the Village Voice, narrating the deeds of one Mr. Bungle in the text-based virtual world, LambdaMOO:
They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies.
Like many in academe, all I knew about avatar rape was what I had read about it. Then I witnessed an online sexual assault — and had a witness, too.
Tom Beell, a journalism professor at Iowa State, asked me about Second Life, knowing I had researched and written about it. He had never heard of the virtual world, so I opted to show rather than explain it to him using my office desktop.
I logged on and teleported to a beach. Within the first few minutes, we observed one nude male avatar violently rape another clothed male avatar drinking a pixelated martini at a boardwalk bar.
"What’s going on?" Beell asked. He looked startled. Thankfully, he couldn’t read the chat in the text bar of my monitor. In 30 years in academe, I have encountered homophobia in an inappropriate joke or offhand remark about lesbians, gays or transsexuals. Now I was reading hate speech so vile that I cannot summarize it here.
The incident occurred in 2007. I was thankful that audio was not available on my desktop at the time. If a student or staff member walked into my office and heard what I read that day on the chat bar, that person would have been exposed to hate speech in addition to avatar rape.
In researching the phenomenon, I sought viewpoints from directors of information technology and women’s studies at Big XII and other peer institutions. My research assistant Sam Berbano and I spent two months working with our Institutional Review Board, seeking approval to post our survey online.
Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the IRB asked us to warn survey participants about possible harm to their reputations should their responses be published. To lessen risk, the IRB also required signed copies of consent to anyone responding to our survey. So we opted for a snail mail version with a disclaimer: “A risk of participation in this survey may arise if some may find your opinions in the free-response section at variance with their own.”
My research assistant wondered how a survey measuring opinion about avatar rape could have more potential for harm than participation in a virtual environment in which such a digital act could occur.
As it turned out, only one respondent out of 43 provided comments for this essay. Jean Van Delinder at the time was chair of the Faculty Council at Oklahoma State University, where she is an associate professor of sociology. Van Delinder believed discussions like this raise awareness. "Since as a sociologist I view rape as an act of dominance and power," she states, "virtual reality would be a setting conducive to this type of attack and students need to be made aware of it."
Van Delinder also believed that "assault, even virtual assault, has a psychological and emotional component. It is more than just physical because the victim or target continuously replays in the mind what has happened and, in a sense, experiences it over and over again."
One of the best articles citing material affirming that view is “Virtual Rape,” published by Richard MacKinnon in the March 1997 issue of Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. In one section, MacKinnon introduces a feminist definition of rape that involves damage to the self that may be physical, emotional, psychological or material. "In this way," he writes, "rape becomes an assault not against a persona, but against the person behind the persona."
Tim Guest, author of Second Lives, believes sexual assault in virtual worlds is real and imaginary. "As the saying goes, the thought is written in water, and the deed is written in stone. Events that take place in virtual worlds seem to lie somewhere in between, a kind of water with memory."
He compares rape in a virtual realm to flashing in a real one.
Second Life advocates often note that avatar assault is easily avoided; you can teleport away, they say. Linden Lab recommends muting voice during verbal assaults. "Click! Problem solved," it states.
Walking away from hate speech on campus doesn't mean damage was circumvented or an epithet excusable or that charges cannot be filed against a person making slurs. Why should virtual reality be different when users assume liability for what happens there?
Guest agrees. Verbal assaults are just that, no matter where they happen. "The only difference being again no threat of violent escalation. Being able to teleport away is of little relevance, just another way to say you can't be trapped or hurt."
In most cases, he is correct. Many assume that crossover violence from virtual to real environs is unlikely because operators of avatars are in different locales. That is not always the case when people on residential campuses meet on an island operated by their residential institution.
The Lantern, campus newspaper at the Ohio State University, reported in a 2008 crime summary that a staff member contacted police about harassing phone calls at work. The harasser purportedly "knew the staff member through the Web site Second Life, and was under the impression they had been corresponding through the site for six months. … The staff member told the caller to stop calling after the caller said she had a package for the staff member and knew her address."
Guest believes cases like this may constitute harassment and recommends that institutions transfer any existing policies in student handbooks to the virtual world. "The only danger," he warns, "is to over-legislate the territory of sexuality, which needs a kind of animalistic disregard for propriety in order to thrive.
"Universities are probably not the place for this in SL, however."
Some legal counsels have told me if institutions support or fund virtual worlds, they also have an obligation to inform learners through curriculums or workshops about virtual rape, harassment and other assaults on the psyche.
