Racial tensions, which erupted last fall in the form of numerous student protests, continue to fester on college campuses. Within the last several weeks and months, for example, students at both Harvard Law School and the University of Washington have engaged in a series of sit-ins and protests at which they made demands intended to bring about changes in the racial climate on campus.
In November, the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri appropriately resigned after students, administrators and faculty members protested their tepid reactions to racial incidents on campus. In a transcript posted in The Columbia Missourian, now former President Timothy Wolf stated, “It is my belief we stopped listening to each other … this is not, I repeat, not the way change should come about.”
While it may have come too late, Wolf has effectively diagnosed the problem: we do not listen well to each other on matters of race. Discussions about race typically take the form of confrontations and polarizing debates. If we listen to each other at all, we do so not to seek understanding but instead to advance and defend our own positions. That is not an effective way to resolve social conflict.
Seeking to promote racial justice, colleges promulgate formalistic policies and procedures prohibiting harassment and acts of discrimination. Clear acts of racial discrimination are appropriately handled with such policies. There is no place on campus for racially motivated violence, slurs or harassment -- just as there is no place for administrators who are not fully committed to responding to ongoing racial tension.
But the full range of racial tension cannot and will not be solved through policy and enforcement alone. That is because racial tension is a human problem and not simply a legislative one. At base, dealing with racial conflict is a problem of affirming the dignity of the other, something that can’t simply be mandated. Instead, it must be cultivated over time by establishing an ethos of mutual understanding, empathy and respect for other people’s humanity. This is a collaborative process that requires engaging the emotions as well as the intellect. And it is no small task.
Steps to the Collaborative Resolution of Racial Conflict
Fortunately, however, a vast literature shows how principles of conflict management can bring about meaningful changes in the attitudes of people involved in social conflict. Those principles, as expressed, for example, in Fisher, Ury and Patton’s classic Getting to Yes, are founded upon the importance of seeking to resolve conflict while preserving and enhancing the dignity of all participants -- regardless of the positions and attitudes they may espouse. They are directly applicable to addressing issues of racial tension in the academy.
By following such principles, campuses can model ways to have difficult conversations about the unspoken issues that underlie racial strife. Conflict management principles help people to (a) articulate their genuine concerns about race in ways that (b) preserve the dignity of those involved in the conflict. They also help them (c) seek resolutions to resolve the unmet needs of each party (d) without giving in.
Colleges should consider four basic steps when confronting racial tension on their campuses. To illustrate, I will draw on the case of Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKenna College, who resigned her post after protests spurred by an email. In that email, she communicated her commitment to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold” -- a phrase that many people regarded as racially insensitive.
Step 1: Acknowledge the humanity of the other person. We live in an increasingly polarized society. We tend to think of people with whom we disagree in extreme terms: they are out of touch, crazy, stupid or evil. We forget that the people with whom we disagree are human beings. And so, the first step to resolving a social problem is to try to understand the interests, beliefs, fears and failings that motivate the other person’s actions -- and especially those actions with which we disagree. That is necessary in order to open up dialogue and pave the way to genuine problem solving.
In the Spellman case, seeing the humanity in the other would simply take the form of seeking to understand and have compassion for the plights of both the students and the dean -- regardless of whether one agrees with their actions. It would involve acknowledging the deep hurt experienced over time by minority students and how the dean’s email was experienced as yet another recapitulation of those hurts. It would also involve extending the benefit of the doubt to a dean, whose clumsy words would seem to be motivated by noble intent.
Step 2: Identify unmet interests. Racial conflict on campus often involves contests over demands. A demand, especially when made in the throes of a heated protest, is a kind of pre-emptive solution. But arguing over demands tends to make it more difficult to solve the genuine problem at hand because it is never identified -- and thus cannot be addressed.
In conflict management, a distinction is made between the positions or demands made by people involved in a conflict and the underlying interests that motivate those demands. Positions are the initial stances taken by opposing sides in a conflict; interests are the unmet needs of participants that give rise to initial positions and demands. In conflict resolution, the problem to be solved is how to meet the unmet needs and interests of each party involved in a conflict.
In the Spellman case, students demanded the resignation of the dean, and the situation then became a contest over whether or not she would keep her post. But the students’ interests likely included: being recognized as full members of the college community, having their history of indignities acknowledged, changing the perception of minorities as second-class citizens and so forth. From the available evidence, the dean’s interests involved supporting students of color and seeking understanding and forgiveness for her clumsy use of words. The administration’s interests were likely to avoid the embarrassment of exposed tensions.
