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,
With large numbers of 20-somethings moving back in with their parents, taking unpaid internships, or bouncing from job to job seemingly without direction, psychologists, sociologists, journalists and parents have been asking the question, “Why are 20-somethings taking so long to grow up?” The New York Times Magazine recently devoted an 8,000-word cover article to this question. It used to be that by the time they reached their early twenties, Americans were beginning to settle down, work a steady job, and lead a relatively stable life, but that is no longer the case.
For most of the 20-somethings I know, which is an admittedly small group of graduates from some of the country’s best four-year colleges and universities, life’s third decade offers a disquieting mix of uncertainty and promise. Faced with friends scattering across the globe after graduation, the high stakes and complexity of modern life, a tough job market, admonitions to enjoy youth to the fullest, and a dearth of self-knowledge, many 20-somethings find themselves asking, “Now what?” For the first time the life script that so many have followed does not have a next page.
These feelings of uncertainty, hope, and confusion are, in part, rooted in adolescence and the over-structuring of American childhood. Amid the standardized tests, sports practices, extracurricular activities, and A.P. classes, there is little room for the self-exploration that used to characterize adolescence. Middle and high school seem to be less about discovering or deciding who one is and more about reaching the next benchmark. Today’s students know more factoids than previous generations, but they also know less about themselves. It is therefore no surprise that more American high school graduates than ever are taking a gap year to explore the world outside the academic structure.
The rigid scripting of childhood and adolescence has made young Americans risk- and failure-averse. Shying away from endeavors at which they might not do well, they consider pointless anything without a clear application or defined goal. Consequently, growing numbers of college students focus on higher education’s vocational value at the expense of meaningful personal, experiential, and intellectual exploration. Too many students arrive at college committed to a pre-professional program or a major that they believe will lead directly to employment after graduation; often they are reluctant to investigate the unfamiliar or the “impractical”, a pejorative typically used to refer to the liberal arts. National education statistics reflect this trend. Only 137 of the 212 liberal arts colleges identified by economist David Breneman in his 1990 article “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” remain, and an American Academy of Arts and Sciences study reported that between 1966 and 2004, the number of college graduates majoring in the humanities had dwindled from 18 percent to 8 percent.
Ironically, in the rush to study fields with clear career applications, students may be shortchanging themselves. Change now occurs more rapidly than ever before and the boundaries separating professional and academic disciplines constantly shift, making the flexibility and creativity of thought that a liberal arts education fosters a tremendous asset. More importantly, liberal arts classes encourage students to investigate life’s most important questions before responsibilities intervene and make such exploration unfeasible. More time spent in college learning about the self and personal values means less floundering after graduation. Despite the financial or, in some cases, immigration-status reasons for acquiring undergraduate vocational training, college still should be a time for students to broaden themselves, to examine unfamiliar ideas and interests, and to take intellectual risks. Otherwise, students graduate with (now dubious) career qualifications but little idea of who they are or who they want to be.
Combine this confusion with what is for many the first confrontation with life’s nonlinear, organic nature, and it is no surprise that 20-somethings are taking so long to grow up. Life stretches before them, endlessly promising, challenging, and exciting but simultaneously daunting, terrifying, and enigmatic as a single preordained path suddenly splits into myriad unknowable routes. And after watching their parents – typically both of them – work ever longer hours in an increasingly around-the-clock and competitive world, 20-somethings wonder whether their 20s will be the best time of their lives or will be spent doggedly climbing the career ladder. This period has therefore become a sort of extended gap year, a time to get whatever it is out of one’s system before the demands of graduate school, career, and family become inescapable. It may be an error of youth to believe that life ceases to be pleasurable after marriage, financial independence, or entering a profession, but it is an error that many young Americans make.
Our country is rearing a group of intelligent young men and women with lots of skills and enthusiasm but little self-knowledge. Unable or unwilling to deviate from the script during childhood and college, we have shifted to early adulthood the self-exploration that used to occur earlier in life and used to be the purpose of a liberal arts education. The resulting economic, psychological, and social strain on parents and kids is tremendous.
Only by breaking down the rigid structure of the middle-class American childhood can this situation be rectified. Children’s lives must cease to be packed with extracurricular activities, sports leagues, music lessons, and innumerable other résumé-building pursuits. In order to make time for exploration during high school, the influence of the college admissions process should be limited to the junior and senior years.
Because so much of the scripting of American childhood is driven by what the public thinks selective colleges and universities want, these institutions must reform and explain admissions. They must take the lead in ramping down the current admissions frenzy, which discourages high school students from taking the kind of productive risks that foster creativity and self-knowledge. And colleges and universities should require underclassmen to take a wide range of courses, including a heavy dose of the humanities, before declaring a major and should encourage students to delay such a declaration for as long as possible.
Finally, we all -- high schools, colleges, parents, teachers, and students -- need to change our attitude toward taking risks and learning from failure. These are not dangers to be avoided but opportunities to achieve and to grow through invaluable and formative experiences. Only by mandating broad exposure in and out of the classroom and encouraging the willingness to deviate from the script can we help high school and college students decide who they are and who they want to be. If we stay the course, we will continue to get the 20-somethings we are asking for.
Timothy Henderson graduated from Middlebury College in 2010 and is now on the staff of the Green Mountain Valley School, in Waitsfield, Vt., where he coaches young ski racers and teaches SAT prep classes.
Earlier this semester a media law professor asked me to prepare a lecture on privacy to present to his class while he was out of town on business. Subbing, for me, is an opportunity to delve into topics that might have changed since the last time I taught a particular class. So was the case concerning the four types of privacy invasion:
Intruding on seclusion or solitude.
