Student life

New Vassar student publication seeks to boost political diversity in liberal stronghold

Citing lack of diversity in campus politics, Vassar College sophomore starts new publication to help conservatives and liberals alike express their views in a healthy way.

Students' access to food still a problem on college campuses, study shows

New report finds large numbers of students lack adequate food and shelter -- but the data are not representative.

UCLA takes on 'grand challenge' of ending depression

UCLA is attempting to end the disease entirely, starting with students on its campus.

Unusual debate about politics at University of Texas at Austin

Conservative student government representative at University of Texas at Austin campaigned to change College of Liberal Arts to College of Conservative Arts and College of Liberal Arts -- or COCACOLA. He isn't getting the name change, but did prompt discussion.

Balancing free expression with unrepresented students' sense of belonging (opinion)

On our college campuses today, two core values of the academy, and of democratic society, have come into conflict.

On the one hand, we have freedom of expression, which is the foundation of all academic life. Free speech is what enables our students to pursue knowledge -- to learn and to grow -- by discussing subjects of all kinds, including the most troubling. It is the heart of every college and university, and the lifeblood of democratic self-governance.

On the other hand, we have diversity and inclusion. Our institutions have evolved to the point where many of us have embraced diversity in our core mission and value statements. And our students seek that diversity: in a recent Gallup/Knight Foundation study, those surveyed said they valued a diverse and inclusive environment more than free-speech rights.

What happens when those two core values come into conflict? This clash is different because it hits a raw nerve -- one of identity, particularly those identities that are deeply embedded and not chosen, such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. If that clash was about any other core values, such as belittling one’s chosen position about climate change or economic policy, it wouldn’t feel personal. But belittling one’s identity? Now exclusion is at the forefront, and it becomes personal.

Let me give you an example from my own experience when I was at Augustana College.

During the long presidential campaign of 2016, students, faculty and staff members awoke one morning to find that the entire campus had been covered with political slogans. “Build the Wall.” “Feminism Is Cancer.” “Hillary for Prison.” And, of course, “Trump 2016.” The slogans were chalked on every sidewalk.

Who would have thought that an innocent piece of chalk, a child’s most basic toy, could become a tool to provoke, to attack and -- yes -- to hurt?

Many students in our community felt threatened when they found themselves surrounded by those slogans written in the middle of the night. Those students who felt affected held protest meetings and demanded an immediate response from the administration. They wanted us to issue a condemnation of the sidewalk messages and take action against whoever was responsible.

Suddenly, we were embroiled in a dilemma other colleges and universities across the country were facing. Some people would have said it’s the dilemma about whether free expression on our campuses should have limits. But some of us saw it otherwise. We said it’s a dilemma about the limits on free expression when speech comes into conflict with the right of students to feel that they belong at our institutions.

A sense of belonging: that is perhaps the key to the value of diversity and inclusion. Over the past quarter century, higher education has looked closely at the fortunes of students of color at our colleges and universities. We have looked at retention and graduation rates. We have looked at student experiences on our campuses and participation in academic enrichment opportunities. We have seen that students of color come to our institutions and have a different experience than our white students, which impacts outcomes -- and we have learned that we need to be honest about the specificity of those experiences.

As a result, we have started to have serious conversations about what it would take for students of color to feel a similar sense of belonging as our white students. What that means, in immediate, personal terms, is that when students come back to our campuses after being away, we say to them, “Welcome home.”

So how can we break our word? It is entirely legitimate for students of color to say, “If this is truly my home, then why can’t I feel safe and respected within its walls? How is it tolerable that I should be assaulted by hateful messages within my own home?”

In such situations, some people nowadays are quick to complain that students have become too soft. Too spoiled. Coddled. Special snowflakes. But let me tell you, I could see that such students on my own campus were truly hurt, and some were in shock. I could not discount their feelings. I was disturbed myself -- those words stung me, too. But we administrators must act on principle and accept the emotional toll, even as we explain our decisions to different groups and, ironically, leave no one feeling completely satisfied.