Diana Allendale aka Diana Hunter, who wrote about being lured into avatar rape, reminded me that online harassment happens daily to students in all manner of new media venues, not just virtual worlds. Text messages insult, she says. MySpace comments intimidate. Institutions not only need policies to deal with the fallout of these incidents, she says, but also have to educate students on how to handle them.
"It's not a case of ‘if you are attacked,’ " she adds, "but ‘when you are attacked.’ "
Unlike harassing text messages or intimidating chat on social networks, the concern here involves terms of service that transfer liability to users — yet another reason that educators need to raise awareness about avatar rape and other forms of harassment in virtual worlds used as learning environments.
Michael Bugeja is author of the Oxford University Press books Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age and Living Ethics across Media Platforms. He directs the journalism school at Iowa State University.
Walk the paths that wind through Hampshire College’s wooded campus and you will find offerings left behind: Prayer flags and God’s eyes hang from trees. Stacked stones mark certain paths, with students referring to one cairn-filled location as the Zen Garden. Poems, hopes, meditations, and prayers are left behind, stashed in plastic lockers. These items are continually shifting and replenishing.
No one organized this. It is a spontaneous outpouring of spirituality that is powerful, personal, creative, and unconventional — like our students themselves. Yet the world often seems to perceive mine as an institution hostile to religion and devoid of spirituality. The Princeton Review’s college guide includes Hampshire on its annual where-God-is-ignored-on-a-daily-basis list.
It is true that 40-year-old Hampshire did not have a chaplaincy program for its first 33 years. It is true that politics on campus are progressive, challenging, and fervent. It is true that Hampshire students, like college-age students elsewhere, examine, question, and possibly eschew ideas they were raised with. It is not true that these realities are mutually exclusive with a rich and deep spiritual life.
The stereotypes assume my campus does not have religious students. This could not be further from the truth. We have Ash Wednesday and Good Friday services. We have a weekly Bible study. We celebrate the High Holidays, Passover, and have a kosher kitchen and kosher mod (an apartment-style residential area). We have Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, Buddhist monks, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Roman Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Baha’i, Hindu, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and more. We also have mystics, atheists, and antagonists of organized religion who want to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
The hardest thing for more orthodox students is not so much practicing their faith, but dealing with others’ prejudices — traditional religious practice is sometimes assumed to be outdated at best and, at worst, oppressive and wrong. I am myself a graduate of Hampshire. As a student, I was part of the Hampshire Christian Fellowship, a group of students from a variety of denominations who meet weekly for support, prayer, Bible study, and dinner. Many students, staff, and faculty did not know we existed. They felt free to make statements inside and outside the classroom about "those Christians." When discussing great Christian leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, faith was separated from work as if it were an aberration.
Like my friends in the other recognized religious group on campus at that time, the Jewish Student Union, we kept our spiritual practice to ourselves. Once someone got to know one of us as a reasonable, intelligent, caring human being, then if it happened to come up, we might reveal ourselves.
When — after working as a counselor, attending Yale Divinity School, and being ordained in the United Church of Christ — I returned to campus as director of spiritual life, I was surprised to find out that this was not just true for students. Through countless confessional conversations I discovered that there are far more individuals — students, staff, and faculty — seeking to deepen the spirituality in their lives than those who are derisive and dismissive.
Change began in 2003, when Hampshire contracted with chaplains at neighboring Mount Holyoke College to reach out to and serve religious students. That agreement opened a door for exploration of campus needs. In 2006, the college started its own independent spiritual life program, uniquely suited to Hampshire, and radically different from other college chaplaincy models.
We all seek meaning in our lives. We all have questions about how to live. What does it mean to be ethical? How do we find compassion when it is difficult? How do we communicate across difference? How do we understand the value of another being? What is our purpose? These are questions that we explore. They do not have to be answered by religion or faith. In fact, they do not have to be answered. But we allow space and support for the questions themselves.
Twice a month faculty, staff, and alumni relate their "spiritual journeys" over lunch. They share where they have sought meaning in their lives, how that has shifted and changed, and where they are now. It provides an opportunity to ponder these questions and share parts of ourselves that we usually keep separate. It illustrates how each of us answers those questions differently, how it is an evolving process over one’s lifetime, and how we may connect intimately with someone whose labels are not our own. Last semester we chose to celebrate an “atheist holiday” as a chance to explore these questions from that point of view. We had holiday foods (cake and pie) and celebratory decorations (balloons, etc.). We held a discussion about what it means to be an atheist and what it means to be both atheist and spiritual. Participating individuals shared information about their backgrounds, where they discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and what brings them through difficult times. Discussion focused on defining one’s self through the positive, or what one does believe and value, as opposed to the negative, or what one does not believe and value.
