Over the last generation, most colleges and universities have experienced considerable grade inflation. Much lamented by traditionalists and explained away or minimized by more permissive faculty, the phenomenon presents itself both as an increase in students’ grade point averages at graduation as well as an increase in high grades and a decrease in low grades recorded for individual courses. More prevalent in humanities and social science than in science and math courses and in elite private institutions than in public institutions, discussion about grade inflation generates a great deal of heat, if not always as much light.
While the debate on the moral virtues of any particular form of grade distribution fascinates as cultural artifact, the variability of grading standards has a more practical consequence. As grades increasingly reflect an idiosyncratic and locally defined performance levels, their value for outside consumers of university products declines. Who knows what an "A" in American History means? Is the A student one of the top 10 percent in the class or one of the top 50 percent?
Fuzziness in grading reflects a general fuzziness in defining clearly what we teach our students and what we expect of them. When asked to defend our grading practices by external observers -- parents, employers, graduate schools, or professional schools -- our answers tend toward a vague if earnest exposition on the complexity of learning, the motivational differences in evaluation techniques, and the pedagogical value of learning over grading. All of this may well be true in some abstract sense, but our consumers find our explanations unpersuasive and on occasion misleading.
They turn, then, to various forms of standardized testing. When the grades of an undergraduate have an unpredictable relevance to a standard measure performance, and when high quality institutions that should set the performance standard routinely give large proportions of their students “A” grades, others must look elsewhere for some reliable reference. A 3.95 GPA should reflect the same level of preparation for students from different institutions.
Because they do not, we turn to the GMAT, LSAT, GRE, or MCAT, to take four famous examples. These tests normalize the results from the standards-free zone of American higher education. The students who aspire to law or medical school all have good grades, especially in history or organic chemistry. In some cases, a student’s college grades may prove little more than his or her ability to fulfill requirements and mean considerably less than the results of a standardized test that attempts to identify precisely what the student knows that is relevant to the next level of academic activity.
Although many of us worry that these tests may be biased against various subpopulations, emphasize the wrong kind of knowledge, and encourage students to waste time and money on test prep courses, they have one virtue our grading system does not provide: The tests offer a standardized measure of a specific and clearly defined subset of knowledge deemed useful by those who require them for admission to graduate or professional study.
Measuring State Investment
If the confusion over the value of grades and test scores were not enough, we discover that at least for public institutions, our state accountability systems focus heavily on an attempt to determine whether student performance reflects a reasonable value for taxpayer investment in colleges and universities. This accountability process engages a wide range of measures -- time to degree, graduation rate, student satisfaction, employment, graduate and professional admission, and other indicators of undergraduate performance -- but even with the serious defects in most of these systems, they respond to the same problems as do standardized tests.
Our friends and supporters have little confidence in the self-generated mechanisms we use to specify the achievement of our students. If the legislature believed that students graduating with a 3.0 GPA were all good performers measured against a rigorous national standard applied to reasonably comparable curricula, they would not worry much about accountability. They would just observe whether our students learned enough to earn a nationally normed 3.0 GPA.
Of course, we have no such mechanism to validate the performance of our students. We do not know whether our graduates leave better or worse prepared than the students from other institutions. We too, in recognition of the abdication of our own academic authority as undergraduate institutions, rely on the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and GMAT to tell us whether the students who apply (including our own graduates) can meet the challenges of advanced study at our own universities.
Partly this follows from another peculiarity of the competitive nature of the American higher education industry. Those institutions we deem most selective enroll students with high SATs on average (recognizing that a high school record is valuable only when validated in some fashion by a standardized test). Moreover, because selective institutions admit smart students who have the ability to perform well, and because these institutions have gone to such trouble to recruit them, elite colleges often feel compelled to fulfill the prophecy of the students’ potential by ensuring that most graduate with GPA’s in the A range. After all, they may say, average does not apply to our students because they are all, by definition, above average.
When reliable standards of performance weaken in any significant and highly competitive industry, consumers seek alternative external means of validating the quality of the services provided. The reluctance of colleges and universities, especially the best among us, to define what they expect from their students in any rigorous and comparable way, brings accreditation agencies, athletic organizations, standardized test providers, and state accountability commissions into the conversation, measuring the value of the institution’s results against various nationally consistent expectations of performance.
We academics dislike these intrusions into our academic space because they coerce us to teach to the tests or the accountability systems, but the real enemy is our own unwillingness to adopt rigorous national standards of our own.
Imagine a college student returning to campus next fall and being greeted by a student government representative who asks her if she is devoutly religious or not. She answers “yes” and the representative responds, “I am sorry, the student government has decided that the separation of church and state means that, as state college, we have to be free of religious students. You may want to consider a religious college.” Next imagine this befuddled student taking her complaint to the president of the college and he says “Yes, I know the student government’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause is wrong and utterly violates the U.S. Constitution, but I don’t want to interfere with their autonomy. Besides this is a ‘teachable moment.’ If they eventually get this ‘no religious students on campus’ decision in front of me, however, I will veto it. In the meantime, have you considered a religious college?”
While I have seen abuses of the Establishment Clause almost as ridiculous as this in my career, I use the above example to illustrate the absurdity of a public college delegating students’ constitutional rights to the student government. In cases across the country, however, administrations have stood idly by while student governments pass rules and make decisions that flatly violate the Constitution. One recent case that demonstrates this phenomenon involves the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, where the student government passed a rule in March banning groups with a "particular ideological, religious, or partisan viewpoint" from receiving student-fee funding.
This may not seem like a particularly big deal to some. What the students and many observers don’t seem to understand is that profound moral and constitutional principles are violated by this rule.
The case no one seems to have adequately explained to these students is the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court case Board of Regents v. Southworth. In that case a group of students (also at the University of Wisconsin, in that case at Madison) objected to the mandatory student fee because much of the money -- money they were forced to pay in addition to their tuition -- went to support groups they fundamentally disagreed with. This is a serious civil liberties concern. As bad as it may be to tell citizens what they can’t say, it is far worse to tell them what they must say, and perhaps worse still to tell them they must directly fund groups that they fundamentally oppose. Why, for example, should pro-life students be forced to give money to pro-choice student groups, or gay students be forced to give money to groups that believe homosexuality is sinful?
The Supreme Court in Southworth, however, did not see this as forced support of other’s opinions as long as certain conditions were met. In this unanimous decision, Justice Kennedy argued that, while people should not be forced to directly subsidize speech they despise, the student-fee system was more akin to a subsidy of free speech for all students in general -- as long as the collected funds were distributed without regard to the viewpoint of the student groups. The decision was a kind of constitutional compromise: public colleges may collect mandatory student fees if, and only if, student groups of every opinion (or no opinion at all) could apply for funds on an equal basis. While colleges would have every right to set up “viewpoint-neutral” criteria for funding, like requiring a certain number of students to be a members before being recognized or only funding on-campus events, the fact that students or administrators did not like the message of particular student group could not be used to deny a group funding from the mandatory student-fee pool.
Other options are also open to public colleges under Southworth. Public colleges can, for example, eliminate student fee funding altogether, or they can designate its use for narrow content-neutral categories, like designating fees exclusively for intramural sports, or monthly social events. The analysis gets trickier if a college with mandatory student fees banned groups with formal ties to outside political groups like the College Republicans or the College Green Party.