The fact is, our administration could not satisfy student demands for legal action. As difficult as it was, we had to explain there are different kinds of threats, and while the aggressive, hurtful words scrawled around the campus indeed felt threatening, they did not constitute what the law considers to be a material threat or an imminent physical danger.

Yet the students didn’t want to hear this legalistic response. So, what could we do for them?

First, we asserted the right of our college to enforce our student code of conduct. Our institutions have the authority to establish rules of behavior. Public colleges and universities, of course, have far less leeway than private institutions. But students elect to go to a college. And by choosing to do so, they agree to abide by the standards of their new community.

So, we said, we have rules against plastering fliers over every surface on our campus. Let’s apply that same rule to the political sloganeering -- or what some people claimed was hate speech -- that was chalked onto the sidewalk. We cannot ban people from chalking an endorsement of one political candidate or a nasty message about another. But you can’t just bombard us with these messages wherever we go. So we will establish a place where it’s permissible to chalk, just as there are places where it’s permissible to put up fliers and posters.

That was the first step. We used our code of conduct. Then, I made a misstep.

I can laugh about it in retrospect, but it was not funny at the time. When we made our code-of-conduct decision, I sent an email to the whole college explaining how things were going to work. I should have said, “We are going to establish a free chalking zone on campus.” But, in my haste, I wrote, “a free speech zone.”

After I sent that email, I sent another one to correct it. But the damage had been done. People who wanted to score political points were already sending out blog posts with a screenshot of my campus email and complaining that free speech had been fenced in at Augustana College.

Distraught students were pushing for an immediate response, but nevertheless, I should have used better judgment. I’d like to think I’ve learned from that mistake. I’ll share the lesson with you: don’t just hit “send.” Read the email twice before sending it out.

As another key step, when the opportunity arose, we engaged in dialogue with one of our student organizations. The organization wanted to invite former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus in late spring or early fall 2016. Fortunately, the administration has to review all such invitations. We debated and did not just rubber-stamp this particular invitation. We asked the student leaders to engage in a conversation.

That conversation went as follows: as a college, we will not prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking, but we want to know, what teaching purpose do you believe will be served? What will he contribute to academic discourse? And how likely is it that he will persuade other students to adopt your point of view? If you truly believe in the positions you’re promoting, then why bring in a speaker who’s just a flamethrower? Why not bring in someone who is capable, in open discussion, of winning hearts and minds?

And the student leaders responded with, “You know, you’re right.” Engaging them in conversation before they brought in the speaker enabled our community to head off a potential problem.

Nothing we did was unique. And I realize we were really fortunate. However, our approach to resolving the conflict between free speech and inclusiveness can be found on other campuses. Drake University, for example, created a statement of principles that mentioned certain reasonable restrictions -- the things that students could not do -- but mostly focused on the positive: what students, faculty, and staff should do regarding free speech, academic freedom and civil discourse.

How can you create an effective statement of principles? Consider four components:

  1. Keep it short and simple, so it can be understood and remembered.
  2. Keep it inclusive, so that people realize the campus community is not divided into “us” and “them.” It’s always “us” and “others of us.”
  3. Keep it up-to-date, so that it encompasses changing situations.
  4. And, above all, keep it in practice. Model those principles and live them every day, not only in emergencies. Otherwise, they’re just Band-Aids.

The advantage of this approach is that it preserves free speech while making it clear to everyone that not all forms of behavior can be excused on First Amendment grounds. Indeed, campus speech codes have constitutional limits. But if we draft codes of conduct appropriately and take care to maintain a diversity of opinions, just as we respect the need for a diversity of people, then it is possible for us to create safe spaces for historically marginalized groups or for faculty to choose to provide students with trigger warnings without impacting the principles of free expression.