Step 3: Negotiate from interests, not demands. To resolve racial tensions, it is helpful to create forums in which parties can express their genuine interests, anxieties and concerns without fear and without impugning the humanity of others involved in a conflict. The simple fact, however, is that this does not come naturally. We simply do not know how to talk effectively about issues like race. A skilled mediator can help parties learn to identify their genuine interests -- public and private -- in ways that minimize blame and preserve the dignity of others involved in a conflict.
Take the Spellman case again. Imagine a series of public and private forums, organized over long periods of time, run by a series of trained mediators. Imagine that the mediators were to teach and enforce a series of strategies and ground rules for expressing interests and needs. Imagine that students had the opportunity to express, without interruption, the full range of their experiences of indignity and marginalization -- but with a minimum of blame or hostility. Imagine that administrators, faculty members and others agreed to continue to listen until they could demonstrate to the students’ satisfaction an adequate understanding of students’ experiences (even if they were to disagree). Imagine that the students felt heard and perhaps even empathized with.
Now imagine that the roles are reversed, and students are asked to listen and demonstrate their understanding of the interests, needs and fears of their opponents. Imagine that the goodwill that could be accrued by being understood carried forward into the task of seeking to understand the other.
Step 4: Seek solutions for mutual gain without giving in. Once people have their genuine interests heard and acknowledged, they often, although not always, find that their core interests do not conflict. At this point, genuine problem solving can begin. The task becomes one of seeking novel solutions for mutual gain -- that is, solutions that can meet the interests and needs of all parties to the conflict.
When that happens, the problem becomes: Is it possible to develop solutions that meet the core interests and needs of each party, without any party giving in? In the Spellman case, that might translate into: Is it possible to address the marginalization that students experienced by the dean’s choice of words while simultaneously entertaining multiple interpretations of those words? Or more broadly: Can we change our institutional culture in ways that respect minorities as full members of the college community while also promoting honest and sensitive racial communication?
Moving Past Fear
Although we know a great deal about managing conflict and reducing prejudice, we fail to act upon this knowledge. Our failure is born mainly of fear. We fear that our efforts will be difficult and take time. That is true. We fear that if we lead with compassion we will appear weak. That is untrue. Seeking understanding does not imply giving in to the other.
It is possible to understand -- even empathize -- without agreeing. When we learn that the other person does not have to lose in order for us to gain, listening becomes easier on both sides, and collaboration for mutual gain becomes possible.
Could such an approach fail? Of course. But without significant change in the communicative culture of the academy, racial tensions are more likely to continue to fester than to heal. And we haven’t even begun to try.
Michael F. Mascolo is a professor in the department of psychology at Merrimack College.
When Winston Smith discovers the blind spot in his apartment -- the niche just out of range of the telescreen, Big Brother’s combination video feed and surveillance system -- it is, George Orwell tells us, “partly the unusual geography of the room” that allows him to take the risk of writing in a diary.
Later Smith finds another room with no telescreen at all, where he and Julia create another zone of privacy: the shared kind, intimacy. It can’t last, of course, and it doesn’t, with brutal consequences for both of them. (Thoughtcrime does not pay.)
The dystopia of Orwell’s 1984 is very much the product of its era, which spanned roughly the period between Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933 and Stalin’s death 20 years later. And while the novel’s depiction of a world without privacy can still raise a reader’s hackles, its technology now looks both retrofuturist and surprisingly inefficient. The telescreens are menacing, but there’s always a chance that Big Brother’s watchers will overlook something. And look at the tools that Winston uses to carve out his own domain of personal memory and antitotalitarian sentiment: a pen and paper. The authorities manage to read his thoughts eventually, but it takes most of the novel to get to that point. Today, Winston would be destined to Room 101 before he powered down his notebook.
Last week, Inoted that Meg Leta Jones’s book Ctrl+Z: The Right to Be Forgotten (NYU Press) arrives at a time when ever fewer activities or communicative exchanges occur without the accompaniment of some form of information technology intervening. Digital traces generated along the way are gathered, analyzed, sold. And the right to privacy becomes a little more purely notional each time one’s eyes slide down the text of a user agreement on the way to clicking “accept.”
