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The weakness of a recent report on free speech by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (opinion)

Recent controversies over free speech on America’s college and university campuses have inspired various organizations to propose policy changes for the consideration of college administrators. A report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, "Building a Culture of Free Expression on the American College Campus: Challenges and Solutions," cheapens the argument for freedom of expression by appealing to politically fueled stereotypes of faculty members and administrators. In attacking what it sees as the excess of political correctness, it defends free expression on campuses for weak reasons.

Authored by law professor Joyce Lee Malcolm of George Mason University, the report is part of ACTA’s Perspectives on Higher Education. Malcolm relies heavily on a report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, called "Spotlight on Speech Codes 2017," which claims that 423 of the country’s top 450 colleges and universities have “policies that threaten free speech on campus.” Included in FIRE’s tally are institutions that ban “verbal abuse” and those that ban “posters promoting alcohol consumption,” as those policies “could be interpreted to suppress protected speech.” Reasonable minds may question whether colleges and universities have gone too far in chilling free speech in the name of welcome and inclusion. But it is imbalanced sensationalism to lump colleges and universities that campaign against the scourge of excessive alcohol consumption with those banning speech because it’s offensive to some students.

The report goes on with the predictable criticism of campuses that create safe spaces and speech codes as antithetical to free speech. ACTA makes the perplexing argument that “these ostensibly progressive measures are, in actuality, chilling free speech and frustrating the open dialog that is essential to academic freedom on campus.” As with most criticism of safe spaces, the report fails to define the safe spaces it is concerned about. Colleges are traditionally full of safe spaces where like-minded people gather -- think faculty lounges and locker rooms as well as culture houses. Why do safe spaces only come under fire from groups like ACTA when they are spaces for people who disagree with controversial speakers or when they are spaces for underrepresented students to gather to support each other?

In fact, all safe spaces serve to advance speech by enabling those who are often disenfranchised to have a place and platform to develop their views before adding their voices to the open dialogue. A corollary to free speech is the freedom to associate. So-called safe spaces do allow like-minded individuals to associate in ways they wish. Freedom of association should not be trumped by ACTA’s distorted view of freedom of expression.

Perhaps the most perplexing part of the ACTA report is its full-throated advocacy of academic freedom and freedom of expression, while at the same time condemning professors who “use the classroom to present their personal political views.” Is ACTA, an advocate of free expression, really serious that faculty members must censor their own political beliefs when discussing matters of public policy? Does ACTA really believe that college students can’t make up their own minds when their beliefs are challenged by professors, or that college professors are not capable of working through bias when leading a class discussion that draws on political views?

Also singled out for criticism are professors whose students complain that “some course readings present only one side of a controversial issue.” Is ACTA serious in suggesting that readings that present only one side of an issue should be taken out of the classroom? Would ACTA ban the writings of the founders of our nation and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one-sided? Surely ACTA can make a better argument for ensuring freedom of expression than this.

The issue is not whether faculty members lean right or left. The issue is whether faculty members are intolerant of their students’ beliefs.

In 1991, I conducted a study of this issue for the Section of General Practice of the American Bar Association published in the Washington University Law Quarterly. The survey found that 60 percent of the law students responding believed that some of their professors did not tolerate political beliefs that differed from their own. And worse yet, 51 percent of the law students responding did not always feel free to express their disagreement both in class and on exams and papers. The survey findings were surprising, considering that law students are often the most aggressive, self-assured students in the academy.

In my 27 years in higher education since I published that study, I have witnessed a growing understanding by professors that when they introduce their political beliefs in the classroom, they need to encourage and support those who disagree. In doing so, they model for their students civil civic discourse. But there are still outliers, and college administrations and faculty colleagues must be ever vigilant to make sure that all students, conservative and liberal, are valued and encouraged to present their opinions as welcome voices in a dialogue built and strengthened by multiple views.