Our students are constantly learning, and we can’t expect them to know on their first try how to speak and interact in constructive ways that honor the community’s values. This is another reason why a statement of principles can be valuable -- and why inclusive and safe spaces, trigger warnings, and rules against microaggressions may be appropriate educational tools. They can help preserve an environment that allows for greater learning as long as we do the work on the other end of making our students ready to face uncomfortable, disturbing or even hateful environments once they leave our campuses.

The best learning often happens during debate, disagreement and controversy. We do well to remember that our educational missions are part of a continuing process intended to result in graduates more capable of navigating the world than when they first entered our campuses.

Pareena Lawrence is president of Hollins University. This essay was excerpted from a speech at the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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When Core Values Collide

Administrators still waging campus free speech wars

Conversations about how best to handle free expression at colleges and universities dominated annual meeting of student affairs professionals.

A practical approach for reinventing liberal arts education (opinion)

In the final few years that I served as president of Dickinson College, students increasingly came to me to chat about a change they sought in liberal arts education. They admitted that they had specifically chosen Dickinson in large part because of its focus on liberal arts education -- permitting both depth and wide range in subject matter of study, interdisciplinarity among academic areas, a sense of community, and strong faculty-student interactions.

But they said they’d been especially drawn to the college’s commitment to the intent of the founder, Benjamin Rush, to establish a distinctively “useful” liberal education for the new nation. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wanted the college’s educational offerings to stand in stark contrast to what was then thought to be a rather frivolous education for the privileged in the United Kingdom.

And while the Dickinson students understood that we were interpreting “useful” education today to be the acquisition of knowledge and skills to advance a democratic nation, both through profession and community commitment, they found the definition was still too vague for their immediate appreciation and application. Their frustration led me to a notion that potentially has wide implications for the reform of higher education, especially the student life programs on America’s liberal arts campuses.

What the students were actually saying to me is that, while they appreciated their liberal arts education and did not want to forgo it, they also wanted to achieve some practical and immediately applicable skills -- well beyond what is called “experiential learning,” critical thinking and problem solving based in an academic subject context. They were impatient with our various claims that they’d be able to apply what they learned in the classroom and extracurricular activities to the wider world of professional and community engagement. They were wary of the “trust us” posture.

Instead, while at college, they wanted to directly learn what some people would call the “trades” or commercially applicable skills. In fact, they admitted to me they did not know how the world worked, even at its most basic operational level, and that ambiguity was a great source of existential insecurity. They were living in a world over which they had no insight or control at the operational level.

For example, they didn’t know how their car worked; they just drove it and were helpless if it broke down. They often didn’t even know how to fix the bicycle they rode on the campus. They were clueless about the sources of their food and how best to prepare it. They had no idea about electricity, plumbing and carpentry. They didn’t understand sources of money and how the economy worked, especially as it affected them personally. And they really didn’t understand how their computers, smartphones and other technical tools operated.

My response to students at that time was to work with them to introduce a student-run organization called the Idea Fund. I initially gave a $15,000 grant from my presidential discretionary fund to launch the project. Students lead the Idea Fund, and its mission is to identify and solve problems in the Dickinson community, resulting in positive change. Among the students’ initial projects were the creation of a bicycle repair shop called the Handlebar and a bicycle-powered coffee cart to provide coffee in places between classes where it was not previously available. They filled their out-of-class time with activities that not only drew on the knowledge and thinking skills that they gained in class (including designing and managing a successful business), but they were also embracing manual labor by learning how to repair bicycles and build a mobile coffee cart from scratch.

As more and more students became engaged with the Idea Fund, I also noticed that they broadened their focus beyond building positive change projects to creating an immensely satisfying student life. The projects brought students together outside of class and became an engaging catalyst to their college social life. Students were finding a fulfilling, productive and fun-filled alternative to what they described to me as the endless repetition of mindless, alcohol-filled and often dangerous and illegal parties that occurred despite the college’s herculean efforts to offer alternatives or shut such events down.

