It's Memorial Day. Few of us are working. Most colleges and universities have gone into summer mode. And yet, tragedy has landed on our doorsteps once again. I actually had to Google "Newtown" to remind myself when that tragic set of murders had occurred (it was December 14, 2012). And every day since, on average, 289 people have been shot in this country. Eighty-six of those shot die from gunshot wounds. Let's do the math. That's over 150,000 shot and nearly 50,000 killed.
While these victims come from all parts of American society, colleges and universities are among the places that have mourned the dead – from Virginia Tech to the University of California at Santa Barbara. And college campuses have been where many pro-gun activists have sought, many of them successfully, to fight gun control.
Today, there are far more guns in people's hands in America than there were even 18 months ago. Over 200 million guns in the hands of individual Americans presumably keep us safe, and yet if more guns were the answer, we certainly wouldn't be seeing the number of gun-related deaths that we do.
Eighteen months ago, hundreds of college and university presidents came forward together and called for saner gun laws in this country. There are at least two things remarkable about that activism. First, it represented a rare moment for the leaders of institutions of higher education -- one in which we chose to speak out collectively on an issue of public importance only tangentially related to our primary mission of education. Second, at the national level and in many states like my own, Georgia, it didn't appear many legislators listened. As just one example, churches in Georgia have now been given the ability to welcome parishioners into their sanctuaries armed, locked and loaded.
We presidents have been largely silent since Newtown, on the issue of gun regulation and on most other significant issues facing our country – at least those issues not directly related to college budgets. The gun safety movement sparked a good bit of discussion among my colleagues on a president's role in the public discourse. I've certainly heard both sides of that issue expressed, even by my own Board of Trustees. Yet I still come out on the side of Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame, who memorably said, "How can we encourage students to speak out unless we have the courage to do so ourselves"? I received a personal note from Father Hesburgh, thanking me for being willing to set an example for our students, but most importantly, I felt I had given my colleagues and myself an opportunity to find our voice.
Which brings me to my next question: Is it time for us to speak out again?
Last night, in an almost unbearable news conference Richard Martinez, father of a beautiful, friendly, promising and now-slain 20-year old student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Christopher Martin-Martinez, had this to say:
“Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”
When I was starting College Presidents for Gun Safety, one of the concerns I heard was the idea there were just too many issues on which to articulate an opinion. Where would it stop? Where would we draw the line? In light of this latest tragedy, on a college campus that could have been any of ours, I would say: "We are nowhere near the line yet. Let's worry about that one when we get closer."
Lawrence Schall is president of Oglethorpe University.
Hawaii Pacific University is eliminating the jobs of about 7 percent of full-time faculty members to deal with a 10 percent decline in enrollment, Hawaii News Now reported. University officials said that they needed to realign resources to focus on programs that could grow.
Some students at Laney College -- a community college in Oakland -- protested before and during commencement because the main speaker was Janet Napolitano, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. Napolitano is currently the president of the University of California system, but the protest focused on what students said were hostile policies toward immigrants when she was U.S. secretary of homeland security. During her talk, some heckled to the point that some in the audience said that they could not hear Napolitano. One protest organizer said that this was a victory. "No one could hear her as she was speaking, the whole time.... It was a very proud day for Oakland -- we made it clear that she was not welcome at Laney College. It was an insult, it never should have happened."
A spokesman for Napolitano said that the heckling was "particularly disappointing" because the speech started with a reference to the killings near the University of California at Santa Barbara Friday night.
In his commencement speech last weekend at Haverford College, the former president of Princeton University, William G. Bowen, attempted to shame some students at Haverford for challenging the invitation to the former University of California at Berkeley Chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Bowen did not scold us for protesting, but rather for protesting incorrectly. As a new alumnus involved in those efforts as a then-senior at Haverford, I stand by our actions. Bowen should too.
In his much-discussed commencement speech, Bowen said, “Let me be clear at the outset that I am not judging the controversy over Bob Birgeneau’s handling of unrest at Berkeley. I have neither the facts nor the inclination to do so.” And yet, Bowen did feel that he had the facts and the inclination to address our methods of challenging Birgeneau.
On November 9, 2011, while Birgeneau was still chancellor, police beat and injured Occupy Cal protesters at Berkeley. Birgeneau supported UC Berkeley police in the use of extreme force against nonviolent protesters, asserted that linking arms is not a form of nonviolent protest, and suggested that the protesters got exactly what they were looking for. While Birgeneau did eventually apologize and claim to accept responsibility for the actions of his police, it reads like a half-hearted apology and does not address his point about protesters being “not nonviolent,” and the report he commissioned about the incident notes that not enough steps have been taken to make sure that such an attack does not happen again. Birgeneau’s role in and response to these protests do not fit with Haverford’s values expressed values of mutual trust, concern and respect.
I and other students and faculty were deeply disturbed by those beatings as well as Birgeneau’s response to them. We questioned the wisdom of awarding an honorary degree to Birgeneau at this time, unless he could show us that he was working to make amends. We decided to write Birgeneau a letter.