Appropriating a person's name or likeness.
Disclosing facts that are embarrassing but true.
Placing a person in a false light.
Unless you have been the focus of an online news story, you may not have pondered how anonymity topples the intent of privacy law, allowing trolls to intrude on your peace of mind, reduce you to a caricature, disclose private facts, and place you in an unflattering light. Nevertheless, occasions occur in academe that demand our intervention, such as harassment in virtual worlds, which can include incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia and even avatar sexual assault, discussed in my February article in Inside Higher Ed.
In a 2007 article about Second Life, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I presented then-Vice President of Linden Lab Robin Harper with this hypothetical: “Say a university requested the identity of a Second Life resident in the investigation of a code violation that occurred on the university's virtual campus. Would the company comply?”
"We would not provide this information without a subpoena," she stated.
Subpoenas were part of the discussion in media law class because the current event on that day involved Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, secretly videotaped while engaging in intimate relations with another man. Soon after learning of the webcast, Clementi committed suicide by leaping from the George Washington Bridge. Clementi posted his suicide note — “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry" — on Facebook.
In “More Facebook Privacy Woes: Gay Users Outed To Advertisers,”Wired reports that researchers from Microsoft and the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems discovered that advertisers can distinguish gay from straight users "just by looking at who’s clicking — even when that sexual preference is hidden."
However, the issue of social networks and mobile (sometimes hidden) media — allowing instant World Wide access — often concerns basic ignorance of computer programming. Indeed, early adopters associated with centers of teaching excellence, student affairs, and colleges of education and business introduced these applications into academe touting the potential for student engagement without analyzing the monetary motive embedded in the application or the potential for misuse.
That misuse is compounded not only by instant access to a global audience but an audience that also generates content via social networks, blogs, microblogs, smart phones and all manner of consumer gadgets programmed to disseminate content via terms of service that assign liability to users, protect predators’ identity and violate privacy of countless individuals on a daily basis.
A recent incident involves the Duke University sex PowerPoint in which an alumna sent to three friends a 42-slide presentation about her former sex partners — several of them athletes — describing their sexual prowess in privacy-violating detail. In time the presentation found its way to a Duke listserv and from there to blogs and then went “viral” (an apt term), resulting in mainstream media descending on the Duke campus to rehash the 2006 lacrosse case. Yes, there are aspects of this incident that may relate to feminism (as in why the hullabaloo over a woman’s exploits when men engage hourly in locker-room gossip?) or to Duke’s alleged scandalous culture; but the specter of ignorance about unintentional violation of privacy on Internet has gone largely unreported.
And that ignorance can thrust you and your students into the global Weblight if you forget for a nanosecond that social media were invented not to promote your own reality show or to engage student learners in the digital age but to make money via programming and targeted advertising at your and your institution’s personal expense.
Many students (and teachers and administrators, for that matter) believe that services such as e-mail or social networking are free because they are not billed monthly or charged subscription rates. In “Facing the Facebook,” one of the first articles to expose this myth, ethicist Christine Rosen told me, "It is ironic that the technologies we embrace and praise for the degree of control they give us individually also give marketers and advertisers the most direct window into our psyche and buying habits they've ever had."
This summer PC World reported in “How Will Facebook Make Money?” that Facebook has been trying to find the right balance between respecting privacy of users and using their data to make money. The article noted that Facebook is not "free" but "offers its service in exchange for the right to capture and collect mountains of demographic and preference data from its users," which "can be extremely valuable to marketers and advertisers because it is highly detailed and personal."
Students in the media law class were surprised to learn this. And if that is the case concerning juniors and seniors of an accredited journalism school at an institution of science and technology, then imagine the level of awareness by other majors not required to understand privacy invasion, liability and social responsibility (rather than social networking).
While everyone in class was familiar with and/or registered on Google, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and/or Second Life, only two students out of 60 that day had read the user agreements associated with those services.
Earlier this year, three Iowa State University colleagues and I did a content analysis of the number of prohibitions and limitations placed on users by corporate terms of service. Many such clauses deal with privacy and profit, a curious blend that defines our Internet age. Our study found that Facebook had the highest number of prohibitions with 74, followed by LinkedIn, 54; Second Life, 42; Google, 13; and Twitter, 7.
I ended media law class by asking students about their own online habits:
Using chat, social networks, texting, virtual worlds, cell phones or blogs, have you or anyone you know ever intruded on another person’s seclusion or solitude? Response: About two-thirds of the class raised their hands.
Using PhotoShop, InDesign, videography or other software, have you or anyone you know ever appropriated a person’s name or likeness and disseminated it to others for fun or any other reason? Response: About one-third of the class raised their hands.
Using any of the previously mentioned applications or software, have you or anyone you know ever posted private facts about someone else, potentially embarrassing them? Response: Almost all raised their hands.
Using any of the previously mentioned applications or software, have you or anyone you know ever placed a person in a false light intending to hurt or belittle that individual? Response: About half the class raised their hands.
In the discussion that ensued, we generally agreed that some popular online services inadvertently are reversing the intent of media law, protecting invaders of privacy from being identified by bestowing anonymity.
A few students were concerned that their social online habits would spill over to the workplace, harming their internships or future careers. One student wondered if privacy mattered at all anymore in as much as everyday online habits violated media law so often. It was a good question. I responded by quoting Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy in 1999: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
Do we ever get over privacy invasion when it happens to us?