ACTA continues to tread on dangerous territory by arguing that “universities at the official institutional level should remain neutral on issues of public controversy,” although it appropriately recognizes that “individuals have the complete right to articulate their views.” ACTA’s position implies that college and university presidents should not, in their capacity as presidents, speak for the institution. Yet colleges and universities have long added to the national debate by taking positions on controversial issues such as affirmative action, environmental sustainability and immigration policies, even knowing that some individuals in the college community may disagree.

The Board of Trustees here at Augustana College has taken a different view. Augustana’s board, like other boards, does not so much view presidents and college leaders as speaking for the institution as it sees them as leaders chosen to represent the college and as people whose values are, in part, the reason why they have been selected for those positions. Our board has adopted a policy that states that the college, through its president, should maintain high visibility and high public leadership. When issues are closely connected to our mission or to the values in our strategic plan, I, in my capacity as president, speak out. Those issues include government policies on education, support for diversity and inclusion in higher education (including support of DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program), access to and readiness for higher education, and safety or welfare issues impacting our students (including strong support of Title IX). Likewise, we often speak out, and often with partners, on other important issues where our community might benefit from our leadership -- including issues of interfaith understanding, integrity of college athletics, and local community development. Each of these has a close nexus to our mission.

We do not engage in the self-censorship that ACTA would encourage, as we view ourselves as having an affirmative responsibility to improve our community and higher education through our advocacy. College leaders speaking out in a measured but courageous way is yet another way to model civil civic discourse to our students.

As do many free speech advocates, the ACTA report praises the "University of Chicago Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression." Like most lawyers, I am a strong advocate of free speech and do not disagree with the Chicago Principles. They are clear, concise and unequivocal -- and, in my view, correct. But they are not enough, and that is where ACTA’s approach is incomplete.

The Chicago Principles do not sufficiently recognize that protected speech can injure. I’ve seen how some protected speech can hurt some students. Many historically underrepresented students wonder whether they truly belong at our colleges and universities. People exercising their right to free speech can harm this sense of belonging, and we know that sense of belonging is one of the best predictors of retention and graduation. I agree with ACTA that the fact that speech offends or makes students feel unwelcome does not provide enough cause to shut it down. But, in my view, it does create an obligation for institutions to mitigate the impact on students.

Several years ago, recognizing the damage that speech can do, Augustana changed our free speech policies from the Chicago Principles to the PEN America Principles on Campus Free Speech. The PEN Principles recognize the “core value of free speech” and affirm that “college should be a place where ideas can range free, dissent is welcomed, and settled wisdom is reconsidered.” While protecting free speech, the PEN Principles appropriately challenge colleges to speak out against hateful speech. The report eschews simple solutions and contains a nuanced analysis of supporting students who have been marginalized by protected speech.

Notwithstanding my criticism of its report, ACTA has had an impact on higher education. Reports such as ACTA’s have provoked discussion and reinforced the presupposition of some with overly suspicious views of higher education. But I find that its influence is waning, as reports like this one are viewed even by most readers as being over-the-top. Even casual observers of higher education know that colleges are not full of safe spaces with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies,” as ACTA would encourage us to believe. And many recognize the effectiveness of these reports is diminished by the worn-out and ill-considered arguments.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in the 1919 U.S. Supreme Court Case Abrams v. United States, in what has been called the most powerful dissent in U.S. history, “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of the truth is the power of the thought to get it accepted in the competition of the market.”

ACTA serves the public debate by defending free expression. But it harms the debate by demanding that free speech take place on its terms, and that professors and senior administrators withdraw their voices from the marketplace of ideas.

Steven Bahls is the president of Augustana College in Illinois. He is a former law school dean at Capital University and former professor at the University of Montana.

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Questions institutions should ask themselves to determine if they are operating in a racist way (opinion)

Bedelia Nicola Richards highlights five questions you should ask yourself to determine if that's the case.

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Is Your University Racist?