In order to stand a chance of surviving a Southworth challenge, the college would likely have to ban funding for all groups associated with outside organizations (a tricky and difficult standard to administer, that would doubtless prevent many students from forming the groups they would prefer to form) but even doing that would not rule out the chance of a lawsuit. Anytime administrations, and, in particular, student governments are empowered to take the content of a group into consideration the possibility of such a standard being used against groups with unpopular viewpoints (and, thereby, violating Southworth) presents itself.
Unfortunately Southworth’s requirement of “viewpoint neutrality” is often badly misunderstood and the Eau Claire student government has turned the concept completely on its head. Over the past year the student government and some members of the student media have interpreted "viewpoint neutrality" as meaning that they could not fund student groups that had any particular viewpoint or "bias." As part of growing trend coming from both the left and the right to route out "bias" on campus, a ranking student representative was even quoted in Eau Claire’s student newspaper as saying, "We want to exclude any groups that would be religious in nature, political in nature or anything that would have a political agenda [from being funded through student segregated fees]."
This statement directly contradicts numerous binding Supreme Court cases, including Southworth and Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia, and flatly discriminates against both religious and secular viewpoints. Why didn’t the administration offer some guidance to the students? After all, the student government was publicly contemplating passing a rule that violated the U.S. Constitution for months.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wanted to know why the administration was allowing their students to flounder and then flout the Constitution so blatantly, so it wrote the president and the upper administration. In an April 6 letter, FIRE emphasized a point that should be clear to any high school civics class: "As a state institution, the university and its administrators should understand that UWEC has a non-delegable duty to ensure that the First Amendment rights of its students are protected, and that no federal, state, local, or university rule, policy, or regulation can trump the exercise of rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution ." FIRE received a belated reply from the general counsel that allegedly the policy was “not yet in effect” and was pending review by her office, which would guide the university to deal with the policy in compliance with Southworth .
While this gives some hope that the rule will eventually be overturned, during the previous fall the student government refused to recognize a student magazine called The Flip Side because of its "progressive bias." The new, highly unconstitutional, regulation passed on March 14, 2005. The students have been laboring under the viewpoint that strong points of view are bad for months now. What exactly is the administration waiting for?
In previous situations where student governments have attempted to limit the free speech rights of other students, like University of Oregon where the student government stripped a student magazine’s recognition for poking fun at a transgender student representative who asked to be referred to as “zi” or “hir” rather than gendered pronouns like “he” or “her,” administrators essentially argued that that they did not want to interfere with the autonomy of the student government. While respect for the democratic process is commendable under some circumstances, one of the basics of our democracy is that there are some rights we deem too important to vote away. That is the reason why we have a Bill of Rights. The importance of the autonomy of the Eau Claire student government does not exactly match in importance the protection of free speech principles.
Some of the students seem to genuinely misunderstand the law here, and due to this misunderstanding they are violating the U.S. Constitution. As soon as administrators found out about this debate they should have informed the students that their interpretation of “viewpoint neutrality” was not just wrong but unlawful. Instead they have allowed student groups and the student government to fight it out among themselves with no apparent effort by the administration to defend the groups that were faced with these unconstitutional criteria.
Meanwhile students write editorials interpreting Southworth to mean "student fees could only be used to fund content-neutral organizations." If this is one of those "teachable moments" that educators talk so much about, it has failed. It is time the Eau Claire administration — and other universities where student harbor similar misunderstandings — do their job and teach their students what "viewpoint neutrality" really means.
Greg Lukianoff is director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Graduation is seven months away. For a 22-year-old undergrad whose post-baccalaureate plans are nebulous, this might seem like forever. Not for me. In January 2000, at the age of 42, I returned to college after a long academic hibernation. I've been a part-time college student ever since, creeping up on a long-delayed graduation.
There is no single, overriding reason why I returned to college after so long away, but I felt trapped between a spouse wrapping up work on her M.A. in journalism and a son in high school who demanded to know why his college dropout father was pushing him into higher education. Unless I returned to college immediately, I would soon be the least-educated person in the house. Baylor's then-generous tuition remission program for employee family members -- my wife is managing editor of an academic journal -- eased my concerns about the financial burden of returning to school and ensured that Baylor was the only university to which I applied.
Since returning, I have been challenged in unexpected ways. Baylor does little to accommodate nontraditional undergraduate students, offering no weekend classes and few evening classes. Some offices close during the lunch hour, and entire buildings are sealed tighter than Tupperware promptly at 5:00.
Initially, I held a traditional full-time job, and I often flew across town with minimal regard for traffic signals, hoping to beat the English department's noon lock-down. Each time I arrived to find the office door handle still warm from the hand of the person who locked it, I taught new and imaginative curse words to Baylor's abundant squirrel population.
Back then, registration and payment of tuition and fees required a day off work, a beach ball-sized bladder, and the endurance of a sequoia as lines moved slower than frozen molasses. While Baylor's adoption of electronic solutions reduced my frustration by allowing me to register and pay fees online, the university's constant upgrading of hardware and software soon outpaced my personal budget. Now I must travel to campus just to find a computer powerful enough to complete these tasks.
Even though I successfully overcame real and imagined obstacles, I had no specific plan when I returned to school. At first, I enrolled in one course each semester. I soon realized that I would qualify for AARP membership while I was still receiving student discounts, so I began doubling and tripling my class load.
When presented with the opportunity to move from conventional employment to self-employment, I embraced it. Rather than forcing my class schedule fit my work schedule, I could adjust my workload to fit my class schedule. This becomes increasingly important as I approach the end of undergraduate life, when only single sections of required courses may be offered each semester.
Hardest to adjust to was the realization that I am no longer young. Desks are too small for someone who gained his "freshman 15" and then spent nearly 30 years developing middle-aged spread, and what's left of my hair is now more salt than pepper.
Despite raising one of my own, members of the wired generation confound me. While my family didn't own a television until I reached third grade, my classmates came out of the womb clutching a computer mouse and a cell phone. A once-peaceful walk across campus is now interrupted at every step by the nonstop chatter of the connected, and the beep, chirp and moan of student cell phones regularly disturb classes.
When I was born, there were only 49 states, and I soon learned that most important events in the constitutional history of the United States have happened during my lifetime. This means that my fellow students study history, while I study current events.
In many classes, I've been the oldest person in the room, leading to an awkward sorting out of social convention. Will the instructor treat me with the respect due my age, or with the disdain appropriate for an undergrad?
At the beginning of each semester, professors often question students' about their future plans, and my classmates mention doctor, lawyer and engineer. Me? I want to be a Social Security recipient because there isn't enough time between graduation and retirement to actually have a career.
When I tell my wife about some of my class discussions -- discussions where life experience clearly colors my opinions -- she says, "Don't frighten the children." And it's difficult not to think of my classmates as children, even though many of them are in early adulthood, because my 21-year-old son is among them, and I often find myself enrolled in courses with members of his high school graduating class.
In a university where students of my generation can probably be counted in single digits, there's little opportunity to develop friendships. Even sincere attempts make me feel like the creepy neighbor my mother always warned me about.
But I have tried to experience college life the way a traditional undergrad might.
I've eaten cafeteria food, quickly realizing that the cast-iron stomach I had as a teenager is now one of the seven largest methane producers in Texas, and I must monitor my diet.