More than a decade ago PC World was among the first to report McNealy’s comment in a post that demanded “real privacy … as a matter of law” and warning about the continuing influence of “companies eager to improve their marketing efficiency or make billions selling personal data of questionable accuracy.”
Educators have a responsibility to remind students, colleagues and administrators about that, even if only subbing for a day.
Michael Bugeja, who directs the journalism school at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological AgeandLiving Ethics Across Media Platforms, both published by Oxford University Press and both of which won the Clifford G. Christians Award for Research in Media Ethics.
At about 8:15 every weekday morning I make my way to my office at the center of this small campus. I am one of several others arriving, and we walk alone, or in twos and threes, across East Main Street and toward the buildings in which most of us will spend most of our days. We rarely see a student. They are, for the most part, sound asleep in the residence halls and houses that spread out across campus. I sometimes pick up a beer can or cardboard French fries container, evidence that they have passed this way recently.
At 4:30 in the afternoon, most of those who arrived early that morning make their way back across East Main and to their cars. They may encounter students heading to or from an athletic practice on a nearby field, or walking from the more distant student parking lot back to their dorms and dining halls. My job usually keeps me here later — sometimes 6 p.m., sometimes 8 or 10 p.m. On my way out, I pass many more coming from their parking lot, students carrying pizza boxes, bags of groceries, six or 12-packs of beer, ready to dig in for a night of studying, TV-watching, or partying. As the clock ticks toward late evening, the third shift is about to begin.
Perhaps it’s because I spent the early part of my work life doing shift work that I’ve come to demarcate the day, and the world, into three distinct factions: first, second and third shifts. Though I’ve been out of the formal shift-based workplace for years, my circadian clock seems to be permanently divided into three eight-hour blocks of time, and when I look at my campus and think about my students, this place and these people are backlit by the glow of that clock.
The first shift is the one that begins just before or right around the time of that walk in each morning. Though our cleaning staff, our food service employees and some of our physical plant workers have been on campus since 6 or 7 a.m., we open for business at 8:30 a.m. During the next eight hours, classrooms will fill with students and faculty engaged in the formal learning that is our raison d’etre. In various administrative offices, phones will be answered, forms will be filled out, bills will be paid, students will be admitted, correspondence will be drafted, and e-mail will arrive, unceasingly, demanding a response. Meetings will be held, out of which plans will come for new buildings, new programs, student dismissals, tenure and promotion. It’s the five-day-a–week life of a campus. Not enough time to get it all done, but all the time we have on the first shift.
Sometimes the work of the first shift spills over to the second, and people in various roles, including faculty, go home to a few more hours of e-mail follow-up, report-writing, class-preparing or exam-grading. Back on campus, the second shift is a busy one. It’s when students are engaged in the semi-formal, as opposed to the formal, learning that goes on constantly.
Some are still in classrooms, as the class schedule here, like on most campuses, extends into the evening. They are on athletic fields and courts, participating in varsity, club and intramural athletics. They are in the campus coffee house meeting with a study group, or in the library studying on their own. They are attending lectures, singing in recitals, rehearsing with their a cappella groups, strategizing with fellow student senators to outwit the administration, writing stories for the student paper. They do some of this with us nearby; the second shift employees of student activities and programs, arts and cultural events, emerge from their offices and oversee the bustle of the 7 to 10 p.m. block. And in some instances, we are nowhere nearby, but will hear about their progress (or lack of it) in the morning.
Eventually, they close their books, end their rehearsals, file out of the auditoriums and study carrels, labs and coffee shops. Night, “smoky-scarv’d,” as Rupert Brooke described it, seeps in from the edges of the horizon. The third shift is beginning. It is the shift that is staffed primarily by the officers of the campus safety department and the residence life staff, and it is when some of the most intense, most harrowing, and most life-altering learning goes on. I know about it because one of my first tasks each morning is to review the reports from our Public Safety department. The formal, stilted language of the reports is a jarring contrast to the content, which usually involves emotional crises and physical manifestations of bad decisions (vomit and blood are often mentioned, as is damaged property).
Sometimes the reported situation is so bizarre as to be humorous (a residence hall room door completely covered in Pop-Tarts, for example; a naked senior picked up by Public Safety on a campus road; a first-year student who sat on a tube of Super Glue and required the services of the local rescue squad). Sometimes the names are familiar: students who have already established themselves as drinkers, partiers or hot-tempered drama queens. Sometimes this is our introduction to them, and our second date will be in one of our offices, sorting out and hopefully resolving the situation.
I was listening in on a recent student forum about alcohol policy changes and was struck by something one student, a senior resident adviser and one I know to be particularly observant, said about our campus. The issue on the table was damage billing — who pays for vandalism when the actual perpetrator cannot be identified. Gabrielle said to her peers, “But you can’t just figure out what to do based on what we’re like during the day, when the campus is all 'lovey' and nice. You know how different it is after midnight.” The others in the room nodded. Of course they know. Another student in the same forum said, “I think there’s a lot of damage because people are bored. There’s nothing to do between the hours of, like, 2 and 4 a.m., so just to have fun some people do stupid things like flip over the recycling containers and smash all the bottles, or unroll toilet paper all over the floor.”
I sat there silently deconstructing these statements. Gabrielle is absolutely right. Our students are different people late at night. In our classrooms and offices during the day or the library or practice rooms in the evening, they are smart, charming, ambitious, clear-headed and reasonably nice to one another. But like a collegiate version of Teen Wolf, as the clock ticks closer to midnight, they become unrecognizable to us.