In a fast-paced world driven by achievement and consumerism, spiritual life provides balance. Where does one go to address one’s sense of well-being on a college campus? Our spiritual life program provides opportunities for students to focus on connections between mind, body, and spirit. We address wellness issues such as coping with death and loss, fragmentation and despair, and loneliness and isolation, seeking out complementary practices.
Our entire program is grounded in practice. We offer a wide variety of meditation, movement, and yoga every day. During spring break, we take a service trip. The past two years we have gone to New Orleans, and next year we plan to make a trip to Haiti. This annual trip provides more than service. It is an opportunity to practice compassion and ethics, to get outside of our minds and live our truths in our bodies.
In a world divided by ignorance or hatred of other religions and religious violence, we explore divisive issues, providing education and models of communication and community building across difference. We regularly host workshops and speakers around Israel/Palestine, religion and science, misperceptions of Islam, and queer spirituality, to name just a few, as well as participating in and leading intergroup dialogues. We strive to teach that true diversity that exists within every system of belief and every group of people. We seek to create a different kind of community on campus: a community that truly values and embraces its heterogeneous nature; a community that explores other belief systems; a community that communicates with compassion and nonviolence.
In short, we serve our entire community. Multi-faith is not enough of a definition. Religious pluralism is not enough of a definition. Meaning, ethics, well-being, systems of belief, death, and tragedy — they affect us all. Hampshire’s current spiritual life staff comes from four different faith traditions: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. But there is no requirement that our four chaplaincy positions must be filled by members of particular faiths. Instead, we focus on leadership in different areas, including contemplative life, intercultural community, religious life and political intersections, and wellness and ritual. In reality, a Christian chaplain may have a completely different faith belief and practice from a Christian student, yet there is no question that it is his or her job to advise the student. As spiritual advisers, though coming from particular faiths, we are chaplains to all. We do not have to have the same beliefs in order to understand and help another grow. We do have to have the ability to connect to those who are different and the drive to constantly educate ourselves about other ways of being.
We lead specific holiday services pertinent to our own traditions, such as High Holidays and Ash Wednesday, and weddings, memorial or baptismal services. Students also lead services on campus, with guidance from the staff, and these shift according to group needs. We currently have student-led Quaker and Shabbat services, and other student-led events that include elements of worship but are not services in the traditional sense.
In the last five years, student groups on campus of a spiritual, philosophical, or religious nature grew from 2 to 15. Programs run daily, with anywhere from 2 to 300 in attendance, and provide a place where students, staff, and faculty come together as one.
As a student, whenever I did share my spiritual practice and theological beliefs, I found students, staff, and faculty with beliefs of their own. I found many who understood themselves as deeply spiritual even though that might have nothing to do with religion. Almost everyone was seeking to live ethically in the world, to somehow make it a better place, and to seek a deeper purpose. That is spiritual life at Hampshire College.
Rev. Liza Neal
Rev. Liza Neal is director of spiritual life at Hampshire College.
My son and I recently went to the 2010 Masters, saw Tiger Woods come back to golf, and witnessed one of the greatest tournaments in decades. But what was most impressive to me about the Masters was not the amazing golf, or even the course itself (my son referred to it as an “outdoor museum”).
No, the most impressive thing was the actual running of the tournament and its concept of customer service. All college presidents would be well advised to attend the next Masters and study its management system. For what became crystal-clear to me as a nonprofit higher education consultant was the tournament’s very precise conception of who its customers were, compared to the very imprecise understanding by colleges and universities of who their customers are.
Here is the problem: Colleges and universities have a difficult time deciding whom they are serving. For a major golf tournament the choice is narrower: the corporate sponsors or the media or the patrons who come through the turn styles. Augusta National Golf Club, which runs the Masters very much like a nonprofit enterprise that is content to break even, views the fans who come to the course as their obvious customers.
All concessions are inexpensive (sandwiches: $1.50!); even the cost of golfware in the pro shop is reasonable. Bathrooms are strategically located, as are food stands, and every line of customers is designed to move quickly so fans can get back to the action on the course. Even the spectator locations are populated by movable chairs that the patrons over the years have bought ($29 this year) and placed where they want. Chairs are left there with one’s own marker on them, and no one sits in them but the owner, even at the most popular locations. When the day ends, you leave the course feeling cared for: You are a paying customer in the best sense.
Colleges and universities have more chaotic management systems because they are unclear about their preferred customers. Who is analogous to the fans at the Masters?
