The issue of sexual violence on college and university campuses has been a metaphorical bomb dropped on the reputation of American higher education. A bomb that has been ticking and counting down for decades, and has now reached the point of explosion and complete catastrophe. Indeed, no single issue has permeated the higher education landscape to such a scathing -- and well-deserved -- degree. And, through myriad public lawsuits, protests and articles, the culture surrounding the issue of sexual violence on college campuses has been firmly established: change will come through isolation, confrontation and regulation.
I agree that strict policies and zero-tolerance attitudes are critical to changing the culture of sexual violence. Yet I fear this steadfast dedication to zero tolerance has bled into zero tolerance of conversation and constructive dialogue among students on topics of sexual violence.
The tried-and-true commitment to civil discourse -- a pillar of the American higher education system -- is strikingly absent from the issue of sexual violence on college campuses. However, we know that difficult topics require conversation, in addition to policy and procedure. When it comes to an issue as critically important to student safety and well-being as sexual violence, nothing should be off the table. For example, we cannot discuss sexual violence without also addressing alcohol abuse -- the two are bound together. Indeed alcohol abuse plays a role in almost all of the behavior issues afflicting college campuses -- and society -- and we have to have a holistic approach. We should encourage students, male and female, to tell their stories openly and honestly, without fear of judgment -- whether it is a first-person account from a rape victim or a bystander who has witnessed, or knows of, a violent assault and did nothing about it.
College and university campuses need truly grown-up conversations about sexual violence led by and among our student bodies. Conversations and discussions that are free from this entrenched sense of “Thou shall not.” Instead, we need conversations that feed the higher education essence of “Thou shall think and act.”
How do we, as higher education leaders, create an atmosphere in which people will not be afraid of awkward conversations? I believe we need to focus on three ingredients: awareness, transparency and student leadership.
First, leaders must continue to build awareness of sexual violence issues and policies on our campuses. At West Virginia University, we have joined the It’s on Us campaign, a national conversation starter on campus sexual violence. Through the campaign, West Virginia University is leading comprehensive awareness strategies centered on a commitment to recognizing assault, intervening in situations of assault and creating an environment in which assault is wholly unacceptable.
In tandem with awareness, campus leaders must be transparent about the issue of sexual violence. This is where the conversations can be awkward. Yet transparency is crucial to lessening the intimidation of sexual violence issues. And, through transparent conversations, we will get to a place where students can have awkward discussions without being afraid of conversations on awkward topics. Campus leaders must show students that the most worthwhile things in life are not pleasant all of the time.
Finally, the issue of sexual violence on campus is not a top-down discussion. As I previously stated, change will come through peer-to-peer conversations among students. Leaders must help students have these crucial and awkward discussions. We need to encourage bottom-up conversation but engage in top-down support.
I would be remiss -- and naïve -- to not mention the dual importance of both change and continuity of change. If we are to be laser focused on the challenge of culture change regarding sexual violence, then we must also focus on the challenge of continuity. Universities have survived for millennia because of the fact that there is coherence and continuity in what we do in classrooms and research laboratories. We must apply the same foundational thinking to our culture.
Universities can battle sexual violence by proving that there is another way. Higher education must move from the symbol of being the ivory tower to the symbol of being the helping hand. We have all conceded that this is a very serious moment in the history of higher education. We must, therefore, become the central force for change. That means colleges and universities need to make a case through example and through speaking out that the state and nation must do the same. We must fight the darker angels from the fringes and recapture that middle ground, which will solidify our path to both change and continuity.
Lastly, I have come to believe that the most important lesson related to leading change may be counterintuitive. Many people argue that change should be made gradually -- that people cannot stand such sudden change, and that rapid change is overly disruptive. My view is to the contrary. In today’s environment and with such an important issue, incremental change is not enough. When change is this necessary, it should be made quickly and boldly.
I leave you with the old Irish proverb that says, “You will never plow a field by turning it over in your mind.” Good stuff, indeed, and I hope it ignites conversations among readers.
E. Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University.
Among all the seemingly intractable crises Americans face in the world today, none is so serious as their utter unfamiliarity with that world. It makes every specific overseas problem virtually impossible for us to deal with confidently or competently.
Whether motivated by exceptionalism, isolationism, triumphalism or sheer indifference -- probably some of each over time -- the United States has somehow failed to equip a significant percentage of its citizenry with the basic information necessary to follow international events, let alone participate in formulating and executing the foreign policy that is an essential component of self-government in a healthy modern democracy.
This condition reflects the basic inadequacy of the educational system at every level, when it comes to understanding the world we live in. Americans of all ages have long scored lower than citizens of other countries on geography and current-events awareness quizzes and shown a stunning inability even to locate major countries on the map, let alone develop an appreciation for their cultures or their roles in global affairs.