My wardrobe slowly devolved, and T-shirts emblazoned with one of Baylor's many logos are now my apparel of choice.
I joined three academic fraternities, but soon decided that my days as a chaperone ended with my son's high school graduation party.
Although I've yet to pull an all-nighter, I've certainly had my share of late-nighters, not opening my textbooks until my family finally retires for the night.
Along with other Baylor students, I've sat in the stands through losing season after losing season of football, and sat glued to the television as our women's basketball team advanced through the NCAA tournament to take the title.
While my son speeds through college without stopping for marriage, children and career, I relish the few advantages of being a college student at my age. I especially enjoy the reaction at the local multiplex when I request the "student discount," and my wife takes great pleasure in telling people that she sleeps with a college student.
I'll be 48 when I finally receive my B.A. in professional writing, having spent six years finishing half of my undergraduate requirements. At this glacial pace, dare I even consider grad school?
Michael Bracken is a 47-year-old senior at Baylor University. His latest book is Yesterday in Blood and Bone, a collection of short stories published by Wildside Press.
In what may be the worst decision for college student rights in the history of the federal judiciary, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit this week turned back the clock a half-century and reinstated the old discredited doctrines of in loco parentis and administrative authoritarianism.
In Hosty v. Carter, the Seventh Circuit ruled by a 7-4 majority that administrators at public colleges have total control over subsidized student newspapers. But the scope of the decision is breathtaking, since the reasoning of the case applies to any student organization receiving student fees. Student newspapers, speakers and even campus protests could now be subject to the whim of administrative approval.
The case seemed like an open-and-shut example of unconstitutional suppression of dissent. On November 1, 2000, Patricia A. Carter, dean of student affairs at Governors State University, in Chicago’s south suburbs, called the printer of the student newspaper, the Innovator, and demanded prior approval of everything in the paper, which had annoyed administrators with its criticism of the university. Prior restraint is a classic violation of freedom of the press, and the editors Jeni Porche and Margaret Hosty soon sued the university.
Student press groups were alarmed when the Illinois attorney general’s office argued that the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier should apply to college newspapers. The misguided Hazelwood decision has been an unmitigated disaster for high school journalists, and the possibility of extending it to college students is terrifying.
Terrifying, that is, for anyone who cares about freedom of the student press. But for the majority of the Seventh Circuit, Hazelwood was a legal opening for conservative judges who wanted to reach a predetermined result. If the majority opinion by Judge Frank Easterbrook had merely extended the censorship of Hazelwood to colleges, it would have been a principled decision; a terrible principle, but a principle nonetheless.
However, because Dean Carter’s action violated even the Hazelwood standard, these activist judges had to rewrite the Hazelwood precedent to justify the censorship of all student newspapers and activities. The judges had to eliminate Hazelwood’s restriction to curricular-based newspapers, and then had to eviscerate any constitutional protections for a “limited public forum” such as a newspaper. It took the judges 18 months from the time of oral arguments, and some convoluted reasoning, to achieve their goal.
The Hazelwood case declared that high schools could only censor student newspapers that were created as part of the curriculum. However, the majority decision in Hosty goes far beyond this, expanding censorship of high school papers as well by eliminating the “curricular” limit.
Jettisoning the Hazelwood standard restricting only curricular-based newspapers was merely the first of Easterbrook’s violations of precedent. He also annihilates the common understanding of “limited public forum,” a term created by the Supreme Court to provide a middle ground between the unregulated public forum (such as standing on a soapbox on the quad) and a non-public forum (such as a university-controlled alumni magazine).
“If the paper operated in a public forum, the university could not vet its contents,” Easterbrook wrote. He then asked, “was the reporter a speaker in a public forum (no censorship allowed?) or did the University either create a non-public forum or publish the paper itself (a closed forum where content may be supervised)?” Of course, a newspaper isn’t a public forum like a soapbox. It’s limited to the students who run the newspaper. By declaring that only a pure public forum is entitled to Constitutional protection, Easterbrook eliminates the First Amendment on college campuses for any limited public forum, including any student-funded activities.
“What, then, was the status of the Innovator?” Easterbrook continued. “Did the university establish a public forum? Or did it hedge the funding with controls that left the university itself as the newspaper’s publisher?” By his logic, the only speakers or newspapers on a public college campus that fall under public forum protection would be those that receive no funding from student fees or university funds (a rare commodity indeed). Any funding “controls” are directly tied to ideological controls.
Easterbrook concluded, “Freedom of speech does not imply that someone else must pay.” This is the philosophy of “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” and the Supreme Court has rejected it over and over again at public colleges.
Easterbrook is claiming that if the university can require student groups to follow funding rules designed to prevent fraud (and demand that student fee money be spent on a newspaper rather than, say, a private party), then the administration must be granted total control over the content of the newspaper.
A Break With Precedent
This is a bizarre conclusion, considering that the Supreme Court has repeatedly banned such control by colleges in funding cases.
In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Court ruled that a public university cannot ban funding for a newspaper based on its religious content. Now the Seventh Circuit has declared that a public university may be obliged to fund a religious newspaper, but it can impose any control over its contents. In Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, the Supreme Court ruled that public colleges must ban all viewpoint discrimination in funding student groups. It would be bizarre if college administrators were granted the direct power to control the viewpoints expressed in student newspapers, while by expressly banned from making funding decisions based on viewpoint. Yet this is what Easterbrook’s opinion permits.
Any non-public forum that is funded by the university to any degree could be controlled and censored by administrators. Any use of campus space by a student organization is subsidized by the university, as are all registered student groups that receive any benefits or funding. Therefore, all of these groups are subject to total control by the administration under Easterbrook’s ruling.
In essence, Easterbrook argued that there is only one kind of censorship that is impermissible on a public college campus: banning someone from speaking for free on a soapbox on the quad. In all other cases, under the Hosty v. Carter ruling, college administrators across the country now have a green light to ban anything they want, from controversial campus speakers to critical student newspapers.
Although the Hosty ruling itself only applies to Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, the states covered by the Seventh Circuit, the “qualified immunity” test allows any public college administrators to avoid damages in any case where the law is unclear -- and the Hosty case certainly makes freedom of the student press an unclear idea.
The Hosty decision could also affect faculty academic freedom. If college students have no more Constitutional protections than first graders do, then college professors may have no more rights than elementary school teachers. Decades of cases establishing the unique legal status of colleges and academic freedom, based on the maturity and rights of college students, might be wiped away if Hosty is upheld.
Easterbrook also hauled out the dubious idea of institutional academic freedom: “Let us not forget that academic freedom includes the authority of the university to manage an academic community and evaluate teaching and scholarship free from interference by other units of government, including the courts.” If “academic freedom” means only the power of administrators to “manage an academic community,” then students and professors alike will be subject to censorship by the administration.
The Innovator has been shut down for almost five years, replaced by the administration with a more pliable newspaper where students never investigate or criticize their college. Unless the Supreme Court reverses the Seventh Circuit’s unprecedented act of conservative judicial activism, the Innovator may only be the first among many newspapers and student organizations silenced by administrators at public colleges, with the blessing of the courts.
par-a-site n. 1. An often harmful organism that lives on or in a different organism. 2. A person who habitually takes advantage of the generosity of others without making any useful return. -- Webster's Dictionary.