Review (continued) of Amy Werbel, "Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock"

He has long since passed into public memory as one name among others in H.L. Mencken's gallery of archetypal American rubes, mountebanks and busybodies — so perhaps it was a matter of time until someone tried, against all odds, to revive Anthony Comstock as a heroic character. Certainly he thought of himself as one. The authorized biography by Charles Gallaudet Trumbull, published two years before Comstock's death in 1913, bore the title Anthony Comstock, Fighter: Some Impressions of a Lifetime of Adventure in Conflict With the Powers of Evil. And if that sounds like the premise for a comic book -- well, of course it is.

Available on DVD and for preview on YouTube is an animated graphic novel called Outlawed! How Anthony Comstock Fought and Won the Purity of the Nation. With an animated graphic novel, not to be confused with cartoon animation proper, the camera lens moves across the images, panning and zooming as a narrator recites the text. Outlawed! completely ignores historical research and is based entirely on Trumbull's Anthony Comstock, Fighter -- long in the public domain but now adapted so as to spare you all that reading and page-turning.

A blurb endorses Outlawed! as a weapon in "the contemporary ‘Culture Wars’" designed with an eye to "recover[ing] the comprehensive approach to sexual ethics held by Comstock and his allies.” The point is aptly made. Pornography was never the Comstock Act's exclusive focus. It was explicitly framed to prevent the spread of information about birth control and abortion, and any device or method making them possible, and even to ban literature that questioned the existing norms and institutions governing sexuality, such as a treatise offered under the title Cupid's Yokes: or, The Binding Forces of Conjugal Life: An Essay to Consider Some Moral and Physiological Phases of Love and Marriage, Wherein Is Asserted the Natural Right and Necessity of Sexual Self-Government. And as Amy Werbel makes clear in Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (published by Columbia University Press and discussed in this column last week), makers and vendors of gay and lesbian erotica were punished more severely than those marketing comparable heterosexual materials.

How would Comstock's "comprehensive approach to sexual ethics" be applied in the 21st century? I've tried to imagine it and keep getting scenes from The Handmaid's Tale.

According to the Outlawed! website, Comstock fought and won "the battle for national purity": a turn of phrase with sinister overtones no less pronounced for being, one hopes, unintentional. Either way, it expresses the familiar reactionary nostalgia for an era of secure authority and happy virtue. In fact, we are told that the moral and legal order that Comstock established "rid this nation of impurities for almost 100 years" -- that is, from the 1870s until whenever America started to go to hell in a handbasket full of birth-control devices.

Reality proves much more interesting. In Lust on Trial, Amy Werbel notes that nearly all accounts of Comstock's work have relied on "Comstock’s own self-aggrandizing numbers of defendants punished" and obscene materials confiscated. For many years, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which he ran, received numerous and often sizable donations; in return, patrons could follow Comstock's progress not only in the newspapers but through the society's annual report. For his own purposes, Comstock kept a detailed set of records on each investigation and court case, filling three sizable ledger books.

Comstock's personal diaries went missing at some point, but Werbel has made use of the ledgers as well as searchable newspaper databases, allowing her to scrutinize more of his activity than he found it useful to publicize. She writes that "his arrest blotters are far more truthful" than the society reports: "American judges and juries, far more often than Comstock liked to admit publicly, threw out his cases or assessed paltry fines." At the peak of his success, in the years between 1887 and 1891 when he won 76 percent of his cases, "only 11 percent of defendants [were] sentenced to jail," and by last four years of Comstock's life, "his conviction rate was down to 40 percent." In fact his loss of influence over the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th was more pronounced than that: "Ultimately, the language of the Comstock laws was so expansive, subjective, and difficult to articulate and enforce that prosecutors and judges turned their attention to more easily won cases." (They remained on the books well after Comstock's death but were worn down as a more robust sense of First Amendment protections took shape.)

Indeed, Comstock's methods and motives inspired reservations even as his first pieces of legislation were passed. (He did not hold elected office but drafted laws for those who did.) Informed that supposedly obscene goods were available from a business, Comstock, who held an unpaid commission as special agent of the U.S. Post Office, would place an order under an assumed name; when the merchandise arrived, he would prosecute the offender. Rumors abounded that Comstock or those working with him might be opening packages and letters in transit. That seems to have been unfounded, though it clearly suggests a degree of public wariness over the breach of privacy his activity implied. Werbel also notes that the concept of entrapment had not been used much in American courts until that point, and arguably it did not quite apply to Comstock's investigations. But in some cases it worked, which may have been catalytic in making the claim of entrapment a more popular defense.