Here are the many choices for colleges, depending in part on the type of institution: enrolled students, their parents, state taxpayers, the local community, alumni donors, government granting agencies, even their Boards of Trustees -- increasingly dominated by corporate leaders. All are “paying” in one way or another.
Yet the principal customer on any college campus must be the student, and one statistic makes this fact obvious: the abysmal retention rate of students between their freshman and sophomore years. A third of all full-time college freshmen do not return for their second year. Very few have flunked out; some transfer for a major offered elsewhere or have to yield to family financial pressures. But my own experience has persuaded me that the freshmen who leave do so primarily because they were not treated as the school’s principal customers.
To take one example, colleges often treat distant parents who pay the bills as the principal customers when it comes to increasingly obscure fees -- but it is the students who must understand and rationalize those fees to their parents back home. We may think a $100 fee here or there is nothing to a middle-class parent (not true, of course), but it certainly is important to the student who wasn’t aware of it ahead of time, and does not appreciate having the issue minimized by a staff member to his or her face. If a student comes to an office on campus visibly upset about something, it should not matter how minor we think the issue is: it must be treated, for the student’s sake, as if it is major. It only takes a couple of calls home, after some insulting experiences on campus, to galvanize a family into leaving their school of choice.
In higher education, we do not know how to deal with 18-year-olds. Are they adults, despite being so needy and anxious, or are they just kids, despite being glad to be on their own for the first time? Even though sustained tuition income depends on their satisfaction on campus, we often treat them as spoiled and completely replaceable, like an object that is cheaper to throw away than to repair.
That might have seemed true when the baby boomers were sending increasing numbers of children to campuses. But in 2008 those numbers leveled off, and by 2012 they will be declining. By then, we had better figure out how to hold onto the students who, as customers, have chosen us, instead of treating them as lucky to have been chosen by us.
That has been our attitude -- that they were lucky to have been chosen by us. Perhaps that attitude is excusable at elite colleges that know their vaunted reputations will hold students on campus, even through their anxieties, for the prestige of the degree they receive. Those colleges -- only a few score nationwide regularly return 95 percent of their freshmen into the sophomore year.
But the numbers plunge from there for thousands of other colleges and universities that, until recently, have assumed there was no problem replacing the students who leave by the second year.
We must start treating freshmen as the adults they are -- but adults who are understandably apprehensive about, and sometimes irresponsible with, the freedom that college life gives them. Too often we view them as knowing how they ought to behave, even though we are less than clear about the regulations we do have and more than willing to reprimand them, condescendingly, for not knowing those regulations.
We think they do not want any rules when in fact they want our support and respect -- not permissiveness -- to mentor them on their way to the maturity they do desire It is going to be increasingly difficult to replace these young adults if we are disrespectful of them. It would be much wiser to help them manage the institution in which they have put their faith as a first step into maturity
Precisely because they are only going to be with us for a while -- as at the Masters -- we need to redouble our efforts at customer service from day one -- to take every student anxiety and complaint seriously, even if it turns out to be nothing more than normal freshman fear. Since it is reasonable for freshmen to be anxious, we must treat them as reasonable people, without being condescending or peremptory in our own attitudes.
We need to treat them as the Masters Tournament treats every one of its patrons: welcome, well-managed, and constantly appreciated.
David Stinebeck, a former college president, is President and CEO of Concordant Consulting, LLC, a firm that specializes in managing personnel issues.
"It’s not honors English. It’s honorable English," said Mr. McCann of La Jolla High School in 1979. Three thousand miles away and 30 years later, this principle is still true. So true that Mr. McCann’s wisdom has become something of a motto for Macaulay Honors College. Beyond just honors classes or programs, the concept of honorable behavior is one that is essential for all students -- but too often relegated to a page in the student handbook or a mandated paragraph on a syllabus forbidding plagiarism.
What is missing from such notifications is a comprehensive, ethical, and honorable approach to teaching and learning, especially when technology is involved and is as crucial to a program as it is to ours. This is something we learned the hard way.
All Macaulay students are provided with laptops and digital cameras as part of their honors scholarships. But we don’t just give out tech gifts and run. Our core belief is that, like scholars and explorers throughout history, students should make use of the latest, most innovative, productive tools of their age and understand that tools by themselves are not value-free. Although a student's laptop is not a tool on the order of magnitude of an atomic bomb, the principle is the same: With power, greater or lesser, comes responsibility. So we work with students from the moment they are handed their laptops to train them and to challenge them to understand the power they hold.