Guilds of Engaged Students

Such experiences with liberal arts students lead me to propose an alternative and parallel course during undergraduate study -- one that could be a brand differentiator for those institutions wanting to appeal to a particular type of student whose academic and student life needs are unmet. What I propose has the possibility of deflecting public criticism that a four-year liberal arts education is useless and has little to do with employment or practical application to the “real” world. Yes, you can talk extensively about the usefulness of a liberal arts education -- admirably done yet again in the recently published book by Randall Stross, A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees (Stanford University Press). Such arguments, however, have been presented to the public for centuries in America, and our pragmatic society seemingly will not accept, despite significant evidence to the contrary, that courses in philosophy, English, sociology and the like can help graduates obtain a first job out of college.

What I propose is that liberal arts colleges initiate a suite of trade-like programs that lead to various forms of certification and that parallel the liberal arts curriculum. Electronics, farming, auto repair, carpentry, coding, small business management, masonry, culinary arts, plumbing, tailoring and so on are all possible concentration areas. Recognized national organizations could provide the certification.

For instance, in Carlisle, Pa., the home of Dickinson College, the local high school has offered Oracle certification, and I have often thought that our college students could also pursue that option at the high school location, or that master craftspeople in the local area could informally grant various forms of certification. In fact, six years ago, I asked our college chefs, two of whom were certified by the Culinary Institute of America, if they would be willing to take on apprentice students, and the answer was affirmative.

Of course, the question arises about how students will be able to find time for such activities in an already busy college schedule. Dickinson students gave me the answer. As an alternative to the current social life that now leaves many students with unmet needs -- and in some cases alienates them totally -- each “trade” offered on a campus would become a “guild” and form the basis of a social life for engaged students. And it would be from the concrete purpose and acquired pragmatic skills of those operative guilds that students would productively extend into the community beyond the college to fulfill the obligations of a liberal education to be a powerful source of informed, engaged citizens, with concern for the welfare of others and the vitality of our democratic nation.

With practical skills emerging from these guilds, students will not only be able to participate actively in community projects later in life that demand such abilities, but would, I suggest, be potentially more appreciative of the wide variety of knowledge and skills other people possess that are necessary for a community to function and prosper. Respect for difference is advanced as well as potentially an overcoming of the regrettable dismissal of those who pursue professions demanding practical knowledge and skills.

In some ways, I experienced precisely such a situation when I was an undergraduate at Dickinson College years ago. I was a member of Army ROTC, a U.S. Department of Defense organization hosted on the Dickinson campus. Parallel to my liberal arts curriculum, I engaged in a regimen of extremely practical knowledge and experiential skills that would potentially lead to a first job after graduation: service as an officer in the U.S. Army. And it was among my fellow cadets of all class years at Dickinson that I formed a significant part of my social life during my undergraduate years.

What was noteworthy then and relates to my proposal now is that the ROTC instructors took every opportunity to impart upon us the applicability of the knowledge and skills we obtained through this parallel activity to our regular liberal arts curriculum. That effort permitted me to appreciate the relevance of a liberal arts education to a professional pursuit that had at first seemed alien to traditional academic studies. For example, instructors emphasized that a number of officers and soldiers had in their back pockets a book of poems, or recited poetry and literature to help them survive through long and demanding combat situations -- thus making vividly concrete the practical power of the literary word.

The location of the trades within the liberal arts might also go a long way in overcoming a situation that has confounded the United States for centuries: establishing a viable, respectable alternative to university education that might finally de-emphasize the effort of “College for All.” I argue that college is not for all and that many students in college would benefit from a more technical education -- and at once feel more pleased and productive about their lives and their commitment to citizenship. The more knowledge that college students have about the sophistication and exacting demands of the trades, the more respect might be given by college-educated citizens to their counterparts in those trades.

It is time for liberal arts institutions to boldly reform the student life programs they offer to be far more consequential and complementary to both academic studies and the needs of greater society. Many institutions are well along the way toward what I propose through greater volunteerism of students in their external communities as well as internships. The latter, however, usually take the form of white-collar career probing for students and are also not in-depth experiences over the entire course of undergraduate study, as is what I propose. Organizations such as Bringing Theory to Practice are also groundbreaking in their efforts to link purposeful student activity, such as community engagement and experiential learning, to increased student engagement, well-being and success.