Besides a feeling that his practices were inherently dishonorable, jurists and laypeople came to complain that one man's sensibilities were claiming, and exercising, unaccountable influence over public life. At first, he was able to win convictions without the jury being able to examine the evidence (which, being vile and depraved, could only prove corrupting) and could have confiscated materials destroyed before the trial was finished. He scorned the idea that a connoisseur might be the best judge of a painting's worth.

Anthony Comstock didn't know much about art, but he knew that he didn't like it. “The nude, as uncovered by so-called art," he wrote, "is a web which has enmeshed many a youth to his or her ruin. At its best it has a tendency to suggest to the minds of the young and inexperienced thoughts of an impure and libidinous character. . . . in the heart of every child there is a chamber of imagery which the spirit of evil seeks to decorate with defilement.” Obscenity was obvious: "Its very presence poisons the moral atmosphere. Its breath is fetid, and its touch moral prostration and death. . . . [W]hen art thus lends its enchantments to vice the law quarantines it, and justice applies a disinfectant."

To which he might as well have added: "And I am the law." Authority of this kind is easier to assert than to defend. At some point, the fact that Comstock himself was being exposed to enormous amounts of obscenity on a constant basis was bound to be pointed out in an uncomplimentary way. When he took the Art Students League to court, the defense attorney challenged his capacity to form an opinion: “Comstock during most of his life has followed the single profession of looking for the worst. . . . [H]e is a degenerate so far as the consideration of certain subjects is concerned. He is blind to the beauties of life.” Offers were made to send him to Europe for a tour of museums, with no hurry in getting back.

One case he attempted to prosecute in Philadelphia was effectively derailed when someone from the district attorney's office interrupted a witness and announced:

"I believe in the Bible and in God and I know he made nothing imperfect. He made man in his own image, and by the fall of man alone came indecency. However, I can not reconcile my mind that the pictures before me are obscene, lewd, and indecent. They are of the highest state of art, and any man who says they are obscene ought to go to a less civilized community than Philadelphia."

Our mutton-chopped Culture War superhero's "Lifetime of Adventure in Conflict With the Powers of Evil" rewards study, if not for the reasons Outlawed! might suggest. For as Amy Werbel's book shows, the Comstock laws were not an inevitable product of Victorian-era inhibition. They were forged, enacted, and enforced by a canny political operator and self-mythologizer who -- though blessed with the energy and determination of the true fanatic -- met with resistance on a number of fronts.

Free-love advocates and artists jealously protective of the right to create were fully capable of challenging his arguments, of course, and did so more than is remembered. But he also ran up against an inchoate mood or attitude of suspicion towards anyone driven to enforcing some virtue while manifestly incapable of minding his own business. As Werbel so neatly puts it, "Few authors of obituaries wished God had waited longer before calling him home."

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Why academe should honor prickly women (opinion)

You may see them in the women who won’t back down. You may see them in the colleagues who ask “pointed” questions. You may see them as the loud voices taking up all the space in the room.

They are known throughout history as the “killjoys,” the “ice queens,” the “hysterics,” the “ball-busters.” They are the “Prickly Women” -- the women who don’t let things go, who stand up for themselves and others, and who question the status-quo of structural inequities and outdated institutional practices. They stick out decidedly among the “bro-hood” of academic administration.

Despite the negative connotations and perceptions they incite, Prickly Women have exactly the kind of insight and persistence needed as the crises in higher education continue to mount. We argue that among the deluge of advice being tossed around to address those crises, one of the most radically simple solutions would be to identify your Prickly Women and listen to them.