It is the first day of class. A student in his early 20s strides into the classroom. A beautiful young woman walks quickly to keep up with him; she is so close to him that she bumps into his side. They sit in adjoining seats in the next-to-back row. I smile and look down at my census sheet. I call roll. He is Alex, with a last name I've never had the chance to pronounce before. She is Traci. "Ah, true love," I think. Smiling, I ponder young love as the students settle in to the assignment.
Three weeks into the fall semester, I realize the inequity. She is an A student -- bright, intelligent, motivated. He? A C student, haggling with instructors, looking for extra credit, borrowing her notes and time. The problem? He is bringing her down. Her grade slips because she turns her paper in late -- along with his. I know that she has done hers on time, but she holds on to it until he is ready, too.
In another world, I might think it is a beautiful sympathetic gesture; here I think it is a mismatched sign of her devotion. He does poorly on quizzes; she misses a few. I wonder if she does it to bridge the gap between them. In group work, he sits like a stone; she mimics his silence. Together they sit, mute, refusing to participate. They stride into class together every day -- late -- 5, 8, 12 minutes. Her attendance grade lowers, as does his. I can't help but want to take her into my office and tell her what I think. "Traci," I imagine myself saying, "He's bringing you down. He's a loser -- an underachiever. Think of what he'll be like later in the job force." With a wan smile, I might add, "Yes, I know you love him, but consider your future."
But I do not intervene. Why? Because I do not think that she will listen. She will act just as I did when I "fell in love" with a 21-year-old underachiever while in high school. My parents tried to warn me. My grandparents lectured me. My sisters smirked; but I held on to that man, desperate to make my own choices -- to someday show them all.
The result? I dropped out of high school, worked as a waitress and tried to impress him, me and the world. Finally he found another young woman to admire him and I was lucky enough to bury my sorrows at a local junior college. I hope that Traci, too, will find her way, with or without the underachiever who tucks her hand into his coat pocket as he stands in the hallway, his textbook clean, untouched.
It's an odd partnership, I think. But is it? On every campus I have worked, I have seen it over and over. The academically weaker ones attaching themselves to the stronger; hoping for a lift, a chance, a ride on someone else's success. Blatantly exchanging sex (or sex appeal), bravado, status, money or simply a ride to campus for another's brain-on-loan. Sometimes it develops into a romance -- but more often than not a partnership develops that seems mismatched. I want to be shocked; but I have seen so many things. Students buying term papers from one another. Students lying about work not produced. Excuses, excuses, excuses.
In my office, deluged with yet another onslaught of excuses, the phone rang. After four minutes of all the sympathy I could offer, along with the assertion that I would tape an assignment to my door, I turned to my colleague. "Guess she can only use that excuse one more time," I said to him. "Dead grandmother," I answered him before he could even ask. "Oh, yeah," he replies, his voice tired, "I've already had two and it's only four weeks into the semester."
Yes, we're cynical. But we buck up, lace our shoes tighter and get ready for another class. And we are prepared to see them arriving two by two, like a twisted version of Noah's ark. The all-too-attractive girl who can't spell with the engineering major who has already received four scholarship offers. The funny returning front-row student who is attached to the young man who can't seem to make it to class one out of every three sessions. Even the pal-teams are suspect.
In class today I noticed a young man who has missed two deadlines for papers. He sits and chats with a another young man on international status who has trouble with English. I can't imagine what that exchange will provide. I can only hope the international student will receive some pronunciation tips while the local student will hustle through his work and turn it in on time.
In my night class at another campus, two women friends straggle in 15 minutes late. Both are in their early 20s, with the usual giggling and guffawing as they sit. Yet when it comes to class work, one is head and shoulders above the other. That night I notice that the overachiever has started to use the same make-up techniques as her friend. I wonder if poor study habits will follow now, too.
What is the drive to couple up in college? Why the buddy system in the face of education? I think that fear plays a big part. At one large institution where I've taught, there are more than 100,000 students registered. Even faculty can be intimidated by the numbers.
Fighting for spaces to park, seats in classes, books at the campus bookstore -- even for the limited financial aid available can turn the most motivated student mad. And they do not bring their complaints to staff or faculty; they share them with each other. Many of the students will not take the college catalog or schedule at its word. They talk to peers and press for the underground news on campus. Who is the easiest grader? Will this transfer to a state university? If they take this course, how much will the instructor expect?
Can I get into this class -- or should I try at night? And by the time they get into the class, partnerships are forged. With the constant barrage of information, they steel themselves for another assignment. And who can understand their pain and confusion most? Their colleague in class. That sympathetic gal or guy sitting to their right who will not only lend them a #2 pencil, but will walk with them to their next class. An alliance is born -- and having been forged under the pressure of academia, it may be tempered so strongly that it will not easily break.
In some cases, these teams are really good for both students. One student's talents can help the other; they work to model positive behavior for one another. As a college student, I floundered. Wandering on a campus in Austin, Tex., I felt as though I would go mad if I saw yet one more big, shiny belt buckle. To my surprise, another West Coast student motioned me to sit next to him in accounting. Later he said that it was easy to see I was not a local -- my hairstyle and clothes branded me as "a little too liberal" for the crowd there.
Chuck helped drag me, complaining and wheedling, through bookkeeping practices. In return, I unofficially tutored him in English. At the end of two semesters, we had forged a partnership that made us each better students. I was able to get the right side of my brain to function with numbers, and Chuck became a fair writer, turning out business letters and proposals in his class for a solid A. Teachers who saw us shook their heads. "Those two," I heard an instructor mutter. Yes, we clowned around; yes, we laughed at the cafeteria food, but our transcripts took a tremendous leap.
Here is the value in student partnerships. Not the kind that are set up by well-meaning clubs or administrators, but born completely out of need. And the result? In this case -- fabulous.
But not all partnerships can claim success. I watch as a sympathetic working student hands his textbook to a newbie just out of high-school. She smiles at him, a Revlon red meant to attract. He looks dazed and his shiny eyes return to his handwritten notes. I know he means well, but I wonder if he will get his book back in time to study for the next quiz.
In another class, I watch as an experienced international student sweetly bullies another student into leading the group assignment. The newer student immigrant fights her natural shyness to rise to her new friend's challenge; I wonder if she will also help her more experienced friend write a thesis statement after class. Realizing that there is not much I can do, I look at my syllabus and write down "in-class writing" for the next Monday. I hope to try and identify the students who are not really producing their own work. Even as I circle the note in medium-blue, I know that many of my students will connect, sit with another on a Tuesday night and struggle through the Wednesday homework together. I can only hope that both students lend a hand and walk away better for the experience.
My curiosity wins out and I consider these teams. At times I sense that the academically superior student receives a sense of belonging or being adored that is hard to match with simple numeric grading systems. But I admit that as we make our way into the semester, I look over my attendance sheet at night and close my eyes. I pray for the success of both students -- and hope that they both find what they need without wasted semesters. I ask for guidance and hope that none of my students will ever have to know the shame that follows when your transcripts can never be sent on to another campus.