Of course, in the digital age, "tool" is an increasingly amorphous concept. Wikis, blogs, and social networking -- these days it’s the rare student who is not connected in these ways, ways unheard- and unthought-of just a few years ago. Perhaps precisely because students take it all for granted, our responsibility is to help them become thoughtful and self-critical. For while they're learning and researching and presenting their academic work through these tools, they're also doing a great deal more – with real potential for harm.
Recently, we had two instances where things went wrong, which gave us a chance to consider how to make them go right. The first incident involved a student collaborative Web site project. In one of our four New York City-focused seminars, students create neighborhood Web sites with audio, video, photographs, text, survey data, interview transcripts, and all the products of their research into historical immigration and present-day communities. In order to make these Web sites a truly collaborative product, students use wikis to gather the material, arrange it, and present it online. Unfortunately, because the wiki is open to editing, malicious vandalism is always a potential problem. Last year, one group of students found to their dismay that their hard work had been erased and replaced with the random rantings of pranksters from another campus.
There were immediate and practical remedies and responses. Because it’s the nature of a wiki that all changes can be rolled back and the previous state restored, no student work was ultimately lost. Still, we realized the need to lock down the wikis more securely so that while they can be as public as the students or instructors desire, only registered users can make changes. Even more importantly, we realized that student training needs to address the ethical "why" as well as the pragmatic "how." So our doctoral student instructional technology fellows, who work directly with our undergraduates in class, in the honors lounges, and via e-mail, came up with strategies to bring ethics to the students’ attention: an attempt to head off problems before they arise.
The second incident from last year, involving a different group of students, brought up even more directly the need for attention to ethics. A student who was unimpressed with the work of students from different campuses posted a negative review on his Facebook page. When one of the critiqued students responded, also on Facebook, the original poster escalated his comments into an attack on the students and their college phrased in racial and sexual terms. Things he probably would never have said in person were said electronically and disseminated widely. Because all of this happened on Facebook, it was outside the traditional channels of college communication and interaction and thus outside of our institutional control. However, because Facebook is a world also open to all, we were able to see the offense when the students who were attacked called on us to address it.
A number of consequences resulted, for the offender, his victims, and for the rest of the community. First, over the course of a series of conversations, a skilled student affairs professional led the offending student to understand that his Facebook interactions, far from being innocuous or private, had real effects, real impact, on real people – his classmates and peers. Second, when he accepted his responsibility and demonstrated empathy towards his victims, they in turn chose not to push for a public apology or formal sanctions. They were satisfied with knowing that the perpetrator had achieved an emotional connection to those he had hurt. In other words, all parties, including those not directly involved, learned from this incident, in ways important and somewhat unexpected. We all now recognize that while Facebook or other such sites may seem like the internet Wild West, without law, regulation, or consequences, in fact, there are people out there, people to whom responsibility and respect are owed.
Most importantly, students learned that honors takes place within a community. And that they could rely on the support of their friendly neighborhood sheriff: the college administration. So another consequence: we didn’t just ride into town to save the day, then ride out again in an e-version of Shane, but rather we insisted that everyone be part of our community, respect the standards of that community, and participate in enacting and enforcing them.
As part of this process of developing community awareness, we decided to develop a digital ethics code parallel to our existing honors code (see page 4 of this link). All members of the community, from students to instructional technology fellows to faculty to staff, are working together to develop this code. Importantly, it will go beyond a mere bulleted list of rules to include case studies, discussion questions, and practical exercises, as well as links to university policies, legal and copyright resources, and current news. Because the code will include open-ended and unresolved questions, it will naturally continue to evolve and serve as a place for further interaction and true inquiry. (The draft version of the new code, along with the open-ended case studies, is online here.) Beyond Macaulay, we hope this code will serve as a springboard for discussion in the wider honors and academic communities.
The academic and the e-community have this in common: both necessarily go beyond the classroom and beyond direct, physical interactions. So Facebook, for instance, is necessarily part of our honors community. It's not just "out there," it’s also "in here" – whether we invite it in or not. If we truly believe in technology as integral to teaching and learning (as we do), we must remain open to these tools – even when they’re misused. We don't, we won't, forbid their use (as if we could); rather, we promote their use – but in ethical ways.
It's ironic that the violation of feelings and ethical standards led to a new awareness of responsibility, human contact, principles of behavior: of the common decency that a civil society runs on but often takes for granted. Because the new tools gave students the opportunity to do harm, they also gave them the opportunity to see that harm and develop new standards which they could follow and reinforce in thoughtful and intentional ways.