They are not the newly minted Ph.D.s, nor are they the “up-and-comers” who bring much needed enthusiasm into the conversation about higher education. Prickly Women have been through the wars. They have seen colleagues fall or be pushed out. They have seen the fast fixes thrown like darts at a wall to see what sticks. They have most likely been among those darts -- among those members of underrepresented groups invited to join the hallowed halls of academe only to be left to their own devices

There are many of them, and they are not all the same. They each have their own challenges and battles. They are black, they are white, they are Latinx, they are Queer. They are moms, they are single, they are able-bodied or not.

Their identities intersect in a myriad of ways. They are not always allies nor are they always friends. But if you look around your institution for mid-career professionals, you will find Prickly Women with tales to tell and scars to show. And, you will see they have been systematically silenced -- and relegated to do the hard, thankless service work that keeps institutions running.

It is almost redundant at this point to talk about the stereotypical, angry female colleague or leader. The literature is full of evidence to show us that our image of Prickly Women is an entirely constructed one. They are the product of stereotypes that suggest women hold the floor longer than their male colleagues; that they are prone to irrational, emotional outbursts; that they are angry when providing constructive feedback. They are “bossy” leaders, those who incite mistrust should they take on the mannerisms of their male colleagues.

In fact, you may begin to see them as men should their anger be expressed across their faces. They are in a catch-22: if Prickly Women take on the feminine role of care-giver, they are seen as weak and less serious; if they adopt the confidence and “agentic behavior” lauded in their male colleagues, they become bitches. In other words, traditional gender roles deny them access to academe, while betraying those roles relegates them to the sidelines as people worthy of admonition and punishment. In fact, even the crisis in higher education today has been blamed on Prickly Women. A recent article suggests that one reason trust in higher education may be eroding is the number of women who have joined its ranks and obtained success.

But instead of dismissing Prickly Women, we must embrace them. The metaphor itself shows the value of Prickly Women -- they are sharp, they cut through the academic bullshit and prevarication that keep higher education spinning its wheels instead of moving forward.

What Prickly Women have to offer is the ability to let go of what is not working, the willingness to try new things, the ability to listen to others without feeling threatened, and the courage to be leaders when needed and followers when inspired. They are keenly aware of their own limitations while still capable of valuing the strength in others. At this point in their careers, they convey and respect vulnerability, the kind that draws unlikely partners together to combat common foes.

Prickly Women on campuses have deep institutional memory and history. They have knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. They see why shiny, new programs aren’t the answer to your problems; they see what the “boring” time-tested programs have to offer. Prickly Women know who the players are, they know what the games are, they know what the rules are and when and how to break them.

Prickly Women very likely have strong, robust networks of prickly pissed-off colleagues and they know how to engage those networks to get the real work done. They want others to succeed and are good mentors who have “seen it all.” Prickly Women are perceptive; they have vision. Their ideas are informed by the people working anonymously on college campuses. Prickly Women have a strong desire to simplify institutional bloat and to find synergies with what is already working on campus. This desire to synthesize comes from Prickly Women’s voracious reading; they are always on the lookout for scholarship that makes them better mentors, instructors and colleagues.

Prickly Women are not interested in reinventing the wheel, and they are not after your power.

Prickly Women work hard. They are scrappy; they will sacrifice even when given little praise. They still have a lot of time left in the academic gig, and despite it all, they still want your institution to thrive and have contributions to make.

Contrary to popular opinion, they do not have thick skin. They can be hurt. If you mistreat Prickly Women, they may curl up in defensive hedgehog positions and you will lose some of your best unknown, uncelebrated, and un-championed resources. Above all, Prickly Women are full of empathy, passion, and concern for others. They are guided by an ethical compass that we desperately need in the landscape of higher education today.

Don’t grind them down. Don’t ignore them. Make them your allies. Use their sharpness, pointedness, prickliness to your advantage. Don’t fear Prickly Women. Find and engage them.

And, if you are a Prickly Woman, find your prickly comrades. Take comfort among their ranks. Build an altar to the feats of Prickly Women everywhere. Persevere.

M. Soledad Caballero is associate professor of English, and Aimee Knupsky is associate professor of psychology, at Allegheny College.