Just as instructors find mentors useful, so do students. And like their less educated counterparts, academics find friendships more natural than forced mentorships through administration. Many of my friends at universities discuss freshman interest groups. The good news is that many students new to the campus will find support by those they trust most -- their peers. Yet even this caring environment may breed a parasitic relationship where one student takes advantage of another. Here too, weaker scholars may find a less sophisticated counterpart to shore up their skills. The real solution is the confidence that comes with years of learning. When a student begins to sense the value of their knowledge, the cycle is less apt to continue.
On a day when I feel connected to the sky, to the grass around the campus buildings, to the instructor passing me in the hallway, and the flood of students from the parking lot, I hope that I am wrong. That I have misjudged. I hope that the partnerships will strengthen their experience here rather than weaken it; that they will move into universities or the working world with all that they need. That is my hope.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track. Her last column was about the problems with once-a-week courses.
A new survey of literary reading in America by the National Endowment for the Arts, " Reading At Risk " has once again raised the alarm about the cultural decline of America. This one provides the news that we read much less literature, defined as fiction and poetry, than we did some 20 years ago. Indeed, the decline is substantial (10 percent), accelerating and especially worrisome because the malady of literature non-reading particularly afflicts the younger members of society, that critical 18-24 year old group (which shows a 28 percent decline in this survey).
Academicians rushed in to analyze, comment and explain this decline, but some of the commentary both in the report itself and in the academic discussion it provoked seemed to miss the mark. The predictable villains of the visual media, the electronic media and the Internet all came in for blame. Truth is, I am not sure that the data represent a cause for alarm.
I know I should worry. I am a historian, after all, and if people will not read fiction, surely they will read less history. And I'm a teacher, and like everyone else in the humanities, I know students just do not read like they used to do.
The trouble is, I am not sure the changes in our cultural context are necessarily a bad thing. I read many airplane novels, and I have to say that if the younger generation is doing something else with their time, not much is lost. I read New Yorker fiction when I feel the need to be literarily virtuous, but the pieces tend to be mostly depressing stories about lives that do not work out in rather low-level ways.
Then I go online. Here I find a complicated world filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Alive and constantly changing, engaged and engaging, requiring my constant decisions about what is worth reading or seeing and what is not. From the lowest pornography to tours of the treasures of the Library of Congress, from the stupidest blogs of the radical fringes, to the most sophisticated discussions of the decline of America's reading habits, everything is there.
What is missing of course is the prescriptive, gate-keeping censorship of the academic and other cultural mandarins, sorting out what is good for me and what is not. The college students who now show up in my classroom come with an informational sophistication unimaginable in my generation. They find what they want, they use what they find, and they discard immense amounts of information made available to them.
Are they naïve about authority, methodology, logic and accuracy in these endless streams of information? Sure, they are. Who should teach them how to sort this stuff? We academics, sophisticated readers ourselves who all too frequently escape into trendy obscurantism rather than engage the real world information flow that constitutes the actual cultural context of our time.
We, the literate part of the American population, need to reconnect with the actual cultural context, rather than fight micro-academic battles of almost no interest to people outside the elite tiers of the academy. We need a better metric than reading print books, stories and poems to define the active imagination and the creative industries of our time. Why is a trashy airplane best seller more of a valuable cultural artifact than the telenovelas watched with enthusiasm and discussed in endless analytical detail by the large and growing Spanish speaking part of America? Why do we assume depressing short stories or over-hyped formulaic bestseller novels represent more significant cultural artifacts than the film version of The Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars series, or the computer game community's imaginative products?
The decline in reading may well reflect the decline in formal study of the humanities in American universities. However, the problem is not the students but the material we teach, the sectarian nature of our controversies, and our general reluctance to put the humanities in the center of our culture rather than relegating them to fragmented enclaves along the partisan byways of academic enthusiasms.
We lose influence on campus to the sciences on one side because they appear and act as if they know exactly what they are doing, how they do it, and for what purpose they do it. We lose influence on campus to the professionally oriented disciplines on the other side because they have a purpose and a method anchored directly in the center of the real world their disciplines address.
We in the humanities, and very frequently as well in the social sciences, often do not know and do not agree on what we think we are doing. We have few common standards and we ask little of our students who have time for non-academically related campus activities. We wonder why our voices carry such little weight when our culture seems to need us so desperately to sort out fundamental issues of values and judgment.
Our weakness on campus as humanists and social scientists reflects our frequent disconnect from the major issues that drive our culture and society. We know a lot, about many topics and issues. We have complex and specialized languages that define our place in political and intellectual sectarian spaces. While the best among us teach interesting courses to many students, most of us publish and build our prestige in the academy with mostly unreadable prose using such terms of art opaque to any but the specialists.
Although our scientific colleagues are often even more incomprehensible than we are, they have found ways to demonstrate the utility of their work so that a whole industry translates their science into terms ordinary citizens can understand. Some of our humanistic and social scientific colleagues find audiences outside the academy, but many people find it hard to distinguish between the opinionated rant of an e-zine commentator and the reasoned logic and well-researched judgment of a humanistic scholar. Often the rant is easier to read and more accessible than the reasoned argument.
What to do? I am not sure, but the first thing would be to pay close attention to what people are reading, what they are seeing, and how they do engage the common culture. The message of "Reading At Risk" is that something other than literature in print form engages more and more of our fellow citizens, and we might want to try to learn how to speak to them in the voices they want to hear.
Where better to learn how to do this than with our 18- to 24-year-old undergrads?
When people think about a "threat," they tend to imagine a variety of dark scenarios -- from the mugger in the alley who says, “Your money or your life,” to the chilling answering machine message where a faceless person says, "I will kill you.” Threats like those have never been considered "free speech." In fact, true threats are a crime. In general, for a comment to qualify as a true threat, it must cause reasonable people to believe that they are going to be physically harmed.
Unfortunately, many colleges -- eager to ban speech that administrators or students do not like -- have latched onto the "threat” exception of the First Amendment to justify banning speech that is not actually threatening (as the term has been defined by the law) but instead is merely offensive to the listener. Redefining a “threat” as anything that offends is a dangerous game that discredits accusers, underestimates students' ability to cope with ideas they dislike, and trivializes the seriousness of actual threats of violence.
The latest example of this disturbing trend comes from William Paterson University, a public university in New Jersey. Jihad Daniel, a master’s student and university employee, privately responded to a mass e-mail message sent by a professor, Arlene Holpp Scala, announcing a campus showing of Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House, a film Scala described as a “lesbian relationship story.” The e-mail provided a link so that recipients could contact Scala. In his response, Daniel, a devout Muslim, wrote, "Do not send me any mail about ‘Connie and Sally’ and ‘Adam and Steve.’ These are perversions. The absence of God in higher education brings on confusion. That is why in these classes the Creator of the heavens and the earth is never mentioned." That is the entirety of his response. All too predictably on the contemporary campus, Scala brought charges against Daniel for making her "feel threatened at [her] place of work." Showing complete disregard of the right to dissent protected under the First Amendment, the university found Daniel guilty of "discrimination" and "harassment."
Scala’s reliance on the claim that she felt “threatened” is especially disturbing. Did she really fear that this 63-year-old man would harm her, just because they disagree about homosexuality? Yes, many people might find Daniels’ opinion offensive, but the expression of a religious opinion is hardly a threat.