As we teach students to use these new tools, it’s incumbent upon us to teach them how to use them not just in the practical sense but also in the ethical sense: not just how can they be used, but also when and where and why they should be used. While there are no guarantees against bad behavior, we want students to think before they post, before they e-mail, before they edit a wiki, before they blog, and so forth. As always, it's the thinking, not the tool, on which all education, including honorable education, rests.
Sylvia Tomasch and Joseph Ugoretz
Sylvia Tomasch is associate university dean of academic affairs and Joseph Ugoretz is director of technology and learning at Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York.
As an association representing institutions of higher learning, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities is sensitive to the claims of institutional autonomy presented by the Hastings College of the Law in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. However, as the institutions within our organization are religious in nature, we are also acutely aware of the religious freedom concerns presented by this case. Ultimately, because this decision did not determine the constitutionality of the more common "non-discrimination clauses," its limited scope is such that this ruling has little broad applicability beyond "all-comers policies" at public universities, and in many ways leaves more questions than it answers. As higher education works to understand the implications of this limited decision, and formulate policies in light of it, the academy must wonder whether all-comers policies -- in which public colleges limit recognition to student groups that will allow any and all students to join and run for office -- though deemed constitutional, really help further the laudable goal espoused by Justice Anthony Kennedy of "enabling [students] to explore new points of view."
In his concurrence Justice Kennedy observes that "vibrant dialogue is not possible if students wall themselves off from opposing points of view." But one might ask how a vibrant dialogue is possible if opposing points of view are not present. Here, Hastings argued that CLS built the wall by excluding members who would not sign its statement of faith. Did Hastings itself, however, not build a wall by rejecting CLS as a student organization? CLS had a version of an all-comers policy, allowing attendance and participation by non-members, requiring the statement of faith only for members and leaders. Would not vibrant dialogue have occurred more readily on campus during club meetings, between members with one point of view and non-members with different points of view, than by rejecting CLS? Further, this analysis ignores the reality that vibrant dialogue occurs within groups of like-minded people – the vigorous debates within political parties clearly demonstrate this. And at a macro level, had CLS remained a student organization, perhaps another Christian group with different beliefs would have formed, creating vibrant dialogue between these two groups.
It is easy to mischaracterize CLS’s membership policy and to oversimplify it as outright discrimination, but a more nuanced approach might be more useful to the academy as it moves forward in applying this case. In Corp. of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos, a central case to the bounds of religious association, the then-leader of the liberal wing of the Court, Justice William J. Brennan, explained that a religious community defines itself by "determining that certain activities are in furtherance of an organization’s religious mission, and that only those committed to that mission should conduct them, is ... a means by which a religious community defines itself." And this Court itself reaffirmed the constitutionality of CLS’s expressive activity, "[i]nsisting that an organization embrace unwelcome members we have therefore concluded, 'directly and immediately affects associational rights.' " Preventing discrimination on campuses is a worthy goal, but reflexively applying the hatchet of an all-comers policy may actually undermine equally worthy goals: free speech, freedom of association, and an open marketplace of ideas. Might public colleges and universities instead formulate more nuanced policies that take care to ask whether a group’s belief-based membership requirements are "in furtherance of [the] organization’s religious mission," instead of simply rejecting these groups outright?
A key tenet of almost all religions is that they hold beliefs distinct from other religions and the non-religious -- communal beliefs are essential to the religious. Religion has often been challenged to define these beliefs in the face of cultural shifts, but it is the prerogative of those within the religion to determine those boundaries. And as mystifying or even offensive as some of those ideas are to those outside (or even inside) that religion, a key principle of our American ideals is that those ideas be challenged not rejected.
Within the CCCU itself this case sparked debate – debate which we welcomed as a sign of a healthy and robust organization. Such debate is part of the fabric of academe. If in an effort to limit liability more public and colleges and universities adopt these all-comers policies, part of that fabric could be undone. Though they claim to promote diversity, they actually promote sameness. How can a robust marketplace of diverse ideas exist when no group is allowed to unite around a core set of unique beliefs that give them their identity?
Academia has long stood for a free and open expression of ideas, undergirded by the expectation that the best ones will ultimately rise to the top. Rather than merely “tolerat[ing]” unpopular viewpoints, as Justice Stevens suggests, public colleges and universities should engage them. As Thomas Jefferson said, referencing the University of Virginia, “This institution will be based upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."
Shapri D. LoMaglio
Shapri D. LoMaglio is government relations and executive programs director of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
Submitted by Kevin Brown on September 24, 2010 - 3:00am
Previously in these pages, I wrote an essay about my not having a cell phone and what I try to teach students about my choice. I have written online articles before, but I was not prepared for the responses I received. Almost all of them were negative, with some people asking me how I felt about the horseless carriage or suggesting that I begin wearing underwear on my head. What I found most interesting about the debate in the comments section, though, was the overall belief that I should not be trying to change the students’ behavior in any way, that I am not a role model for anything other than my discipline (and perhaps not even there).