A kind of fatalism is involved, one resting on the tacit but powerful tendency to assume that technology itself defines what information will gathered, and how, and the use to be made of it. Implied is a trade-off between privacy and various benefits -- with both the cost and the reward determined by what our devices do and require. Privacy is, in this view, a function of engineering necessities, not of political or moral decisions.
The initial, blunt challenge to technological determinism comes in Ctrl+Z’s opening chapters, where Jones, an assistant professor of communications, culture and technology at Georgetown University, contrasts how the European Union and the United States frame their policies concerning the availability of personal information online. Here personal information would include employment history, financial data and arrest records, as well as, say, material communicated via social media.
In the United States, she writes, the default attitude “permits the collection and transfer of personal information and prevents abuse through self-regulation and market forces,” while E.U. states “operate under comprehensive regimes that protect information across both the public and private sectors and are enforced by specialized data-protection agencies.”
The contrast becomes striking when “data protection” might be better described as protecting the reputation or well-being of the individual to which the data pertains. Take the case of someone who, as a young adult, is arrested for vandalism and destruction of property and serves a jail sentence, all of which was written up in a newspaper in 1990 as well as being documented in official records. Once released, he swears off his old ways and spends the next 25 years in steady employment and overall irreproachable conduct. He awakes to find that the newspaper has digitized its archives and made them searchable via Google.
If our reformed graffiti artist lives in America, he can do little if anything about it, apart from asking the paper to take down its accurate but deeply embarrassing article. There is also a chance his conviction will be publicized on any of various websites dedicated to posting mug shots.
In a number of E.U. countries, by contrast, he could appeal to laws that forbid public reference to someone’s criminal record if it is no longer news or if the ex-con has undergone significant rehabilitation. He might also file a request with Google to remove links to sites mentioning the old transgression. In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the search engine had to establish a take-down system for people who wanted personal information removed from its search results.
There are variations from country to country, but Jones finds that the E.U. “data subject” (in effect, the citizen’s digital doppelgänger) can claim a “general right to personality” -- a certain degree of dignified immunity from unwelcome attention. The American data subject, by contrast, is presumed to take the Wild West ethos of the Internet pretty much as a given, with any effort to delete information or limit its circulation being labeled, almost inevitably, as Orwellian. (Even so, a number of piecemeal efforts have been made in the United States to protect children and victims of harassment and bullying, including laws against revenge porn.)
But as Jones goes on to show, any preference for one of these frameworks over the other will soon enough be faced with the much harder matter of dealing with new and unanticipated shades of gray left out of the public/private distinction. And the other dichotomy -- between having every bit of personal data (flattering, humiliating or neither) either preserved forever in a digital archive or destined for the memory hole -- is also looking out of date. Jones’s book doesn’t predict what comes next, but it’s a great stimulant for anyone bracing themselves to think about it.
Submitted by Philip Nel on April 12, 2016 - 3:00am
Guns in Higher Ed
Shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre, a mentally disturbed former student of mine contacted Kansas State University (where I teach), saying it would be too bad if something like Virginia Tech happened at Kansas State -- and if I, in particular, were the target of the shooting. The university recognized the email for the threat it was and contacted me. Fortunately, I was then out of town. Before I returned, the university determined that the ex-student, who had been expelled for several reasons, sent the email from his home abroad.
Students, faculty members and administrators at American colleges and universities all know that, at any time, we could be shot dead. Mostly, we try not to think about it -- until another mass shooting, such as at Umpqua Community College in Oregon (nine killed, nine wounded, October 2015) or the University of California at Santa Barbara (six killed, 15 wounded, May 2014). Then we are forced again to face the possibility that, one day, we too may join the next sad, inevitable list of the murdered.
In 2012, a white male student in my class was behaving strangely. During discussion, he would either offer oddly confrontational comments or he would look down, refusing to meet anyone’s eye. Often, he sat silently in the back of the room, shaking with what seemed like suppressed rage. I tried talking with him about his behavior privately, not during class. (I didn’t want to make him feel ashamed.) But it didn’t help. He was making the other students uncomfortable. He was making me uncomfortable. After each class with him, I would think, “Gee, I hope he doesn’t come back in here with a gun and kill all of us before turning the gun on himself.” Other instructors had also reported the student’s strange, belligerent interactions. The university intervened, and the student withdrew.