Sadly, Daniel’s case is just one example of how threat allegations are abused on campus. For example, Ursula Monaco, a part-time student at Suffolk County Community College, on Long Island, was punished in 2003 for an e-mail message she accidentally sent to her professor in which she referred to the professor as a "cunt." Even though that the e-mail was clearly addressed to someone else and that the First Amendment has no exception for even the c-word, Monaco was found guilty of both “harassment” and “intimidation.”
To clarify, “intimidation” in the legal sense is essentially the same thing as a threat and doesn’t occur any time a person feels intimidated; such a vague and broad standard would devour free speech. According to the Supreme Court, intimidation is “a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Did the Suffolk County professor really believe she was in physical danger because of a single profanity uttered by a 55-year-old grandmother? Unlikely. Yet the administration deemed her guilty of "threatening, intimidating," and "harassing" the professor. Fortunately, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education came to Monaco’s defense. After eight months of corresponding with the college, the administration eventually decided to “suspend” the punishments.
It was clear from the start that Suffolk County’s administration had used the e-mail as a pretext for severely punishing Monaco, who was a student journalist and a persistent critic of the administration. Tellingly, her punishment included being banned from having “any contact with the student newspaper,” and stipulated that she “may not contact the office” of any school paper by “any means, including mail, telephone or e-mail,” that she “may not submit articles” to any college paper, or “propose or suggest an article to anyone associated with a campus newspaper.” She was even banned from “approach[ing] any member of the campus community for the purpose of collecting information with which to write a news article.”
For those familiar with history, there is nothing surprising about people in positions of power using perceived exceptions to free speech to silence vocal critics. In fact, the very predictability that cases like Monaco’s will arise is why we must be careful not to allow legitimate exceptions to free speech, like threats, to grow into amorphous, easily abused concepts.
Students are not the only ones harmed by college administrators’ expansive use of the concept of threats. At the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, a professor, Sandra Bond, was punished by the administration for posting two signs on her office in 2003. One said, "The End is Near," while the other was a K-Mart advertisement for guns and ammunition. The first sign referred to her contract being almost finished and her leaving the university, while she posted the latter because she found K-Mart’s slogan "The Stuff of Life" ironic in an ad for firearms. Bond, who was in her mid-40s -- and who walked with a cane due to multiple sclerosis -- had apparently scared the criminal justice department so badly that she was found guilty of threatening and intimidating the department, and placed on “administrative leave…effective immediately.” They even forbade her from entering her office building without official permission.
Do cases like those at William Patterson, Suffolk and Alaska arise from a pervasive misunderstanding of what "threats" actually mean? The recent case at Washington State University might suggest a more cynical answer. A student, Chris Lee, wrote and produced an intentionally provocative comedy/musical mocking The Passion of the Christ. In the spirit of South Park, the play went out if its way to mock everything from race, to religion, to sexual orientation, to stereotypes themselves. To make sure people knew what they were getting into, the play was widely publicized as being potentially "offensive or inflammatory to all audiences," and identification was checked at the door to prevent those 17 or under from entering.
At the April 21, 2005, performance of the play, approximately 40 student protestors attended. The protestors stopped the play several times with shouts and threats. Unlike those in the cases above, these threats were crystal clear. According to Lee, and a tape of the performance, these threats included, “I kill you,” “You better watch out,” “Get off of there or I’ll mop your fucking head,” “We will get you outside,” and, “We will kill you.” Washington State's security refused Lee’s request to remove the protestors and even told Lee to change the lyrics to one of his songs “to avoid a possible riot or physical harm.” As FIRE wrote at the time, “Washington State security’s obligation was to protect the performance -- not to enforce the will of a mob that it claimed teetered on the brink of violence.”
Surely, Washington State would not tolerate actual unlawful intimidation of a student production. After all, the university had already produced The Vagina Monologues, as well as Tales of the Lost Formicans, which included a depiction of a character masturbating onto an American flag. Certainly, Washington State administrators understood that they must not empower mobs to silence any performances that might offend their sensibilities? Well, they may have understood that, but in this case, they didn’t care. Not only did the president of the university defend the mob’s actions as a “responsible” exercise of their free speech and refuse to reprimand the campus police, but it turns out Washington State actually purchased the tickets for the protestors in the first place!
So in one case a 63-year-old student, and in two others two middle aged women (the taller of the two is 5’4”), are portrayed as placing other adults in mortal terror, while a mob of 40 angry students disrupting a play and shouting death threats is called a “responsible” exercise of free speech!? These kinds of distortions and double standards are all too common on the contemporary campus. The danger posed by the above cases, however, are especially grave. Washington State's reliance on violent mobs to silence social satire is especially chilling and reminiscent of dark chapters in our history. While in cases like Washington State or Suffolk, the administrators seem to fail to understand that by relying on such a loose definition of “threats” they may undermine how seriously the public takes real claims in the future. It may be time for a refresher course in The Boy Who Cried Wolf 101.
Greg Lukianoff and Azhar Majeed
Greg Lukianoff is director of legal and public advocacy of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Azhar Majeed is a second year student at University of Michigan Law School and a summer legal intern for FIRE.
As the academic year unwinds, college administrators across the country anxiously await the inevitable bad news from their campus safety departments. In addition to relatively minor infractions of campus rules and regulations, there will be binge drinking, the plagiarizing of papers, and often much worse, such as acts of physical and sexual violence. It is clear that students who commit serious and violent criminal offenses must be expelled, for the safety and well-being of all. But what of the majority who commit lesser violations of campus or criminal codes? Are we using the best approaches to hold such students accountable for their actions and to meet the needs of harmed parties and the campus community?
Though colleges and universities are generally viewed as forward-thinking, even experimental, campus judicial responses generally rely on uncreative, cookie-cutter sanctions. Judicial officers are overly cautious in response to liability concerns, outcomes are often dissatisfying to victims and offenders in the process, and the system has been unable to change campus cultures dominated by partying. Campus judicial responses are lagging behind the criminal and juvenile justice systems in our society in using new, effective strategies. College campuses are ideal places to develop and test such strategies, but so far our institutions of higher learning have largely stayed out of the loop on this matter.
"Restorative justice" is a new response to offending behavior and the approach has a proven track record in criminal and juvenile justice cases. Not only does it reduce recidivism, but it is widely perceived by offenders and victims as fair and better able to meet their emotional and material needs than traditional retributive responses. Restorative justice approaches to student misconduct are a promising tool that liberal arts colleges such as Skidmore College and large public institutions like the University of Colorado are using effectively to change campus culture.
Restorative approaches call upon offenders, victims, and community members to participate in the decision-making process following a campus violation. Through open dialogue, each participant comes to understand the full impact of the offense, educating the offender about the consequences of his or her behavior. This alone is a powerful device for eliciting sincere expressions of remorse and commitments to right the wrong. Articulating the harm in detail also paves the way for creation of a restorative agreement -- a list of tasks tailored to repair the harm and rebuild the community’s confidence in the offender. Typically, such tasks include apology letters, further research on the impact of the harm, restitution, community service that is linked to the offense, and activities that better integrate the offender into the campus community. At Skidmore, students cannot register for the next semester’s classes until their restorative agreements are completed. This is a direct message that it is up to the offenders to take responsibility not only for their prior misconduct, but also for their future education.