These students whose company I enjoy during the day and evening live a second life, one so incongruent with the first that I would swear their bodies have been snatched and replaced with pod people. They cheat on their boyfriends and girlfriends (and then watch as a fistfight between the two “suitors” develops). They mix their prescription medications with vodka and strong coffee. They do damage to drywall that I simply can’t comprehend. These are some of the same students I’ve watched excel on the baseball field or in the swimming pool, create beautiful art, lead a meeting, reach out to a troubled friend.
Recently, a student I know was named on a Monday morning report. I saw his name and said it out loud to my colleague, a look of complete incredulity on my face (the permanent lines on my face caused by this expression are a hazard of my job). My colleague responded with a head shake: “No way.” This student is a senior, a recent winner of a prestigious national scholarship based on his public service plans and his impressive academic and service-related track record. Not an inkling of trouble in three years, and yet here he was, having been transported to the local hospital because he was passed out with a bottle of vodka in his hand. Teen Wolf, I thought. Full moon
And the second statement I heard from a student at the forum left me pondering as well. I didn’t say what I (and most people over the age of 23) would like to say, which is that a really great activity to engage in between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. is sleeping. Or that, despite what they might have experienced growing up, life is not a constantly-scheduled play date, and sometimes you have to plan your own (non-destructive) fun. Instead, I wondered what they would actually like us to be doing to entertain them at that hour. Do we need to have 24-hour dining options available, as some campuses now offer? Round-the-clock programs and events?
But it’s not just alcohol and entertainment that they indicate would meet their third-shift needs. Based on written reports from Public Safety and conversations with professional and student residence hall staff, our students’ propensity to be in the midst of crisis is significantly higher after midnight. They are phantoms of a campus-based opera, and the music of their night is full of intrigue, pathos and revelations, each sensation sharpened, heightened. These are the hours when relationships end and hearts are broken, when reality crushes academic dreams (the pre-med student realizing she will never, ever do better than C work in chemistry), when roommate squabbles escalate into emotional battles that enlist others on the floor, when feelings of loneliness, anxiety, sadness and despair ratchet into the danger zone, when the big — the enormous, really — questions about life and death and meaning are tossed around in a residence hall conversation, and the same students who will appear to doze through an 8 a.m. philosophy class will come alive with intellectual excitement.
And where are we? Most of us, if we’re lucky, are sound asleep. But even if we are awake and dealing with our own crises or questions or just plain insomnia, we are not in the presence of our students. In what I’ve come to think of as one of the great contradictions of our work, we are furthest from our students at the times they might benefit most from our presence. The adults with whom they are most likely to interact are our campus safety officers, trained in many ways but not typically skilled or interested in wrestling with the great existential or personal dilemmas our students pose. The others on duty at that time? Our front-line residence hall professionals, most commonly our youngest and least-experienced staff members, many of them just a few years past their own undergraduate experience. And these staff are available only to the minority of college students, as many more live off-campus without even these resources nearby.
If we were to design a similar staffing structure in the retail world, we would be out of business in short order. Imagine a convenience store that closed at noon, a shopping mall that shuttered its doors on the weekends, a train schedule that ignored common commuter times. Imagine a restaurant that served exquisite dinners… at 2 p.m. Or a pub that opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 4 p.m. None would survive, and on the way to their demise, people would say, “Geez. What were they thinking?” But on our campuses, many of us miss the big stuff that happens daily (and nightly) for our students. Geez, I wonder, what are we thinking?
With any luck, we’re not thinking. We’re sleeping. Like many people in jobs similar to mine, I’ve done my share of work on the third shift and am happy to turn the work over to those who are younger and more able to recover from an all-nighter than I am. And of course, we have to be there during the day to interact with the rest of the world, including the parents of these same students. I’m certainly not proposing an academic or co-curricular schedule that offers classes or activities in the 2 to 4 a.m. slot.
That’s as unreasonable and unlikely as requiring my students to turn off their lights and computers and cell phones and go to sleep at 11 p.m. I liked staying up till all hours when I was young. I loved the fog of mystery and romance that descended on a campus after midnight — the change in mood, the edge of lawlessness and intrigue that could not be replicated during the day, and of course the emotional jitteriness that came with too little sleep and too much caffeine and provoked the intense and deeply meaningful conversations that we all remember from our college days. I have, as Frost wrote, been one acquainted with the night.
Rather than make a suggestion to turn our work schedule on its head, I want to find a way to validate the work of the third shift, work done by students and staff, and to seek ways to leverage it for deeper learning. I want my first-shift colleagues to know about and acknowledge the complex and sometimes fraught work that goes on after midnight and share the respect I have for my third-shift colleagues who keep our students safe when they walk closer to the edge than they ever do at two in the afternoon. And while students are not necessarily looking for us to watch over them through the night, any more than they want their parents hovering nearby, we do need to find ways to connect the deep and lasting learning that happens in those dark and mysterious hours with the education we work so hard to provide on the other two shifts. Somewhere, in the combining of these very different moods and methods, lies great potential for life-altering, career-directing, world-changing student learning. That possibility doesn’t keep me up at night, but it does send me off to sleep with a sense of anticipation for the start of the new day.
Lee Burdette Williams
Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.
A recent survey of college and university officials found that 66 percent of institutions now collect criminal justice information about would-be students, usually through self-disclosure on the application. The survey revealed that a wide range of offenses can get an applicant additional screening that can lead to rejection, and that less than half of the colleges that use this approach have written policies to guide admissions officers or train those employees.
As the head of the Center for Community Alternatives, the organization that asked the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to conduct the survey, I am troubled by the survey’s findings. CCA’s core mission is removing the barriers to employment, education and full community reintegration faced by individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system, and we know, from both the research literature and from our own experience, that access to a higher education can have a profound effect on individual lives. If past criminal convictions are preventing significant numbers of young people from going to college, then we all lose out.