But what we now need is for colleges and universities to entertain the trades in their midst as an impactful way to engage students, reform a sometimes aimless student life and overcome some age-old obstacles to bridging the prejudicial divide in America between those in the trades and those who graduate from a university.

William G. Durden was president of Dickinson College from 1999 to 2012 and is now president emeritus. He is currently chief global engagement officer of the International University Alliance. He is also a joint appointment professor (research) in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University and chairs the board of Columbia College Hollywood.

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Exploring college students' quest for identity (opinion)

My students at the University of Virginia are transfixed by identity, much as college students everywhere now seem to be. They want to know who they are, and they spend plenty of their college time trying to figure it out. Am I gay or straight? Or am I some complexly shifting mix of sexual identities? Am I male or female, or perhaps something in between? Maybe I should contemplate changing my gender identity, through dress and appearance, or even through surgery. Perhaps I’m queer. (But what does being queer mean now, and to me?)

Not all of my students have read Judith Butler. But they are all familiar with the view that gender is a matter of performance. And if we can perform gender as we like, largely undetermined by hormones and genes, then an ultimate freedom of identity presumably reigns.

Perhaps the most salient category for arriving at one’s contemporary identity is race. My students are highly conscious of racial terms. Am I black? Or am I mixed race? (Most African-Americans could claim either of these identities.) If I have 16 percent Native American blood, is it legitimate to call myself an American Indian? Can I say that I’m a member of a tribe when there are, perhaps, tribe members who don’t think that 16 percent is enough?

What my students’ identity quests have in common is that the terms of demarcation tend to be group terms. One affiliates with one, or more likely a variety of groups, and in so doing finds oneself, finds an identity.

After UVA graduation this year, I ran into a student I’m particularly fond of. She was wearing a red stole from the Asian Pacific American students’ association, a purple cord to signify affiliation with the LGBTQ+ community and an orange stole for graduating in three years or fewer. African-American students wear a kente cloth; there’s a cord for the athletics honor roll, one for the academically elite Echols Scholars and others designations to boot. Groups and groups: 20 years ago, one might have glimpsed a Phi Beta Kappa key, but that would have been about it.

Some observers find the results of young people’s current quests for identity through group affiliation to be slightly comic, maybe more than slightly. In her illuminating book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Angela Nagle discusses some of the more striking gender identities that have emerged from Tumblr blog posts. To wit: Alexigender: gender identity that is fluid between more than one gender, but the individual cannot tell what those genders are. Ambigender: a feeling of two genders simultaneously, but without fluidity, shifting; may be used synonymously in some cases with bigender. Anxiegender: a gender affected by anxiety. And we’re still in the A’s.

Nagle is a remarkably good-humored guide to online cultures, but even she smiles at some of the gender categories she encounters. I smile, too. But laugh? Far from it. I’m with Henry David Thoreau when he says, “I desire that there be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s, or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”

As a teacher, I applaud the quest for identity among my students. The quest often provokes tough-minded introspection, plenty of conversation online and off, and sometimes brave declarations that parents and friends are surprised or even shocked by. My students’ terms for discovering and disclosing identity are not my terms or my generation’s. How could they be? I can only step back and cheer when, after protracted introspection, a young person makes a declaration of identity.

Being and Doing

But identity is not enough. To put the matter crudely, once one decides who one is, one must decide what one will do. A discovery or a disclosure of identity can be a brilliant first step, and it matters for many reasons. But I think it matters chiefly because locating one’s identity clears the decks, establishes some measure of inner peace and puts one in a position to do one’s work in the world. “But do your thing,” says Emerson, “and I shall know you.”