As we know, Americans do not tend to appreciate the importance of learning foreign languages, and that indifference is only increasing. According to a recent report from the Modern Language Association, college students in the United States are actually studying languages 6.7 percent less now than they did five years ago. Even enrollments in Spanish, America's second language, declined 8.2 percent in that period, in Arabic 7.5 percent and in Russian 17.9 percent. Admittedly, English is in ascendance as the international language of business and trade, but needless to say, Americans will not get away with waiting for all the world to learn it.
There was a period, not all that long ago, when, at least in “peacetime,” it seemed as if international issues could be left to a small cadre of experts in government and educational institutions. As the pundits told us, such matters played virtually no role in routine political discourse or in local and national elections -- and certainly not in the daily lives of most members of Congress or much of the public they represented. Indeed, for many years slots on the House Foreign Affairs Committee were difficult to fill; congressmen did not want to have to go home and explain why they were wasting their time in Washington on such matters.
One might have expected a shift in recent decades, if only out of a national desire to avoid repeating critical mistakes. But in the years following the end of the Cold War, the foreign affairs account in the federal budget was cut drastically and some news organizations proudly announced that they were closing overseas bureaus because of a lack of interest among their subscribers or viewers, not to mention their own financial adversities.
Today, incredibly, the situation seems worse. Thirteen and a half years after the shock of Sept. 11, a complex international environment feels ever more distant, unknowable and strange. Only a third of Americans are thought to hold passports -- compared to about 50 percent in Australia, more than 60 percent in Canada and some 80 percent in the United Kingdom. Study-abroad rates at American colleges and universities are, on average, stuck in the low single digits.
It is no wonder, then, that Americans find themselves easily and frequently bewildered by phenomena that spin quickly out of control -- the various ongoing crises in the Middle East; the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, among other former Soviet republics; the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa; China’s recent public showdown with dissidents in Hong Kong and quieter ones in other regions; the catastrophic symptoms of climate change; and separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia, to name a few. A basic lack of awareness and understanding among the public makes it even harder for policy makers to formulate positions that will attract widespread domestic support and perhaps influence the outcomes.
One of the recent manifestations of Americans’ confusion over world affairs was the wild fluctuation in public opinion with regard to whether the United States should intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war or become reinvolved in Iraq. The data are confusing, at best:
In May 2013, 68 percent of Americans surveyed told Gallup they felt the United States should not use force to attempt to end the conflict in Syria if diplomatic and economic efforts failed. Thirteen months later, in June 2014, 54 percent still said they opposed using military means to help the Iraqi government fend off the insurgents from the newly discovered Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL), which was threatening to take over that country, while 45 percent now favored American air strikes there.
By August of last year, after the Islamic State had received substantial media coverage and begun to replace Al Qaeda in the public mind as the principal U.S. adversary in the region, support for air strikes had risen to 54 percent in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. In September, after the widespread circulation of grotesque videos of the beheading of American journalists, that number reached an astonishing level of 71 percent in the same poll -- hence, President Obama’s recent willingness and political capacity to take bolder steps.
It is difficult to know how much faith to place in any of those numbers, because in some of the surveys fewer than half of the respondents said they had actually been following the situation in the Middle East closely when they were interviewed. And for a time there was speculation that perhaps government spokespeople and media sources had it wrong -- that the Nusra Front or the Khorasan Group (even less familiar names) might actually be the worst actor in the mix, from an American perspective. What if we were fighting the wrong enemy or, worse, did not really know whom we were fighting?
Should we become more frightened, more resolute -- or, as many seem to do, just tune out?
There is, alas, no quick or easy cure for this fundamental problem. No number of urgent adult-education courses, live or online, will catch the country up anytime soon. And it is not as if a wave of American tourists or students should be encouraged to drop in on Syria or Iraq for impromptu fact-finding missions.
That is not the point. It is, rather, a broader familiarity with the world that is needed. It will take decades -- a generation or two -- for the United States as a nation to develop a deeper appreciation of the complex forces at work, such that popular attitudes are no longer subject to crass manipulation.
It may not be easy to persuade Americans, legitimately worried as they are over other matters at home, that every field of endeavor and every issue of public concern will soon have an international dimension, if it does not already -- or that continued ignorance of, or indifference toward, how other people see the world is a concrete threat to our own security and safety.
This will require nothing less than a national call to action. We are not dealing here with a partisan issue, and the concern is relevant for all economic strata and all social groupings in the United States. For a start, we will have to send many more young people to study abroad -- in high school, in college and in graduate and professional school -- and make sure that a significant number of them go farther afield than the traditional destinations in Europe. When they get wherever they are going, it is crucial that they live and study not just with other Americans, but also with local people of their own generation.
Meanwhile, back at home, more students will have to learn about the wider world from every perspective -- political, economic, anthropological and scientific -- whatever their intended careers. The attainment of an international sensibility should be on any list of liberal education requirements.