Three cases, drawn from a variety of institutions nationally, help to illustrate this approach. The first involved a group of athletes who stole and made use of disabled parking placards. The incident generated significant ire among the disabled community. A restorative conference was held with the athletes and affected parties, including professors and students with disabilities. The dialogue enabled the athletes to learn the impact of their behavior and reduce the tension between these groups. While the athletes took responsibility for their behavior in several ways, it is notable that a major component of the restorative agreement was a collaboration with educational goals. The athletes and some of those with disabilities agreed to co-produce a video about disability issues and to present workshops during first year student orientation.
The second case was a response to a theft by a drunken student. Walking home from a bar, a student stole a public art object that was part of a citywide project of the local arts council. Participating in the restorative dialogue was the student the local artist, the store owner who sponsored the artist, and the director of the city arts council. Each was able to express how he or she was affected by the theft. By the end of the meeting, the offender committed to completing 100 hours of community service at the arts council, paying the costs of repairing the artwork, helping write a guide to proper conduct for students living off-campus, completing an alcohol use assessment, and organizing an alcohol-free social event on campus. Later, when the case reached the criminal court, the prosecutor and judge were impressed that the campus obligations were more onerous than the fine and probation they intended to impose. Restorative justice, they realized, was not soft on crime.
The third illustrates the use of restorative justice in an academic case, highlighting how the approach is particularly relevant to the educational setting. Here, a student plagiarized a paper, and appeared before a restorative panel to discuss the harmful consequences and create a plan of action. During the discussion the student learned about the disappointment and sense of betrayal expressed by her professor. The panel members were able to learn about the student’s lack of confidence in her ability to write a "college-level paper." The group agreed to a restorative contract that included several items: rewriting the paper to demonstrate a proper use of sources, an apology to the professor, and a presentation to the campus community about academic integrity and how to protect it.
Such examples illustrate the educational nature of the restorative approach, rather than having the response be simply punitive. Students are expected to reflect on the consequences of their actions. They are asked to take active responsibility for making amends. They must demonstrate their ability to be pro-social members of the community. With such an approach, there is rarely a need to suspend students for their misconduct because the response is sufficiently demanding and highly supervised. Students are not let off the hook, but they are not ostracized either. Most often, the best place for them is on campus, facing the problem directly. Campuses can do much more than cut and paste the standard issue disciplinary code. Already, job ads for campus judicial officers are calling for backgrounds in restorative justice, and this is a good sign. Now, all we need are the programs for them to run.
David R. Karp
David R. Karp is an associate professor of sociology and director of the Law and Society Program at Skidmore College.
I’ll be the first to admit that the Internet has proven to be an incredibly democratizing tool in higher education. Typewriters, mimeograph machines, floppy disks (the real ones) -- to me they’re the stuff of legend. Yet I’ve gotten to wondering if a few recent campus incidents haven’t revealed a disturbing problem in the way technology has changed the way we communicate in academe.
As a freshman way back in the technological stone age (the mid 1990s), I can remember professors announcing that we would experiment with e-mail to communicate class announcements -- a totally new concept for teachers who corresponded with family and friends with a pen, not a keyboard, when they were students. From that point on, I’ve enjoyed new technological tools as an undergrad, graduate student, and administrator. The benefits to higher education -- speedy communication, increased access to information, etc. – have been obvious. I for one couldn’t imagine not renewing my library books online, let alone what it must have been like to use a rotary phone in a dorm room.
At the same time, it’s hard not to notice that for many students and faculty members, the Web also provides an open environment to bash, belittle and bemoan. Trivial? Not so much when students utilize these tools to bypass their college communities and create a wholly unproductive debate on some hot-button social topics. The fact that the discussion on these issues has been essentially outsourced to the Internet is, frankly, somewhat troublesome.
Take the case of Ryan Miner, a sophomore at Duquesne University. Miffed at the prospect of a gay/straight student organization forming at the Roman Catholic university, Miner decided to voice his opinion. But instead of seeking a meeting with the organization’s leadership or Duquesne officials to explain why he felt the group didn’t belong at the university, Miner simply posted his comments -- which described homosexual acts “subhuman” – on Facebook.
When fellow students discovered Miner’s post, they brought it to the attention of Duquesne administrators, who in turn alerted the university’s judicial services. A few letters and a hearing later, and Miner is facing possible dismissal from the university. Did Facebook allow for Miner’s opinion to be seen and heard? Absolutely. Did the post accomplish anything positive on either side? Not a single thing. n fact, the medium used to express his opinion only encouraged Miner to be callous and superficial.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with expressing your opinion online. But something gets lost when students decide to drum up support against a campus organization out in cyberspace. The American college campus has been, at its very core, a site for the exchange of views and knowledge -- a utopia for the promotion free expression. Thus, it’s all the more reason, first and foremost, to keep the debate on campus and in person instead of relegating it to the relative ambiguity of the Internet. If Miner would have sat down and spoken with gay students or university administrators, he could have articulated his case respectfully without yielding his position and, maybe, even learned about the issue through the views of others -- an outcome much more likely to occur in person than online. If appreciating differences of opinions and learning to work with others is a prime effort of the “college experience,” then effectively making your argument online by yourself makes zero sense.
Faculty members taking the same steps can be equally as damaging to the campus (not to mention themselves). John Daly, an adjunct professor at Warren County Community College, resigned this month amid the controversy over an e-mail he sent to a student regarding an upcoming symposium supporting the war in Iraq. Instead of taking his qualms to the administration, or seeking a meeting with the student to discuss the situation, Daly simply berated the student in an e-mail. The college specifically stated that Daly's letter was “sent as a one-to-one message, via e-mail, to one person, and not to the college community.” Daly might still have his job if he opened his mouth before punching the keys.
Similarly, University of Kansas Professor Paul Mirecki’s comments about an upcoming course on intelligent design, which he was slated to teach, created a stir on KU’s campus and recently resulted in the cancellation of the class. Mr. Mirecki’s comments, e-mailed to a student listserv, referred to religious fundamentalists as “fundies” and expressed the hope his class would provide “a nice slap in their big fat face.”
By using the Web as the primary vehicle to drive their arguments, Miner, Daly and Mirecki created combative situations that never stood a chance of being heard fairly, equally, and productively from all parties involved. Sure, they expressed their opinions, but this is less about freedom of expression and more about how we communicate with one another responsibly.
If these three cases are any indication of where we are headed, then perhaps there should be a fresh effort to remind students and faculty that their views about campus issues are, at times, better communicated through more traditional means. Colleges have spent a great deal of time and effort attempting to regulate e-mail communication -- why not promote the virtues of face-to-face interaction? Facebook and e-mail have one student close to expulsion, one professor looking for a new job, and another unable to teach a course he created. Would these situations been resolved to everyone’s approval had Miner, Daly and Mirecki rapped on their respective presidents’ doors? Maybe not. But if their views had been channeled on campus -- the place best suited for a fair and informed dialogue -- I’m willing to bet none of the three would be facing the problems they have today.
Robert Steele Jr.
Robert Steele Jr. is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal in Hosty v. Carter lets stand a disastrous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that threatens the autonomy of campus newspapers. And although the decision directly applies only to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, it will be used by public colleges across the country to censor student expression.