 

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In Praise of Prickly Women

Guidance for effective annual reviews (opinion)

Ellen de Graffenreid provides tips for managers to help find ways to make the process less fraught and time-consuming.

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Colleges should rethink commencement with students in mind (opinion)

Graduating from college is a big deal. It is a big deal not just for the graduate but also for the person’s family, friends and supporters. In such a context, it is understandable that students might want to celebrate the moment when the degree is conferred.

But as a recent incident at the University of Florida reminds us, what students want and what administrators want are usually two different things. The footage of the white University of Florida professor literally wrestling black graduates off the stage because they had the temerity to cap their achievement with a few dance steps is dismaying. It’s all the more so as it follows hard on the heels of a racist incident at Colorado State when white fears prompted the removal of Native visitors from an admissions tour, not to mention any number of other recent events and revelations that suggest that historically and presently, American universities often function as incubators of white supremacy.

The specifics of the Florida graduation incident also register in the context of how universities relate to their students and alumni. Graduation is called “commencement” because it represents the beginning of something rather than the end of it. Graduation is when students become alumni.  Especially in the current climate of radical defunding of state universities, commencement as the beginning of a life as an alumni donor is increasingly important to the survival of many higher education institutions. At my own university, commencement always includes a welcome from our president to the family of Clemson University alumni, and a more or less implicit promise that if you look after the Clemson family, the Clemson family will look after you.

This imagined metamorphosis from student tuition payers to alumni donors -- and student debtors -- is not even the weirdest aspect of graduation. The graduations I have observed go something like this: Because of the structure needed to deliver the right diploma to the right person, the graduating students are lined up in alphabetical order by, usually by major and then move in procession across the stage to where they receive their diplomas and a handshake from the president of the institution; they are then ushered back to their seats. In most cases, that will be the first and only contact an undergraduate will have with the president of their university. As students walk across the stage, their families wait for the single relevant moment in a ceremony that can stretch out for hours to cheer their graduate from far-off bleachers. Meanwhile, the faculty members who worked with students to help make this moment happen are quite often visibly bored in their role of providing a suitably august backdrop to the presidential handshake in their regalia.

These traditions vary from university to university, but a common focus seems to be on connecting the individual graduate to the university at large through a handshake with the president in an effort to cultivate a relationship with the alum as a donor.

It is a bad system. The mass commencement ceremony is a ritual that should be replaced by celebrations focused on students, not the university. The effort to connect new alumni to their university makes it difficult for them to celebrate with fellow graduates, unless their majors are the same and the last names are similar. The scale of these ceremonies, with so many graduates and only one president, means they take place in venues usually used for basketball or football games. This scale makes it difficult for students to connect with families before or after the ceremony. It also makes it hard for faculty members who might want to congratulate students and connect with them.

In general, the necessary size of commencement ceremonies at public and large private universities often prohibits graduates from sharing such an important moment with the people who helped them reach this goal. In that respect, performing a few dance steps while exiting the stage seems like an entirely natural response to the boredom this kind of ceremony engenders.

If we celebrate at worship, at home, or on the playing field in culturally diverse ways, we might expect that universities could find room on the presidential stage for diverse ways of celebrating graduation as part of their commitment to multiculturalism. Or not. The most immediate reform I’d suggest is to allow students more space to celebrate and to keep people who act like the University of Florida marshal far away from the proceedings.

More generally, though, students and faculty members should find ways to reclaim this moment of accomplishment from development officers and other administrators. At Clemson and elsewhere, students have developed community graduation ceremonies, including donning of the Kente, and Lavender Graduation. These are events that allow students of color and LGBTQ students, respectively, the chance to celebrate their achievements with the communities that sustained them. In this vein, great numbers of celebrations and even degree conferrals at the departmental level would be more meaningful for graduates because it would allow them to celebrate with the classmates, family members and professors, instead of waiting to shake hands with someone they’ve probably never personally met.