And yes, we should bring back old-fashioned language requirements, but teach those languages in a practical manner that assumes we will all use them in our daily work and social lives, not necessarily become foreign-literature scholars.
Above all, we must value the experiences and listen to the insights that young Americans bring home from overseas. They, in turn, will have to push their professors, their families and everyone else they encounter to be willing to learn from the way other societies and cultures conduct their lives and govern themselves.
Sanford J. Ungar, distinguished scholar in residence at Georgetown University, recently stepped down after 13 years as president of Goucher College in Baltimore, where every undergraduate is now required to study abroad.
Against vociferous opposition from the state's own university system, a Florida Senate panel last month approved a bill allowing students, faculty and staff with appropriate permits to carry guns on public college campuses. This brings to 10 the number of states that are poised to consider so-called campus carry legislation this year. Nine currently allow it in some form or another.
This most recent wave of legislation is buoyed by arguments that guns on campus will help address the problem of sexual assault. As Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore put it memorably, “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. [Sexual] assaults... would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in the head.”
Critics retort that guns are a distinctly combustible ingredient added to college life, where young adults occasionally engage in binge drinking and wild partying. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine how guns can solve the problem of sexual assault on campus. Who is to say the ones carrying out the assaults won’t be armed, too?
As the campus carry movement picks up steam nationwide, there is, I would argue, another major concern worth considering -- one that has been wholly omitted thus far: How might guns impact the atmosphere and pedagogical goals of the classroom, and the political mission of the university? For, it seems clear to me, guns stand opposed to all that. There is something inherently contradictory about guns in college. They are a rude, unnecessary intrusion from the outside world, and threaten the intimacy and openness that academe hopes to foster.
American philosopher John Dewey argued that the classroom is the root of democracy, since it is where individuals learn to talk to people of different backgrounds and perspectives, collaborate, and negotiate differences. The classroom is where the all-important process of socialization occurs -- something that cannot take place at home, steeped in the privacy of family life. A functioning and vibrant democracy requires that citizens learn to work with one another, which in turn demands openness -- and a willingness to trust.
Guns communicate the opposite of all that — they announce, and transmit, suspicion and hostility.
In the humanities (where I teach), the seminar room is a designated space for intellectual exploration, and students must feel safe and encouraged to do just that. They are expected to take risks -- moral, political and personal. Controversial ideas are aired, deliberated and contemplated from many angles. Sometimes these ideas are offensive.
Many academics will contend that, at least ideally, classroom debate should be lively, even heated at times. Emotions may run high. As a case in point, I think of the many uncomfortable discussions following the Ferguson and Staten Island police killings last year. Differing views of what constituted racism -- and especially, whether racism lingered and was still entrenched -- elicited highly personal conversations, sharp comments and campus protest. In frank discussions, ugliness, racist undertones and deep cultural mistrust were exposed.
Honest exchange is the only way forward amid such controversies; different perspectives and experiences, even if they cause resentment in the short run, must be uncovered and understood if we hope to expand the bounds of empathy. Unpopular views must get a hearing in the classroom. Professors are obligated to foster a setting where students feel comfortable airing their most deep-seated fears and prejudices -- which may not be looked on kindly by others.
Guns in the classroom threaten this dynamic. Will students feel so safe and free when surrounded by other students who may be, secretly, arms bearers? Will they feel emboldened to take moral and political risks? Will they feel inclined to air potentially offensive views? I doubt it.
In fact, the prospect of guns in the classroom is more likely to cause professors to keep the conversation tepid and avoid certain controversies; everyone else will watch what they say, how they say it and to whom. This would be quite the opposite of the open and transformative exchange that universities have made it their mission to offer.
There is a further point. As we saw in the aftermath of the Ferguson and Staten Island police incidents, and earlier with the Occupy Wall Street movement, university campuses are places where political protest takes root. Perhaps colleges are not quite the haven for political protest that they once were -- like, say, in the 1960's. But universities have traditionally been places where students practice protest -- where they practice articulating and voicing political concern, and engaging in productive, demonstrative assembly. Sometimes the protest tactics they practice are aggressive, and push the envelope. Again, I would say, this is how it ought to be on campus -- it hearkens back to universities’ role as political incubators and testing grounds.
But guns are noxious in an atmosphere where people will experiment with risky methods of protest. To that extent, guns on campus may well kill such protest.
Guns may provide a basic kind of bodily and personal safety. This is the recurring argument put forth by campus carry proponents. This argument is dubious at best. But this much is clear: guns do nothing to help universities attain the kind of safety they desire and need -- the safety that enables intellectual and political exploration. Guns by their very nature dampen speech -- they chasten it. Colleges simply cannot tolerate them.
Firmin DeBrabander has writtenDo Guns Make Us Free?to be released by Yale University Press in May. He is also a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.