Both the email and classroom incidents occurred when only members of the university’s police department were armed. As of July 1, 2017, the state Legislature’s Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act (yes, that’s really its name) forces guns onto all state university campuses. This law will make Kansas the ninth state to invite guns into classrooms, dormitories, libraries, laboratories and offices. Before the Virginia Tech massacre, only the university system in Utah required colleges and universities to allow guns on campus.
The shooting at Virginia Tech, which killed 32 people, should have motivated gun-safety advocates (as the National Rifle Association claims to be) to support legislation that helps keep weapons off college and university campuses. Instead, the reverse has occurred. The NRA drafted a “campus carry” law, versions of which have now been adopted by Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin against the wishes of those who actually work and study at higher education institutions in those states. It’s not a popular move in Kansas, either. According to a survey conducted by the nonpartisan Docking Institute of Public Affairs, 70 percent of state university employees in Kansas oppose campus carry.
The governor and Legislature are unlikely to back down. After all, the same governor and Legislature have already deregulated firearms, removing background checks and the requirement that gun owners learn to use their weapons. In Kansas, all you need to own a gun is a heartbeat and a credit card. The Legislature has even proposed lowering the age requirement from 21 to 18.
How Do We Adapt?
Kansas may be the ninth state to weaponize its campuses, but it’s the first state to have both campus carry and no meaningful gun regulation. So what can we do? A few older faculty members have decided to take early retirement. Other teachers are changing the curriculum. Since some students will be armed, instructors are less comfortable talking about racism, sexism and other sensitive subjects.
At the University of Houston, avoiding sensitive topics is already becoming policy. As part of a Campus Carry Faculty Forum in January and February, the Faculty Senate offered advice to help professors adapt to Texas’ new campus carry law: “Be careful discussing sensitive topics,” “drop certain topics from your curriculum” and do “not ‘go there’ if you sense anger.” As Dominican University history professor David Perry recently wrote, “Every one of these bullet points conflicts with basic principles of what makes education work. As a teacher, my job is to raise difficult topics, push students to think about topics in new ways and to assess their work, even if that process can sometimes be uncomfortable.” Campus carry effectively ends freedom of speech in college classrooms and thus fundamentally compromises our ability to do our jobs.
As Perry notes, it can be pedagogically useful to explore subjects that make your students cognitively uncomfortable. Here at Kansas State University, a colleague teaches her students about colonialism by conducting the first 15 minutes of one class entirely in French: What’s it like when an authority figure issues you instructions in a language you don’t understand? What challenges does it pose? It gets the students, for a moment, to imagine themselves as the colonized. It’s a very tense and effective 15 minutes. Once, a student said, “Stop it!” and pointed a finger gun at her. Fortunately, it was only a finger gun. If the students are armed, that could become a real gun. This is why, on an armed campus, we’re less likely to explore uncomfortable subjects. Classrooms can offer a place for vigorous debate, spirited exchanges of ideas -- but only if these classrooms are safe.
In other words, guns on campus uphold established systems of power: white supremacy, patriarchy and the privilege of the tenured. As a University Distinguished Professor and a straight white male, I’m more likely to continue pursuing ways in which my students can explore difficult subjects. However, I’ll also be more cautious than I was, less willing to embrace the risks that accompany creative teaching. I would quite understand if my colleagues who are women, people of color, LGBTQ or nontenured decide to be even more cautious.
Guns in the workplace make the already vulnerable even more vulnerable. Armed students make the free exchange of ideas less free. Of course, since the Kansas Board of Regents abridged state employees’ rights to freedom of speech back in 2013, we have come to accept the steady erosion of intellectual inquiry as a condition of working at Kansas universities. But guns only make this problem worse.
What can be done? There’s a pervasive sense of hopelessness here. Appealing to the Legislature is like pleading before the court in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most of our legislators genuinely think that increased lethality leads to increased safety. In February, they passed legislation expanding concealed carry for public employees and defeated a measure that would have delayed campus carry at state universities. Senator Michael O’Donnell also proposed an amendment to move up the campus carry date to July 1 of this year. His reasoning? “We just want Kansans to be safe. There is no reason to put that off another year when we know there are people in society who want to harm other people.” That measure failed, but O’Donnell speaks for the majority of his colleagues when he equates more guns with less gun violence. With legislators like him, you can see why, even though the majority of students, faculty and staff at Kansas universities oppose this law, we despair at being able to change it.
Should We Fight?