The Hosty case dealt with the administration’s prior restraint of a student newspaper at Governors State University, whose officials had been criticized by the publication. But the ruling will have an enormous impact on college students’ rights. The ruling marks the first major backward step in legal protections of the rights of college students, and it may be the start of an ominous trend. If student-funded newspapers can be censored, then so can student-funded speakers. In loco parentis, the legal concept giving administrators the power to regulate college students as a parent controls immature children, is making a comeback for the first time, decades after it was killed in the 1960s.
The global protests over these drawings have given us the horrifyingly un-ironic term “cartoon death count.” But in America, the key question is whether newspapers should print offensive content, especially when that content itself is in the news. Most American newspapers have refused to reprint the cartoons -- despite their importance in the news, claiming that readers can understand the cartoons without seeing the images.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that most of the campus newspapers that have published the Danish cartoons are at public colleges in the Seventh Circuit, including The Daily Illini (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), The Indy (Illinois State University), The Northern Star (Northern Illinois University), The Communicator (Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne), and The Badger Herald (University of Wisconsin at Madison). The Hosty case has raised the awareness of student journalists at these campuses, and perhaps made them more sensitive to issues of freedom of the press that are central to this debate.
Sensitivity is the question at stake with regard to the Danish cartoons. Should we be sensitive to the feelings of Muslims who have a sincere religious opposition to visual depictions of Muhammad? Or should we be sensitive to news values that dictate that our first instinct should never be to conceal something from our readers?
As the author of an article that included the controversial Danish cartoons in The Indy, an alternative newspaper at Illinois State University, obviously I have taken a stand on this question. It’s unfortunate that Muslims are offended by these images. But once anyone’s sense of being offended becomes the standard for determining publication, we will have lost much of the liberty essential for a free press.
The principle of freedom of the press holds that these decisions should be made by individual newspapers without government intimidation. But the Hosty ruling now gives administrators the power to impose bans on cartoons such as this, and we can only imagine how many college newspapers will face censorship -- and how many student editors will think twice about printing a controversial story or cartoon.
Of course, the fact that it is legal to print cartoons doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good idea. However, the attempts to suppress these cartoons by violence and censorship have made this a question of free expression. It is important for journalists to publish these cartoons no matter how offensive they are, to make the point that journalists should not be intimidated. Newspapers have a duty to print offensive images when they are newsworthy, whether these images are offensive cartoons, or Abu Ghraib torture photos, or the bloody victims of suicide bombers. Sensitivity is reflected in how we react to the racism directed at Muslims, not in our willingness to censor news in order to appease religious traditions.
At a time when media consolidation makes the mainstream media more and more reluctant to offend anyone who might threaten the bottom line, student journalists are the ones who can stand in defense of true freedom of the press. The fact that more student editors than professional ones have dared to print the cartoons should be a matter of quiet disgrace -- not for the students, but for the professionals.
But the Hosty case puts liberty of the campus press at risk. Even if few colleges openly crack down on student newspapers, the threat will always be there. And self-censorship is the greatest danger under a repressive regime. In the wake of the Hazelwood decision by the Supreme Court, which now applies in the Seventh Circuit to colleges, the high school press has been devastated by censorship. Principals across the country routinely censor even the most modest attempts at critical journalism, and many more student journalists simply give up because of the knowledge that they are not free to publish important work.
The response to the cartoon has already brought censorship on campuses. In Canada, Saint Mary’s University philosophy professor Peter March posted the cartoons on his office door, prompting the university to ban them. At Century College in Minnesota, an adjunct instructor who posted the cartoons on a bulletin board was told by a department chair not to replace them after they were ripped down. Other have suffered worse consequences. The Danish editors have faced death threats.
Cartoons have often had a remarkable ability to offend, and the right to print offensive images is fundamental to our constitutional rights. In the 1973 case Papish v. Curators of the University of Missouri, a graduate student was expelled for "indecent conduct or speech" because she handed out a newspaper, The Free Press Underground, that showed a cartoon of a policeman raping the Statue of Liberty. The Supreme Court made the case a cornerstone of student rights and ruled, “the mere dissemination of ideas -- no matter how offensive to good taste -- on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’" Now it can be shut off -- for decency, or any other reason.
Cartoons have frequently caused controversy on campus. In 2001, the University of California at Berkeley’s Daily Californian sparked protests because of a cartoon mocking the 9/11 terrorists by depicting them in hell. In 2002, a syndicated Oliphant cartoon showing Muhammed at a cocktail party sparked outrage when Purdue University’s student newspaper printed it. Other cartoons have caused protests or censorship because they mocked university officials or utilized racial stereotypes. In 2005, the University of Illinois’ Daily Illini suspended a cartoonist, Matt Vroom, because of one of his offensive cartoons was deemed anti-Semitic and got published accidentally.
The Daily Illini has also been the focus of debate over publishing the Danish cartoons. After Muslim groups protested the decision, the publisher suspended the editor-in-chief and the viewpoints editor (ostensibly for violating “process” by failing to consult other editors, although it’s hard to imagine any other topic where anyone would object to the viewpoints editor running a column by the editor-in-chief). The Daily Illini followed this up by enacting a new policy banning discussion of the newspaper on blogs by any students who work for the paper.
This incident is particularly troubling because it foretells what could happen to many more editors who dare to offend. The Daily Illini is an independent corporation unaffiliated with the University of Illinois. In theory, this should mean greater freedom. But independence means that these editors have no First Amendment protections against their overseers, as campus newspapers had until the Hosty case. As a former Daily Illini columnist, I can only view with sadness the idea that freedom of the press is being sacrificed at my alma mater on the false altar of religious tolerance.
College administrators have now been given the legal authority to censor any activities funded with student fees, which could have dramatic consequences. If sensitivity to Muslims (or any other group) becomes the prevailing standard, will right-winger Ann Coulter be banned from campuses? Speaking on Feb. 10 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (where Dick Cheney and Bill Frist were also prominent speakers), Coulter declared: “I think our motto should be, post-9/11, raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences." Although Coulter is an ugly racist, her sickening views need to be countered, not prohibited. However, the first step in condemning Coulter is to repeat her horrible words. If we want to condemn someone, whether a cartoonist or a writer, we must first see the work. And then we must understand that critique, not censorship, is the only way to convince people to comprehend the truth.
The College Media Advisers proclaimed in response to the Supreme Court’s refusal to consider an appeal, “It is now all the more imperative that student publications establish clear operating guidelines as designated public forums, if they already haven’t.” The presidents at Illinois State University, the University of Southern Indiana, and the University of Wisconsin at Platteville have signed declarations protecting freedom of the press on their campuses, but according to the Student Press Law Center, more than 75 public colleges in the seventh circuit have taken no action. Advocates of liberty on college campuses need to convince these campuses to protect their student newspapers, and they also need to persuade state legislators to pass “reverse Hosty” laws to protect the rights of students at campuses like Governors State University that will never voluntarily grant First Amendment rights to their students.
Some critics may see the decision by campus newspapers to reprint these cartoons as a good reason to impose more control by administrators over students. But even those who see publishing the cartoons as a terrible error must understand that the liberty to make mistakes is essential in a free society. It is also essential for students to learn. At campus newspapers across the country, the cartoon controversy has been a tremendous learning experience for student editors, whether they decided to print the cartoons or not. They have learned something about Muslims, and about whether it is wise to offend readers. And, sadly, student editors have learned in the past month that freedom of the press is not so secure as they might wish.