In the English department at Clemson, my colleagues Erin Goss and Angela Naimou have started a tradition whereby graduating seniors who are part of the English honorary Sigma Tau Delta receive a book that a faculty member picks out for them. Depending on the number of majors, and the willingness of faculty, these kinds of celebrations could be expanded to offer a more meaningful experience for graduating seniors. If nothing else, they could offer a deeper and more meaningful connection to an institution than sitting for hours in a basketball arena, waiting to hear your name called. If college presidents want, they could certainly continue to offer parting remarks to graduating students, but uncoupling this ceremony from delivering degrees would be better for everyone.

This is a moment for the University of Florida to reflect on the roots of the graduation ceremony violence that it experienced and how to prevent it in the future. At the same time, the particulars of this incident suggest an opportunity for many other universities to re-imagine this rite of passage as something that celebrates students rather than an institution.

Jonathan Beecher Field is an associate professor of English at Clemson University.

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Professor faces possible disciplinary action after university review finds he harassed and retaliated against student he once dated

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Professor faces possible disciplinary action after East Tennessee State review found he harassed and retaliated against a student he once dated. He lobbied against relationship policy he may have violated.

How to create opportunities to pivot in your career (opinion)

When you want to make a difference in higher education, pivotal opportunities for leadership can occur all around you, writes Judith S. White, who provides advice for helping prepare for them.

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Colleges should not expect suicide to be 100 percent preventable (opinion)

The suicide of Elizabeth Shin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000, and the lawsuit that followed, prompted colleges and universities to engage in vigorous suicide-prevention efforts. That tragic event occurred in a period of time when higher education began to experience a significant uptick in students seeking and needing mental health care and interventions. Although few students who need care are either suicidal or violent -- and the combination is even more rare -- the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 cemented the need for colleges to address suicidality and its impacts.

Today, many colleges take comprehensive, science-based approaches to suicide prevention and integrate those efforts with larger campuswide risk-management efforts. Public cries for accountability, however, may be motivating colleges to overreact to the risks associated with student suicide.

Enthusiasm for preventing suicide can go too far with prevention campaigns that express the possibility that suicide is 100 percent preventable. In fact, such well-intentioned efforts can, ironically, be harmful, as they suggest that it is feasible that suicide can become a “never event.” But, sadly, despite best efforts, some suicides will always occur. As with other social problems, such as homicide and domestic violence, the hope for a complete eradication of suicide is noble but not realistic.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court just reinforced that perspective in a case involving another death by suicide at MIT. The court recognized that MIT had engaged in significant efforts to prevent the student’s death and acknowledged that some deaths by suicide are not preventable by institutions of higher education. The MIT case provides significant and meaningful guidance to institutions in their continuing efforts to prevent suicide -- but it also reminds us that best efforts may sometimes fail.

In science and practice, no empirical evidence supports the idea that all suicide can be prevented. The law has likewise been suspicious of the efficacy of suicide-prevention efforts. In earlier times, it assigned all legal responsibility to suicidal individuals and today imposes liability on institutions of higher education or on therapeutic professionals only infrequently and under very limited circumstances, as illustrated by the recent MIT case. Even inpatient units, seen as the most safe and secure treatment setting for acutely suicidal persons, are unable to completely prevent suicides from occurring. Prisons dealing with inmates who are suicidal can fail to prevent all suicides, as well.

Unfortunately, if those of us who work in higher education promise too much when it comes to suicide prevention, we risk producing a number of unintended negative consequences. Language in awareness campaigns that suggests all suicides can be prevented encourages people to believe that all suicides therefore ought to be prevented. Persons who struggle with suicidality and those who care for, and about, them can be lured to false hopes about the powers of the professionals to treat suicidal students. Some mental health practitioners now avoid working with suicidal clients for fear of being blamed for a death by suicide.

We must also consider professional ethics issues. If a psychologist were to assert that suicide can be completely eradicated, that position would be widely regarded as unethical. Psychologists are legally and ethically bound not to make exaggerated or unfounded claims of the effectiveness of their services or to misrepresent scientific knowledge. A campus that promises 100 percent suicide prevention risks putting the frontline staff in an ethical dilemma.