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, founders of a version of existentialism, were polemically concerned with the tensions between being and doing. To simplify matters a bit: they tended to believe that people were prone to inertia. We all want to turn ourselves into the equivalent of natural objects. In so doing, we can deny time (and death) and can rest content within ourselves. Sartre and Beauvoir were highly suspicious of this state. They were inclined to believe that individuals can only thrive when they have a “project.”

People have to struggle against chaos and despair by giving themselves a major enterprise in life and throwing themselves into it. Write your novel. Compose your symphony. Paint your picture, dance your dance. Or, moving away from Beauvoir and Sartre, who shared the standard French intellectual’s disdain for the bourgeoisie, start your company, score a patent on your gizmo, pitch your idea to the investors who can make it all happen.

It’s probably OK to rest, although Sartre and Beauvoir didn’t rest much. You could probably lapse into being in itself (être en soi) and release yourself from being for itself (être pour soi) from time to time. Ultimately though, “being for itself” is the authentic form of life: it keeps you vital and puts you in a position to contribute something to the world.

Sartre and Beauvoir were singular individuals -- they sought independent identities and found them. (Take the erotic arrangements they made: they would always be loyal to each other but enjoy full mutual permission for flings with this other alluring person or that.) Yet they didn’t rest with identity. They wrote philosophical works, novels, short stories, essays and reviews, and they were active in politics. Beauvoir was committed to women’s rights and to exploring the identity of women, but she went far into other regions of writing and thought.

I think that Sartre and Beauvoir, iconoclasts that they were, would have been pleased with the current push for identity -- the more eccentric the better. But achieving identity is only half the game. It’s necessary to use identity as a base to do one’s work in the world. Spending a lifetime asking and answering the question "Who am I?" may be absorbing, but it can lead to sterility and waste. Fixation on identity might well turn a potentially active, generous human being into a self-absorbed lump who offers little to others.

But, one might say, the quest for identity is socially useful in that it widens the area of possibility for others. (Norman Mailer said something like this when he was reflecting on the social value of the hipster in his great essay “The White Negro.”) Young people see what those a little older have achieved by way of identity formation and are inspired to do likewise. There’s some truth in that, especially if the individual who’s made the achievement does something to spread the word about the perils and joys of the identity quest. She might write a book or a play about the struggle; he might take a job counseling others and leading them along the road to self-resolution. But simply resting in self-resolution, or spending one’s early years calibrating and recalibrating identity, is a pretty good way to turn yourself into a human bog.

In my own teaching, for what it may be worth, I like to pose the question of ideals. We study the great ideals: courage, compassion, wisdom and imaginative creation. I ask students a pair of questions. One: Which of the ideals draws you the most? (That’s a question about identity, about being.) But then, question two: As a thought experiment, how would you construct a life based upon that ideal? (That’s a question about action, about doing.) If you chose compassion as an encompassing ideal, would you work for the poor, would you become a labor organizer -- or would you, maybe, create a business that would offer now unemployed people multiple possibilities?

Philosophical questions arise when we deal with the subject of identity. Can we, after Freud and Derrida, think of our inner lives as capable of being unified? Perhaps the inner contest of desires -- the ongoing civil war of the psyche -- that Freud sees destabilizes us to the point where talking about unified being, about identity, is radically naïve. Maybe the ceaseless, unresolvable play of impressions that Derrida associates with the experience of reading -- and of being -- undermines the chance of unity and closure.

Yet despite those warnings, I persist in seeing the identity quests of my students as valuable. Anyone with the courage and resourcefulness to question the current conventional terms for identity and to emerge with a fresh self-construction has achieved something admirable. Such a person has already struggled and won -- and is capable of striking out into the world and achieving even more.

Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His most recent books are Why Write? and Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals.

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Identity Now

University of Michigan will now allow mediation in some sexual assault cases

The University of Michigan will allow "alternative resolutions" to resolve certain sexual violence cases, a step some survivor advocates have opposed.

Potential University of Minnesota rule could punish entire group when one member acts out

Under potential new policy, student groups at the University of Minnesota could be held responsible if their individual members break the rules. Critics see problems in the potential for collective punishment.

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