Yet those of us facing this law and similar ones across the country must not stand by and let campus carry become our new reality. If we accept armed campuses as inevitable, then we are adapting our way toward the demise of the public university in America. We already endure funding cuts, crumbling infrastructure, the adjunctification of teaching, assaults on academic freedom and now … assault rifles in our classrooms? If we accept this latest legislative attack, we risk becoming the proverbial frog who is slowly boiled alive. Although recent experiments refute the scientific veracity of this tale, it is nonetheless an apt metaphor for where the modern public institution finds itself -- in hot water that’s getting hotter.
Here are five ways to respond.
First, protest. Despite legislative disdain for educators, we should protest. Elected officials need to at least pretend to care about what we think, and a minority of them actually do care. Our voices may go unheeded by the majority, but this is quite literally a matter of life and death. Win or lose, our right to freedom from harm is worth fighting for.
Second, practice civil disobedience. Nobel laureate and University of Texas physics professor Steven Weinberg is opposing his state’s guns-on-campus legislation by stating on his syllabus that his “class is not open to students carrying guns.” That statement violates Texas law and will violate Kansas law, too. It is also going on my syllabus, come July 1, 2017. Including that sentence may mean that I end up in court and get a different kind of sentence. But other people’s right to own firearms does not supersede my right to being alive, nor my students’ right to being alive.
If we faculty collectively adopt a no-guns-in-class policy, then we will make a more powerful statement. I realize that, unless the university installs gun detectors and guards outside of each classroom door, our no-guns policy will be unenforceable. But it makes a principled statement upon which we can build our case for gun-free campuses.
Third, if this approach fails or if civil disobedience simply isn’t your style, insist on teaching only online. Then, if any in the class are armed, they will at least not all be in the same room. I prefer being in the classroom with my students, but teaching online would allow me to continue doing my job while keeping my students and myself safer.
Online teaching and the civil disobedience approach are both imperfect. There yet may be occasions when we are required to be on campus -- to work in a lab, to retrieve a library book or to go to a meeting. In those situations, we will not be able to avoid the threat posed by guns.
For those who feel that the civil disobedience model doesn’t go far enough, a fourth approach is to strike. Whether we teach on a unionized campus or not, we can simply refuse to teach until the Legislature restores our university’s right to maintain a safe, gun-free campus. In the fall of 2017, students arriving at their first class of the term could encounter a sign on each classroom door: “No class until the Legislature repeals campus carry. Guns do not belong in classrooms. Contact your state legislator and governor.” If the legislators complain (as they surely will), we can say, “Effective teaching requires a safe environment for debate; armed students create fear in the classroom, stifling the free and open exchange of ideas. Guns in our classes make it impossible for us to do our jobs. We will return to our jobs when you let us do them. End campus carry.”
Or Should We Leave?
Fifth and last, vote with your feet. I realize that this is easier in theory than in practice. The scarcity of academic jobs (see adjunctification, above) makes it difficult for faculty and staff members to pack up and move or to decline a job offer at a university in a campus-carry state. Distinguished faculty and junior faculty are a bit more mobile; everyone else is stuck. For example, the University of Texas at Austin’s dean of architecture, Fritz Steiner, recently announced he would be moving to become dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. “I would have never applied for another job if not for campus carry,” he explained. Just last month, we learned that Kansas State’s own president, Kirk Schulz, is leaving to become Washington State University’s next president. He is too politic to cite campus carry as a reason, but I strongly suspect that it’s a motivating factor.
It’s certainly motivating me. In addition to exploring the other four options (protest, civil disobedience, online teaching, strike), I am also looking for another job. This decision has been hard. I like my job. I have fantastic colleagues. However, when the phrase “killing higher education” ceases being a metaphor and becomes state policy, I need to seek a safer harbor.
As director of K-State’s graduate program in children’s literature, I cannot in good conscience advise prospective students to come to a university where they put their lives at greater risk. As a member of my department’s Graduate Advisory Committee, I feel uncomfortable recruiting new graduate students. When we have job candidates on campus, I feel guilty when I fail to warn them of the imminent arrival of firearms.
If I were more at peace with the inevitability of my own death, perhaps I could bravely face a weaponized campus. But I am not. I still have books to write, more to learn, ideas to pursue, cities and countries to visit. I want to see my four-year-old niece grow up and be there for my 74-year-old mother as she ages. I want to be here for my wife -- and I want her to have the chance to age.