I have been thinking about this experience over the past year, as there have been several colleges and universities in the news for trying to adjust their students’ behavior outside the classroom, especially as it relates to health. Last year, Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, planned to require its incoming students to have their BMI (Body Mass Index) calculated. They proposed a plan where the students would take a course to help them get in better shape. Though Lincoln ultimately rescinded its plan, the University of Texas at Arlington did put into place a course that officials there believed would help encourage students to get in better shape. This plan seems to be working well, as students were so interested that the university had to add extra sections and instructors.
In May, the University of California at Berkeley announced a health-related plan of its own. Berkeley hoped to obtain DNA samples from incoming freshmen, then notify those students about their alcohol and lactose tolerance, as well as their need for folic acid. After a state Department of Public Health ruling, though, they adjusted the program, making it voluntary for students to participate; and the university will not release information to individuals, instead only revealing aggregate results.
All of these stories raise a question that comes from the Lincoln University case, as shown in an Inside Higher Ed article from last fall. In that article, James C. Turner, then-president of the American College Health Association, argued that Lincoln’s requirement “raises questions about personal rights and which trumps, personal rights or university policy.” It is this question that intrigues me and relates to my experience about the role of professors and universities.
I would guess that most professors would be unable to recite or reference any portion of the mission statement of their institution. Most professors argue that it is their primary job to communicate their discipline to students or to engage in research, depending on the type of school. Beyond that, they might argue that they are to be involved in shared governance, advising, and possibly the community. However, I wonder if taking the time to look at our mission statements, which we at least theoretically agree with, might remind us of a larger role that we might play in students’ lives.
I teach at a primarily undergraduate, church-related, teaching-focused institution, all of which one can find in our mission statement. Thus, I decided to look at other colleges in our area that are decidedly different from mine to see what their statements might say on issues that go beyond teaching. At the local community college, they say that their institution “delivers developmental education, university transfer programming, workforce training, and community services”; as one might expect the emphasis is on practical goals that will help students move on to their next stage of life, be that a four-year school or work.
The flagship university for the state system lists its first goal as wanting to “advance the community of learning by engaging in scientific research, humanistic scholarship, and artistic creation,” moving the focus to research and scholarship, not teaching. The preeminent private institution in the state lists only three goals: “quest for new knowledge through scholarship[;] dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach[;] creative experimentation of ideas and concepts,” goals that are similar to those of the larger state university.
However, out of the four institutions, three of them also mention some aspect of students’ lives that goes well beyond the idea of academic training and moves into the area of changing their lives in some rather drastic ways. The community college, for example, says that it will “enhance quality of life, and encourage civic involvement,” while the state university will “prepare students to lead lives of personal integrity and civic responsibility in a global society,” “conduct research, teaching, and outreach to improve human and animal medicine and health,” and “contribute to improving the quality of life.” Here at Lee, in addition to the spiritual goals we have for students, we hope to foster “healthy physical, mental, social, cultural and spiritual development.” Only the private institution does not go beyond the basic academic goals in its mission and values.
I’m guessing that, at this point, most professors would respond that these goals are perfectly fine for the institution, but that they have no part in them. They can be handled by the student life function at the school. Let students play intramurals or serve in student government if they are worried about their physical development or want to learn how to become better citizens.
However, these same professors have no trouble attempting to change students’ lives in other, equally dramatic, ways in the classroom. Gerald Graff, former president of the Modern Language Association, wrote in his presidential address from December 2008, “All this [complaint about classroom indoctrination] might be the end of the story if it were not that since the 1960s ‘transforming’ the political consciousness of students has been widely defended in print as a legitimate goal of teaching, as is seen in such self-described trends as ‘the pedagogy of the oppressed,’ ‘critical pedagogy,’ ‘teaching for social justice,’ ‘radical pedagogy,’ and ‘anti-oppressive education.’ ”
The way we approach these subjects and others too numerous to mention does not convey a neutral statement to the students, and most of us have long since ceased claiming that our teaching does. If that is true, then, our approaches to cell phones in classrooms and students’ weight, health, and self-image, among other issues, are also not neutral.
In the same way that a literature class that ignores female authors (or even ignores the fact that it ignores female authors) would be seen as a political act, though no political statement is ever made, an institution that ignores other issues that affect our students is also political. Thus, colleges and universities take a political stance by a lack of action as much as by acting one way or the other.