We wrote to him, “When trust is violated in our community, we seek to restore our bonds through restorative, not punitive, processes. Restoration involves a full accounting of one’s violation, and, ultimately, we return to wholeness through action. In the spirit of these restorative processes, before you are honored by our community, we believe it is necessary for you to do more than offer a brief apology. We ask you to use this opportunity to take responsibility for the events of November 9th not just by apologizing with words, but by taking substantive action.”
Our letter has been characterized in the press as a list of demands, but what we were trying to do was suggest ways that Bowen could make amends. If Birgeneau did not do at least some of the things we urged him to do or show us that our claims against him were mistaken, we, with no power to make an actual decision on the matter, would ask Haverford to rescind his invitation.
It became clear that Birgeneau would not do as we had hoped and Haverford would not rescind his invitation, and we began plans to protest during commencement. The protest would be nondisruptive and largely symbolic. We did not want to ruin commencement for our families or other students. We ordered buttons that said, “Ask me about Robert Birgeneau” and considered turning our backs when Birgeneau spoke. Before we could decide on a final plan of action, Birgeneau withdrew from the event.
Bowen went on to call us “arrogant” and “immature” for our methods: Writing Birgeneau a letter to suggest possible remedies to our concerns about his receipt of an honorary degree, noting in the letter that we were considering asking Haverford College to rescind his invitation, and telling Haverford College President Dan Weiss and the press that some students and faculty would protest at commencement in a nondisruptive manner if Birgeneau did receive an honorary degree.
Bowen cited two shining examples of “better” protests of honorary degree recipients. First was the case of George Shultz at Princeton in 1973, when Shultz was President Nixon’s secretary of the treasury. The other was President Obama at the University of Notre Dame in 2009.
As Bowen tells it, many Princeton students objected to having Shultz as that year’s honorary degree recipient, and they expressed that view during commencement by standing up and turning their backs to Shultz. A nonviolent, silent protest. Bowen concluded, “Princeton emerged from this mini-controversy more committed than ever to honoring both the right to protest in proper ways and the accomplishments of someone with whose views on some issues many disagreed.”
But that’s not the whole story. Like Haverford students, many Princeton students also wanted to rescind their speaker’s invitation. They held a vote of the student body, with over 60 percent of voters saying that they did not want to hear Shultz at commencement. Representatives of the student body took that vote to Princeton’s Board of Trustees and urged them to reconsider the invitation. Clearly, students only protested as a last resort when the university declined their request to rescind Shultz’s invitation.
In the case of Notre Dame, Bowen focused on how a retired president of the university spoke out in defense of awarding Obama an honorary degree and noted that Notre Dame showed itself to be a place where people could “discuss controversial issues and learn from each other.” There, the majority of protesters were not students or faculty. Most students were supportive of Obama’s presence. The administration sided with the will of the students, and some of the minority who disagreed disrupted the ceremony with heckling.
At Haverford, students were not in consensus on Birgeneau’s invitation (we try to do things by consensus at Haverford). Our president held an open forum where over 100 people from all sides came together to peacefully discuss the Birgeneau controversy with one another, and those of us who disagreed with the invitation promised not to disrupt the ceremony. The situations at Notre Dame and Haverford are apples and oranges, and I can’t figure out why Bowen brought up Notre Dame in contrast to Haverford except to applaud a case where protesters were unsuccessful.
Bowen seems to have a selective memory. Our situation was quite different from Notre Dame’s, and we acted essentially the same as students and faculty at Princeton, except we gave Birgeneau a chance to prove us wrong before condemning him, we never ended up asking Haverford to rescind Birgeneau’s invitation and we did not have the chance to protest silently because Birgeneau decided not to show up.
Bowen misses the point of commencement protests: Honorary degrees are essentially awards, and commencement protests are about asking that the award go to someone who deserves it. We hoped that either Birgeneau would show us he was worthy of receiving an honorary degree, or that he would not receive one. Our goals were to defend the honor of Haverford College and act in solidarity with the Occupy Cal protesters. Protesting during commencement itself was a last resort to achieve just one of those goals.
Dr. Bowen, where did we go wrong? Is it our success that offends you? Perhaps you would have been happier with our methods if we had failed.
Michael Rushmore is a recent graduate of Haverford College.
Ronald Haefner, former IT director at Ripon College, was charged Friday with using more than $400,000 in college funds to buy things for himself, The Fond du Lac Reporter reported. Authorities said that Ripon fired Haefner in November 2013 after discovering that he had been making unauthorized furniture purchases for his home.
Rollins College announced Thursday that Lewis Duncan would be stepping down after 10 years as president and that the transition would happen next month. The announcement said that the board has "every confidence" in the college's "strategic direction." The faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences recently wrote to board members to express concern about Duncan's leadership. In previous years, the same faculty body has voted no confidence and censured Duncan, The Orlando Sentinel reported. Among the points of contention was the creation of the College of Professional Studies, which arts and sciences faculty said was done without consulting them.