It won’t be easy to find another pair of academic jobs in the same place: any move would also require a position for my wife. We may yet remain here a while longer; we may not leave at all. I am well aware that all colleges and universities have problems. Should we leave, there is much that I would miss about Kansas State University -- my colleagues, most of all.
But guns change my relationship with what has been a nurturing academic home. When your state Legislature threatens to kill you and your students, then it’s time to look for a new job.
They Know Not What They Do. Or Do They?
I wonder if those who cut funds from education, inflict weapons on campuses and restrict freedom of speech have any sense of the long-term damage they cause. Are they aware that they’re poisoning healthy communities of learning, driving faculty and students away, and fostering fear in those who remain? Do they know that we feel their contempt for us? Yes, campus carry will change colleges and universities, but not for the better. And it’s so much easier to destroy than it is to create.
Philip Nel is a University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University, where he directs the program in children’s literature.
On Aug. 1, 1966, in the city of Austin, Texas, on the campus of the University of Texas, gunman Charles Whitman arguably began the tragic trend of campus shootings that continues today. When I was in my second year of graduate school, attending classes and teaching quite literally in the shadow of the tower that Whitman had fired from, Texas Monthly published an excellent reflection on the event to mark its 40th anniversary. During Whitman’s assault from UT Austin’s iconic central tower, locals with firearms of their own returned fire. Notably, they used long rifles, not the handguns that many citizens carry today in legal concealment. They were not firing with sidearms at close quarters but with more accurate weapons over greater distances.
According to the 2006 Texas Monthly article, witness Clif Drummond reported, “Students with deer rifles were leaning up against telephone poles, using the pole, which is rather narrow, as their shield. And they were firing like crazy back at the Tower.” In the same article, witness Brenda Bell recalled, “I don’t know where these vigilantes came from, but they took over Parlin Hall and were crashing around, firing guns. There was massive testosterone.”
Even in 1966, opinion was mixed as to whether this citizen response had been harmful or helpful. Eventually Whitman was killed by police officers who stormed his position. Some of them claimed that the covering fire provided by citizens had reduced Whitman’s ability to take more lives than he did, while some victims present in the melee claimed that the return fire of untrained civilians created confusion and itself jeopardized the safety of those fleeing Whitman’s rampage. Importantly, by barricading himself in a protected and tactically advantageous position, Whitman’s assault was very different from most subsequent campus shootings. In those, assailants frequently appear to move from position to position and to not always choose those that offer the physical protection Whitman fired from. Had Whitman been moving about, he would have been more exposed, but the confusion of those firing back would also have been greater -- as would their chances of hitting an innocent bystander.
Now Texas, both the state and its public university system, finds itself at the fore of how to move forward within a society in which campus shootings are no longer novel but assumed to be nearly inevitable. Recently passed legislation has made it legal for students, staff and faculty to carry concealed weapons, but the law has left large portions of its implementation up to individual campuses. Only private colleges and universities in the state can opt out entirely from allowing concealed weapons on their campuses, and virtually all of them have, including conservatively aligned Baylor University. University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, a retired admiral and no stranger to the violence weapons are capable of, opposed the legislation.
Like McRaven, campus law enforcement leaders and associations oppose legislation that would allow concealed weapons on campuses, not on ideological grounds but for the simple reason that, if they do ever have to respond to an active shooter, they will have no means of differentiating “bad guys with guns” from “good guys with guns.” And in fact, they are trained in active shooter situations to fire at any civilian with a gun immediately, before any other assessment of the situation. They also are entirely unconvinced, as law enforcement professionals, that concealed weapons would make college campuses safer.
Just a little over three years ago, as my own state of North Carolina considered similar legislation, I wrote a column contemplating the idle fantasy that perhaps I would quit my job if guns were permitted in my own state’s classrooms. The backlash I experienced from pro-gun individuals and groups was striking, widespread and bordering on libelous. I remain, despite owning guns and understanding them well, strongly opposed to allowing students, faculty and staff to carry weapons on college campuses.
I will readily concede and agree that the vast, vast, vast majority of concealed-carry permit holders are law-abiding citizens. And because they have gone through the proper processes to obtain permits, they are likely to be more law-abiding than citizens who own guns but have not obtained similar permits.