That’s why these colleges’ policies concern us. Seventy-five percent of schools consider any drug or alcohol conviction negatively in spite of how common those offenses are among the college-age population. And one-third of schools consider pending misdemeanors or even misdemeanor arrests in a negative light.
Also disturbing is the ad hoc quality of the procedures used by many of the schools that collect this sensitive information. At the 40 percent of colleges that train staff on how to interpret criminal records, the training is most often provided by campus security or “other staff.” The lack of in depth-training is troubling because criminal records are often inaccurate and almost always more complicated than they may seem at first blush.
A major complication in interpreting criminal records is that state laws vary so greatly that two college applicants from different states, convicted of the same offense at age 15, could end up with entirely different criminal history records. One may end up with an adult record while the other will have no adult record whatsoever. In some states anyone older than 16 can be prosecuted as an adult and end up with a permanent record. In other states the cut-off age is 18, and those who are younger will be processed in the juvenile system, which protects them from a permanent conviction. Without training, admissions officers will not be aware of the vagaries of state criminal records and will be more likely to make arbitrary decisions based on inaccurate facts.
There are important public policy reasons to eschew the collection of criminal history information from college applicants. The fact that African Americans and Latinos are overrepresented in the criminal justice population is no longer open to question. Racial profiling and the heavy concentration of police in low-income, urban neighborhoods have led to high rates of arrest, prosecution and conviction among communities of color. An African American in the city of Los Angeles is seven times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, a misdemeanor, as a white person is. A Latino in the same city is twice as likely to be arrested for that offense as a white person. Yet government studies show that whites use marijuana more than either blacks or Latinos. Based on these facts, screening for criminal records cannot be a race-neutral practice.
Are there serious risks involved in not conducting criminal background checks? There is no empirical evidence that students with criminal records present a threat to campus safety. Only one study has investigated the link between criminal history screening and improved safety on campus; no statistical difference in campus crime was found between schools that screen and schools that don’t.
The U.S. Department of Education has concluded that “students on the campuses of post-secondary institutions are significantly safer than the nation as a whole.” The most horrific campus crimes, like the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings, are committed by students who don’t have criminal records. Rape and sexual assault are the only crimes showing no statistical differences between college students and non-students, and those offenses are most often committed by inebriated students who have no prior criminal records. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents in our survey reported that they did not use criminal justice information in their admissions processes, and none of them indicated that they believed their campuses were less safe as a result.
Colleges and universities can responsibly refrain from collecting criminal background information about applicants, and by doing so will be able to attract a diverse student body and maintain a safe and secure campus. But if criminal history screening is done, it should be done according to reasonable, fair and written policies and procedures:
Remove the disclosure requirement from initial application for admission and ask for criminal justice information only after conditional admission.
Limit the disclosure requirement to convictions for felonies (not misdemeanors or infractions) that were committed within the past five years and that were committed after the applicant’s 19th birthday.
Establish admissions criteria that are fair and evidence-based, e.g., remove barriers to admission of individuals who are under some form of community supervision and provide an opportunity to document personal growth and rehabilitation.
Base admissions decisions on assessments that are well-informed and unbiased by developing in-house expertiseand performing an assessment and multi-factor analysis to determine whether a past criminal offense justifies rejection.
Establish written procedures that are transparent and consistent with due process. Applicants should be informed in writing of the reason for the withdrawal of an offer of admission and should be afforded the right of appeal.
Offer support and advocacy including on-campus support services for students who have criminal records.
Evaluate the policy periodically to determine whether it is justified.
There are great social benefits associated with a more educated citizenry — more informed voters, better parents, and a more skilled workforce, to name a few. A college education is a crime prevention tool: colleges and universities promote public safety in the larger community when they open their doors to people with criminal records who demonstrate the commitment and qualifications to pursue higher education.
Marsha Weissman is executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives. The organization’s full report, "The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered," can be downloaded from its website.
A recent article in Inside Higher Ed reported the efforts that colleges and universities are making to put a stop to the ritualized mayhem on assorted campuses, typically as a rite of spring, that is as deeply embedded in campus lore as any sanctioned event. These range from a singular event, like Tufts University's Naked Quad Run, to a multi-day event like the University of Connecticut's infamous Spring Weekend, a four-day informal but well-known series of un-sponsored parties in various locations on and near campus that took place last weekend.
Each of these events leads to predictable results: multiple cases of severe alcohol poisoning and hospital transports, physical and sexual assaults, vandalism, increased personnel and equipment costs, embarrassing media coverage and cries of outrage from the general public about why colleges "allow" these things to happen. As far back as 1998, the higher education press was reporting on the intractable nature of UConn's Spring Weekend, chiding administrators for not doing enough to prevent the mayhem.
I spent four years as dean of students at the University of Connecticut, and thus had a front-row seat at both the multiple strategy meetings held by various administrators in advance of Spring Weekend and at the events of Spring Weekend themselves, and I can tell you with absolute certainty: "allowed" is not a descriptor that applies to these events.
Two years removed from that position, and now at a small college with its own Spring Weekend (and its own challenges), I've had the opportunity to ponder the lessons I learned during those four years. While I was not part of the conversations that led to the most recent request by UConn administrators for a moratorium (soundly rejected by the student government), I empathized with my former colleagues in their efforts to respond to demands that the event be "canceled." I can hear the familiar plaint now: "How can we 'cancel' something we don't put on in the first place?"