Of course, such an approach can easily lead to a school becoming Big Brother, watching students’ every move, waiting for them to light a cigarette, go binge drinking, eat an extra doughnut, or spend all of their free time online playing video games or texting their friends. In the same way, though, that we try to educate students about both smoking and drinking, often creating tobacco- and alcohol-free campuses, we can also educate students about health and the importance of face-to-face community.
The real problem is not, though, that professors do not want students’ quality of life to improve; they are afraid that they will then have to be role models for those students. We, like Charles Barkley, do not want to be role models. It smacks of the image of the spinster teacher from the early 1900s who had to have chaperones on dates and bring in coal for the fire in our one-room schoolhouse. It’s old-fashioned to think that students are watching us to see what we’re doing, to see what we value.
They are, though, as those who respect us want to take from us as much as they can. Thus, we must watch not only what we say, but what we do not say, and, perhaps most importantly, what we do.
Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University.
Before bathroom walls became virtual, a can of Lysol and a stiff brush could remove the nasty and vulgar insults that anonymous bullies scrawled from time to time.
Gossip was still gossip. The words still stung. And targets of the graffiti could, if they were aware of it, be humiliated. But not everyone in the world — literally, the world — could read these slurs with a click of the computer mouse. Today, Lysol won’t help.
Like my counterparts around the country, I have been confounded by this new and evolving phenomenon in which high school and college students use new technologies as tools for cruelty. Make no mistake. These tools have the power to destroy.
Certainly the tragic suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, who had apparently been cyberbullied, illustrates technology’s uncivil misuse at its extreme. In Clementi’s case, his Rutgers roommate surreptitiously streamed video on the Internet of Clementi's sexual encounter with a man in their residence hall room.
Compared with the Rutgers’ case, websites that permit and promote anonymous postings on any topic and of any nature -- including gossip, rumor and innuendo -- may seem tame. But to those who are targeted, they are anything but tame, and I believe we must confront them.
I, like colleagues at peer institutions, have dealt with such websites in recent years. We have had to consider how we can combat cowardly individuals who hide behind the anonymity the Internet permits and make unimaginably vile comments, often aimed at one of any university’s most vulnerable populations: first-year female students. These posts name the students; the posters lurk unnamed in the cybershadows.
The women are, understandably enough, humiliated by what the bullies have written about them and are horrified that their classmates might be reading these posts. Their parents are furious.
On the students’ behalf, we asked one site’s owner to remove the most graphic and disgusting posts. The owner informed us that federal law was on his side and that we had no business inserting ourselves in this matter. He assured us that he didn’t condone such material and would remove the posts — but only if the women themselves made the request. Our students then followed the site’s procedures to have material about them removed. The site eventually honored some, though not all, of the students’ requests. Much of the damage, however, had already been done.
Meanwhile, the owner asserted that the problem lies not with his site but with those individuals who post such objectionable material.
Given current laws, we cannot really protect our students from these attacks. But we are, first and foremost, an educational institution that seeks to instill and foster respect and civility within our community. Such cyberbullying is antithetical to our values, so we are obligated to speak out against it.
Last year we launched an aggressive anti-cybergossip campaign. We posted banners in the student union and posters around campus. We took out ads in the student newspaper. We raised the issue with our student leaders and included the issue in student orientation.
And this summer I went directly to our students and parents for their help, writing a letter to them about our recent experience with sites promoting anonymous gossip. That letter read, in part: "If you know of anyone who is using this website to malign fellow students, please do not remain silent…. If you know of a student who is being targeted on this website, please direct that person to me so that we can provide support. We firmly believe that the majority of our students recognizes such reprehensible behavior is inconsistent with our values of civility."
We even took the unprecedented step of blocking from our computer network the site with the postings about the first-year women. As a practical matter, blocking access from our computer network could not keep people away from the site. We knew that. But we also decided that we had to take a stand, at least, symbolically.
The situation we confront and the sad story at Rutgers are connected by what technology makes possible. Bullies and gossips are not new, but the anonymity afforded by this technology emboldens them. When they write on bathroom walls, the audience is limited. Now they hide behind their computers and brazenly hurl insults that travel around the world through the Internet.
In facing this new challenge, we must, first and foremost, support students who may be the victim of such activity. Beyond that, we should be consistent in telling our students that posting anonymous comments about others is neither clever nor harmless but can have serious consequences. Most of all, we can’t ignore this issue or hope others will provide solutions for us. As educators, we must seize this opportunity to make a difference.
Dawn Watkins is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Washington and Lee University,