I also am not really concerned that the average concealed permit holder would ever intentionally threaten me or another member of my campus community. Thousands of permit holders walk around daily, experiencing the routine frustrations and maddening conflicts of contemporary American life without pulling their weapons and making threats. The average concealed-carry permit holder realizes the inappropriateness of such behavior and truly reserves his or her weapon for life-threatening situations. And fortunately, even though life-threatening situations precipitated by assailants are all too common in our culture, the average concealed-carry permit holder never has occasion to pull their weapon in response to a threat. They are armed against possible threats, even though such threats are statistically unlikely to face the average concealed-carry permit holder. All of which I believe is fine, the vast majority of the time.
I also believe that those who advocate for allowing guns on our campuses generally mean well. They truly believe -- mistakenly -- that such weapons will make us safer. I disagree with them on that point, but I do acknowledge that they, like all of us, want our public places to be safe and free of violence. Their philosophy of how to prevent violence is, unfortunately, bolstered primarily by frequently unverifiable anecdotes and inaccurate “scholarship” by gun-rights advocate John Lott.
And while most concealed carry permit holders are responsible and law-abiding, it will only take a fraction of irresponsible owners for additional fatalities to rack up on our campuses. There will be accidental discharges, suicides and gun-backed altercations that otherwise will not exist.
There are two primary arguments for why guns should be allowed onto our campuses, both equally unconvincing.
The Deterrence Argument. Advocates for allowing students and faculty members with appropriate permits to carry guns on college campuses often argue that the presence of concealed weapons will deter acts of violence. Because the weapons are required by law to be kept concealed, the logic goes, would-be perpetrators of violence will think twice before initiating their violent plans, possibly abandoning them entirely.
But while there is a certain Occam’s razor simplicity to this logic, repeated college campus shootings have shown us that attackers often do not expect to survive their rampages. They seem in many cases to anticipate taking their own lives or inflicting as much damage as possible until brought down by law enforcement, which leads to the second argument. Rather than entirely deterring an attack, the presence of concealed weapons seems likely to simply encourage an attacker to strategize further, finding scenarios where concealed weapons holders are likely to be absent or without their weapons.
The Intervention Argument. Advocates of on-campus concealed carry also argue that when a shooting does commence, law-abiding concealed-weapon carriers will be able to intervene and therefore cut short the time and scope of the attacker’s rampage. The biggest hole in this argument is that permit holders of concealed weapons by and large are not trained for how to respond to active-shooter situations. Certainly some concealed-weapons carriers have a military or law-enforcement background wherein they did receive such training, but they are a slim minority. Concealed-carry classes do not train permit holders how to respond to hostile fire or active-shooter situations.
Instead, such classes, which can be completed in a single day in most states, are concerned with educating students about the laws governing their concealed-carry permits, about basic gun safety principles and basic gun use. In other words, the highly difficult active-shooter response training, which military and law-enforcement personnel spend dozens upon dozens of hours practicing in simulated environments, is simply not a part of concealed-permit class curricula. Having a concealed permit tells us nothing of whether or not the permit holder is competent to respond to an active shooter. Indeed, during the recent attack at Umpqua Community College, a military veteran carrying a legally concealed weapon made the prudent decision not to attempt to intervene, citing concern about interfering with the police response or being mistaken for the murderer.
Most concealed-carry permit holders have not experienced combat and been trained how to fire accurately or judiciously in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, the idea that citizen defenders will neutralize the mentally ill assailants who more and more routinely threaten campus safety is a fantasy. It is the boys’ dream of being a hero, but carried often by those who have not been taught how to act with heroism, as our military and law-enforcement personnel have been trained.
My idle fantasy of three years ago, of quitting if guns come to my campus, was just that, idle fantasy. I rely on my job and according to my colleagues and students am good at it. What will I do if concealed carry is permitted on my campus? Unhappily, I will begin carrying a gun, hoping never to have to reveal it, let alone use it, and on who? A student? A colleague? In a last-ditch effort at self-defense because our society has decided that the only last option is for the innocent to take up their own defense? I will worry every day that a fellow gun carrier might behave irresponsibly, creating an accidental discharge in my classroom or overreacting to a situation that is not at all life-threatening.
The new Texas legislation allowing students, faculty and staff to carry concealed weapons on campus will take effect on Aug. 1, 2016, the precise 50th anniversary of Charles Whitman’s rampage.
Nate Kreuter is an assistant professor in the English department at Western Carolina University, where he teaches writing and rhetoric.