Spring Weekend at my current institution, despite having the same name, is on such a different scale as to not even warrant comparison to the behemoth that is UConn's event, but, as I often observe, students on most campuses are similar in some fundamental ways, and I've tried to apply what I learned at UConn to my understanding of this weekend. Some of those lessons are ones that some of my colleagues on other campuses learned long ago, and perhaps offer some insights into why the management, or, even more extreme, the cancellation of these events, is so problematic.
Observation 1: A lot of students like to drink.
Not all students like to drink, and not many students like to drink to such excess that they poison themselves, but a pretty darn high percentage like to drink to the point where they feel a little buzzed, a little uninhibited, a little more edgy than they feel during the day. Any current research on student alcohol use will tell you that drinking is a very popular co-curricular activity, and any student activities professional will tell you that the presence of alcohol is the flame to our student moths. If an “event” promises the availability of free or cheap alcohol, students will show up. You cannot fight this attraction with non-alcohol events, no matter how much fun they might appear to be.
Observation 2: Students like spectacles, especially dangerous ones.
Like most of us, students like big crazy events, even if it's more to observe them from a safe distance. I knew many students who attended Spring Weekend events at UConn not to participate in the mayhem and destruction themselves, but to witness it and to be able to say, "I saw this kid from my calculus class, butt-naked, standing in the bed of a pickup truck, pounding on his chest." Or something similar. And if they can capture that image in some way and post it on YouTube or Facebook, all the better.
The important distinction is that they don't want to be the butt-naked guy in the truck (well, most of them don't, but there are always a few who will accommodate the masses and the media). They just want to see him. They want to see the fights, but don't want to fight. They want to see the arrests, but don't want to get arrested. In this way, they are not unlike the general population. For me, one of my most unsettling experiences at UConn was when I found myself following another administrator through the crowd to stand on the edge of the medical triage area and observe the falling-down drunk and bleeding students being carted toward the medical trailer. I realized that the group I was with had the same rubber-necking motives as many of the students in attendance.
Observation 3: Students like to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Anyone who's ever attended a football game at one of the true "big houses" of NCAA football understands this. When you are one of a hundred thousand screaming fans at a Michigan or Alabama home game, you feel connected in a unique way to the rest of humanity (at least that part of humanity that roots for the Wolverines or the Tide). You are one of thousands dressed in the right colors, singing the right songs, cheering at the right moments, and it's simply transcendent.
It is this most basic human desire, to be connected to a cause and powerful with promise, that has led nations into battle. College students recognize that these are the moments they will carry into middle and old age, moments replete with color and noise and a level of outrageousness that no night in a campus coffee house or bouncing around, relatively sober, on an inflatable obstacle course will match.
Observation 4: Threats don't work.
In the recent Inside Higher Ed piece, an administrator was quoted as saying that students need to "understand how important the reputation of their school is to the integrity of their degree" and that these huge embarrassing events damage the value of their diploma. Nice try, but I don't think many students make decisions about attending or supporting these events based on this reasoning. I'm not even sure I believe it anymore.
Harvard and Yale have some over-the-top events that involve excessive drinking. Dartmouth has its famous Winter Carnival. I have not seen evidence that the bad behavior of some students has soured employers on these institutions. It's different, obviously, if a job candidate has an arrest record because of a campus incident, or if that student drank so excessively throughout college that he or she ended up with a mediocre GPA. But most employers are savvy enough to know that schools that have big spring weekend parties or nude footraces also produce capable employees and will not dismiss an entire institution out of hand because of the deeply rooted, though troubling, traditions of its student body. Besides, most employers were college students themselves, and some probably stood on the sidelines cheering on the butt-naked guy in the pick-up truck, and know it didn't destroy their integrity or work ethic.
Observation 5: Parents help. A little.
One of the things I love about my students, though it puts them at risk more times than I like to think about, is their ongoing love affair with immortality. Students rarely think about consequences. Recent research on brain development explains this as the not-quite-finished adolescent brain being unskilled at thinking through all the possible outcomes of specific actions. Students do not, like those of us of a certain age, make connections between things like, say, attendance at an event where there are a lot of law enforcement personnel and getting arrested. Or, maybe, attendance at an event where there are a lot of drunk people with beer bottles in their hands and ending up with 25 stitches in one's scalp. Frankly, they don't often see the connection between parking in a fire lane and getting a ticket.
So the students who attend this year's UConn Spring Weekend events are unlikely to think about the classmate who was killed last year by a random punch thrown by a drunk partygoer and connect that kind of risk to their own actions.
Their parents, however, think about all of these things, all the time. They read the press coverage of students' arrests, injuries and deaths on campuses all year long, and at the conclusion of each article, feel a wave of sympathy for the parents of that student and a flood of relief that it was not their child. So when Spring Weekend or a similar event rolls around on their child's campus, parents can, and do, say things like, "Come home." Or, "Here's a hundred dollars. Visit your high school friends on another campus." Or "I'm coming to visit that weekend. What do you have planned?" For many students, the executive function their brains lack can be substituted for by their parents, and that can literally be the difference between life and death.
Observation 6: It eventually gets old.
One thing we knew at UConn was that first-year students participated most heavily in Spring Weekend events, and that each successive year saw fewer students involved. For most students (not all, unfortunately), vomiting in front of friends, flashing their breasts to a crowd of drunk men armed with cameras, risking their scalp, and taking a ride in a paddy wagon to the local police station are not activities that warrant repeating.