There are legal risks associated with overpromising, as well, including the risk that attempts to eliminate suicidality from the college environment might interfere with the rights of students entitled to protection from unlawful discrimination. For example, institutions might be tempted to seek to remove a suicidal student from campus without legally required individual assessment of a student’s rights to continue in a program or activity. And colleges may ultimately come to view suicidal students as costly potential legal adversaries rather than sufferers with whom helpers must try to collaborate.

Yet perhaps the most pernicious problem with messages that present suicide as completely preventable is the implication that when a suicide does occur it must be the result of some type of failure, neglect or negligence -- that a completed suicide always involves fault, and someone must be blamed. Well-meaning campaigns can be iatrogenic -- actually creating more risk for colleges by reinforcing a stereotype that suicide is inherently connected to wrongdoing.

The legal system is in part responsible for perpetuating the myth that suicide and fault are inherently connected. The law’s long-standing approach was that the suicidal individual was morally reprehensible and that attempting suicide was a crime. Today, defecting blame to others is only an evolution of primitive legal attitudes about suicidality -- perpetuating the stigma surrounding suicide and creating chilling impacts on intervention.

The fact is that the suicide by a person in treatment is not necessarily a failure on the part of mental health professionals or care teams. Yet when a death by suicide or even an attempt occurs, the people who have endeavored to assist a suicidal individual are likely to suffer guilt, self-blame and even despair. In most instances, those predictable responses occur with helpers who have done nothing wrong or legally indefensible. And a system that implicitly suggests that they have done so or are to blame could easily serve to accelerate their issues.

We have both observed this in our daily efforts as different types of suicide counselors. Suicidality has the effect of a grenade; it has a field of impact. Focusing on 100 percent suicide prevention potentially undermines wellness efforts directed to those people who are impacted by suicidality. A prime example: entirely blameless first responders to a death by suicide are often so overwhelmed with trauma and guilt that they may even consider suicide themselves.

We sometimes say colloquially that suicidality is contagious or magnetic; behind the colloquialism is the reality that guilt -- however irrational -- is a powerful feature of the complex set of causes related to suicidality. Modern prevention and intervention efforts must find ways to shred undeserved guilt and avoid any approaches that enhance the risk of the very thing we seek to prevent.

That is not to say that colleges and the administrators who deal with student suicides should not be fairly and reasonably accountable. Rather, we must move past thinking of suicide as a wrong, implying that every suicide must result in the imposition of blame.

Assertions that all suicides are preventable also convey an erroneous message to the individuals who struggle with suicidality, giving the impression that their own volition is less consequential and that an external person or organization can successfully control them. When suicide is successfully prevented, it almost always occurs with the collaboration and cooperation of the suicidal person. Perhaps the law’s traditional yet problematic view to blame suicidal individuals was a recognition, in some convoluted way, of the importance of personal agency in suicide prevention.

Our opportunity in higher education going forward is to enhance that agency, as opposed to recreating the blame game in a new form. Legally, that means searching for accountability approaches that improve rather than undermine our prevention and intervention efforts. From the perspective of the counseling center, that means listening to the best instincts of the people who are trained in this work.

Deaths by suicide can and do occur, even when everyone trying to prevent suicide demonstrates the utmost concern and compassion and the latest prevention and treatment methodologies. Intuitively, it may seem wrong to “accept” suicide as a campus reality. We should always strive to improve our prevention strategies. But we must use reasonable care with our aspirations. A fundamental standard of care in treating suicidal persons is to assist them in the least restrictive environment possible, which implies acknowledging that death by suicide may, in fact, happen.

Keeping suicidal students safe and well is difficult work and requires something other than pressure to attain an unrealistic goal of zero suicides. Instead, prevention campaigns should focus on counteracting stigma and encouraging students to seek help. Care and compassion should guide us, not the fear of assigning blame where none exists. Being realistic will place higher education in the best position to perform this challenging work.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Paul D. Polychronis is a board-certified psychologist and director emeritus of the Counseling Center at University of Central Missouri. Peter F. Lake is a law professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law.

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