And this is what comforts me, if anything does, when I think about these events: most students eventually figure out the difference between a buzz and alcohol poisoning, and learn to moderate their intake. What's frustrating for all of us — administrators, parents, law enforcement — is that there is very little we can do to speed up this process, or keep them out of harm's way in the meantime. Which brings me to my final observation.
Observation 7: They are better at taking care of each other than of themselves.
The best strategies, I believe, are those that focus on helping students identify the signs of alcohol poisoning in others and knowing what to do when they see those signs. Students believe themselves to be immortal. They don't ascribe such a trait to their friends. And you only need a couple of reasonably sober people in a group of drunk friends to realize someone is in trouble and then to get help.
That's where the second important strategy is important: help needs to be nearby. It is easy to criticize the staff members at campuses who are less aggressive about confronting students holding "open containers" during these events than they would be at other times. But personally, I would rather have my students within view, and have public safety officers within reach of those students if needed. We may be accused of “looking the other way,” but I think it’s actually the exact opposite: we are looking right at them, and I believe that kind of presence can change their actions in a positive way.
And the truth for me is, I can live with the accusations of hypocrisy and inconsistency more easily than I can live with the death or serious injury of a student. For that reason, I have supported the recent efforts of our alcohol task force to implement a policy they call "SAMM" (Safety Always Matters Most). On some campuses, this is known as a "medical amnesty" or a "good Samaritan" policy, but I asked the group to be as straightforward in its nomenclature as possible. These policies, under whatever name a campus chooses, are similar: get help for someone in need of medical assistance, and we'll mostly forgive whatever transgressions you might have also committed. I say "mostly" because we will, at the very least, have a conversation with you about the situation. But our message is clear: safety matters more than rules, policies, consequences.
If I can keep my students safe, I figure, through whatever version of Spring Weekend they choose to participate in, there will be time enough for them to figure out the ways adults are expected to behave in the world. This is a bargain I make that few outside my profession seem to understand. To those critics, I suggest that you trust we care more about our students than about liability, and that we understand them, from years spent up close observing them, in ways most people don't.
If there was a way to "cancel" Spring Weekend, Spring Fling, Fountain Day, Fool's Fest, or whatever a campus calls its out-of-control student-led party, we would have done it. Without that option, we will employ the strategies we think give us all the best chance of surviving a rite of spring as deeply embedded as commencement, another busy weekend on our campus, but one we want all of our students to be around to enjoy.
Lee Burdette Williams
Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.
For years many colleges and universities have been paying speaker fees -- some quite substantial -- to celebrities, prominent academics and other well-known personalities to deliver commencement addresses or to give speeches during the academic year on campus and at student meetings.
It has been one of the best-kept secrets of academic life, until the newspapers recently reported that Rutgers University had invited Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate in literature, to deliver this year’s commencement address for $30,000. It was then reported that Rutgers students had upped the ante by inviting Snooki, of "Jersey Shore" fame, to the campus to talk about partying and having fun for the tidy sum of $32,000.
That Snooki should command more money than Morrison was somewhat surprising, but even more shocking was the willingness of Rutgers to spend a large amount of money on a commencement speech at a time when the university has experienced financial difficulties, canceled pay raises, and -- last June -- frozen the salaries of 13,000 employees.
While many colleges and universities are able to attract well-known and thoughtful commencement speakers free of charge either through personal contacts or the awarding of honorary degrees, a large number of these institutions rely on financial inducements to bring speakers to their campuses. Michael Frick, president of the Speakers Platform, told The Los Angeles Times that about 30 percent of all colleges pay their commencement speakers. Other speaker agencies seem to agree with this estimate.
Many colleges are willing to pay high fees for a variety of reasons. Some see it as a marketing tool to attract students, parents and donors. Others feel that celebrity speakers enhance their prestige and reputation. Yet others hope that commencement personalities will enliven otherwise dreary, three-hour ceremonies. Some may even want to convey an inspirational message to graduating students.
While college administrators are responsible for doling out exorbitant commencement speaker fees, they are often under pressure from students to increase the availability of higher fees in order to spend what it takes to book more prestigious speakers. Student newspapers regularly push their institutions to increase commencement honorariums to secure higher-octane celebrities.
The greed of speakers is another factor in the business of attracting well-known personalities to graduation exercises. Why should Katie Couric, who earns $15 million a year or more at CBS, charge so much money to speak for 30-45 minutes at a university? Does Toni Morrison, a tenured professor at Princeton and the recipient of handsome royalties from her many books, need a large honorarium for her speech to Rutgers graduates? They and many others should be giving back to a college system that nurtured their talents. The ready willingness of colleges to spend their scarce resources on commencement fees rather than assistance to needy students merely feeds the appetites of these already wealthy personalities.
It is exceedingly difficult to penetrate the collegiate wall of silence surrounding commencement and other speaker fees. Calls to several agencies that recruit commencement speakers either went unanswered or received the response that such information was confidential. Almost invariably, my inquiries to college public relations or administration departments were met with an "I don’t know. I will have to get back to you." I’m still waiting for some of the responses.
Clearly, universities and colleges are nervous about divulging information about speaker fees, especially at a time when they have raised tuition, frozen salaries, limited financial aid and hired more part-time, low-paid teachers. College speaking fees, whether at commencements or on other occasions, should become a matter of public record. They should not be a subject for investigative reporters.
For their part, college administrators should remind their trustees, alumni, students and parents that commencement fees are inappropriate at a time when their institutions are facing budget crises and student costs are rising at unacceptable rates. Every available dollar needs to be channeled into the real business of higher education.
Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
The recent controversy over the work of Greg Mortenson, author of the best-seller Three Cups of Tea, highlights the risks universities take in inviting famous people to campus and raises the question: Is it worth it?
Until recently, Mortenson was among the most popular guest speakers on campuses nationwide. He rose to fame by campaigning on behalf of children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has built schools that he says not only give them an education they would otherwise not receive but also help reduce the influence of terrorists. Then CBS's "60 Minutes" and other media outlets charged, among other allegations, that he had exaggerated the number of schools he had built and violated IRS laws as he accrued millions of dollars in speaking fees and book sales telling his story.
My university was among those that had already scheduled Mortenson to speak when the controversy broke, and the task force that had invited him, which I chair, was among those that rescinded the invitation. Such decisions put a fine point on the issues colleges face time and again about who qualifies as an appropriate guest. The question is made even more potent in the midst of commencement season, as visiting speakers of every kind address thousands of graduates at a time. As ephemeral as speaking events are, these choices are flashpoints for debates about university values.
Here at Bucknell, as at many campuses, we host speakers several times a year in a range of public events, including commencement, an annual literary arts series and a national speaker series, for which Mortenson had been scheduled to speak.
In 20 years of being involved in such choices at various institutions, I have found that three kinds of speakers are easy for colleges to select: scholars, serious authors and performing artists – such as Elaine Pagels, John Edgar Wideman, Edward Albee and Twyla Tharp. To oversimplify nuanced perspectives, whether we are traditionalists who believe universities should provide a model of intellectual thought or generalists who believe universities should engage the popular culture, we typically agree that universities should be forums for diverse ideas. The issue becomes which visitors are worth paying extra to bring their different ideas to campus. These three types of speakers are the most readily accepted because they use the vocabulary of the liberal arts mission, of the intellect, or of the arts, all of which are inarguably part of a well-educated life.
Now the choices get messier, as the experience with Mortenson shows, because campus speakers often are perceived as a shorthand for what we want our university to be.
First we have so-called public intellectuals, known for their authorship of widely read serious nonfiction, such as historian David McCullough, finance writer Niall Ferguson and physicist Brian Greene. It is no surprise they are popular on campuses, since besides drawing crowds they use many of the methods of scholarship, if not the language. They thus are tolerable to academic traditionalists, since a popular intellect is better than no intellect all, while generalists are thrilled. Someone like Elie Wiesel -- author, public intellectual, and Noble Laureate humanitarian -- hits the sweet spot where (almost) everyone agrees.
Second are celebrities: talk-show hosts, television journalists, actors, comedians -- the TV and movie stars. Here the lines of distinction grow sharper. Outside schools of drama or journalism, traditionalists often see celebrities’ language as superficial, while generalists have a harder time explaining their suitability to a university’s mission. In either case, the language of celebrities isn’t typically perceived as a language of academe, let alone the language, in part because they bear the stigma of popular entertainment as shallow, fairly or not.
Celebrities, however, can be hard for campuses to resist, because students will turn out to see them, and some will ask what is the point of having speakers on a campus if students don’t attend. So students frequently put celebrities first on speaker lists, forcing a choice: Can traditionalists trust that the particular celebrity will be thoughtful enough for them to accept, or is the speaker so purely a celebrity that generalists won’t fight for them? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are among the most desired celebrity speakers because their wit is seen as erudite. Either way, those who extend campus invites to celebrities often crouch as they do, especially if it’s for commencement, with its singular importance to university culture.
This leaves the final two categories, which are separated by just one factor: publication. The easiest of the two to debate, because the lines are so clearly drawn, is the accomplished professional, known for doing something in the “real world” beyond authorship, the arts or entertainment. Traditionalists often don’t see the point, while generalists see them as exemplars of action. Politicians fall in this category, and force the question into the simmering realm of ideology. Business executives fit the bill nicely, though, especially if a market-driven philosophy doesn’t clash with campus views too much.
The final and most complicated category of all, then, is the published professional, which happens to be Mortenson’s category. We’ve had our share here: former South African president F.W. de Klerk, peace activist Jody Williams, and, at this year’s commencement, blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer. To stand apart from the merely accomplished professional, the published professional authors at least one book, earning special credit in the written language that is academe’s prime currency. While traditionalists debate the merits of the book, generalists have greater firepower for their view.
But in entering this special terrain, published professionals also doubly expose themselves to credibility gaps, as Mortenson’s story shows. He became such a sought-after campus speaker because his book made him so famous that students would show up in droves to hear him, almost as if he were a celebrity. How enticing: real accomplishment, authorship and a guaranteed audience to boot.
With the media reports, all that is suspect. But the central problem they raise for campuses isn’t that his nonprofit may have done less good than he claims or that he may have skirted tax obligations. By even his critics’ accounts, after all, he has helped many children, and neither his books nor his speaking contracts claim to fund his nonprofit.
The core dilemma is that he became an especially sought-after campus speaker because of his book’s success. His attractiveness as a published professional visitor came to hinge not on the fact that he’s a great speaker, humanitarian or trailblazing school builder, but on the fact that he presented himself in writing as doing it all for children. If the media reports are true, though, he novelized the children’s story for his own gain. On a core principle, traditionalists and generalists agree: In the language of a university, intellectual honesty is paramount. Not even celebrities get a pass.
In this commencement season, Mortenson’s problems also aren’t his alone; they’re a problem for all public intellectuals, celebrities and professionals. It would not be surprising if everyone, traditionalists and generalists alike, wonders with new intensity during this year’s commencement speeches why universities need such guests. The values debate has a new lightning rod.
Pete Mackey is vice president for communications at Bucknell University.