The letter arrived on my desk on the first day of my first year as head of Bard College at Simon's Rock. Four juniors and seniors, who claimed to speak for the student body at large, objected strongly to a new college policy -- and threatened a sit-in that Friday night if the administration did not respond satisfactorily to their demands.
The issue? Library hours. Students were upset by a plan to close the building on Saturdays.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Simon's Rock is an early college; we accept bright, highly motivated students after the 10th or 11th grades. We emphasize the life of the mind – and as I was about to be reminded, our students take learning seriously.
Like most colleges, especially small ones, Simon’s Rock tries to economize wherever we can without hurting our core mission. Following the departure of a library staff member, colleagues and I decided to close the facility on Saturdays, a day it typically sees light use. We thought it was an easy trim – students have plenty of other options for quiet study spaces on weekends.
The students who wrote had a very different notion. Their letter – thoughtfully composed, beautifully written, and cogently argued -- contended that the library was, in fact, a hub of college life. To close it on Saturdays, especially without having consulted students, would be a grievous mistake. The letter took pains to assure me that students understood the need for painful choices in uncertain financial times. The authors also made clear they intended their letter with great respect and hoped to enter into a dialogue with the administration about how best to serve the needs of the entire community.
And then it concluded with the statement that, if discussions did not lead to the library being open at least some of Saturday, the students were prepared to lead a peaceful sit-in on Friday evening.
I read the letter with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was delighted not just by the eloquence of students’ objection to the closure but also by the importance they attached to their cause. College students ready to sit in for more time in the library? Really? How could I object? After all, the enthusiasm for learning at Simon’s Rock is what made me want this job in the first place.
But I was also piqued that students had planned a sit-in even before asking for a meeting. Real dialogue is an honest conversation in which both parties are prepared to change their minds, not a negotiation coerced by a display of power.
The standoff, I’m happy to say, ended amicably after a few hasty conversations. The head of the library and the dean of academic affairs arranged for coverage of the library for five hours on Saturdays to begin the semester. In addition, I promised (in best administrative style) “to review the library’s role in the academic life of the campus as the semester proceeds and to modify this arrangement as necessity demands.” The authors of the letter called off the sit-in. The semester has begun without further incident.
I am glad that this first potential fracas resolved itself so cordially. And I have taken from the event a few lessons that will help guide my work in the months ahead.
Say yes when you can so you can say no when you have to. Leaders, especially new ones, should take every opportunity they can to bank goodwill.
It would have been inadvisable simply to reinstate the status quo and keep the library open all day Saturday. But it made great sense to find an inexpensive way to make the facility available for part of the day. There'll be other times when I have to refuse student requests.
Look for common ground not just in practice but in principle. Wrangling over details is no picnic, but it's easier if you can affirm shared goals. In my response to the students, I stressed my strong agreement with the conviction that inspired their letter: that the preservation of the academic program had to be our first priority. Even if students didn't get everything they wanted, they at least knew I sympathized with their point of view.
Remember that it’s not about you. A former colleague used to say that the best advice he got about leadership was “Don’t be the show.” He’s right. Sometimes you're at your best when you're seen and heard the least. A few days after I replied to the students who had written me, they announced they were discontinuing the sit-in. They also made their letter available to the faculty -- without including my response. At first, I was disappointed. No one would know I had said yes when I could; no one would realize I had sought common ground in principle as well as in practice! I soon realized, however, that none of that was relevant. What mattered is that the life of the college went on uninterrupted, and students were talking, thinking, reading and researching. Even on Saturdays.
Oh yes, and I learned one other, very important lesson from this first-day tempest. At Simon’s Rock, you don’t mess with the library.
Peter Laipson is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon's Rock.
I was in college and graduate school for nearly ten years, and in that time I must’ve had 1,000 different people tell me, “Wait until you graduate and go out in the real world,” or “Graduating next year, huh? You’ll finally be in the real world.” And every time I heard such stupidity I wanted to slam a pie in the speaker’s face. Even toward the end of my Ph.D. program, when I was working 70 hours a week and earning $20,000 a year, an occasional nitwit would say something like, “Well the party’s almost over; time for the real world.”
The collegiate fairy tale myth supposes that I spoiled myself in early adulthood by avoiding “work” and going to college. Presumptuous garbage. Like my students today, I had in college an enormous and time-sensitive workload, social pressures, empty pockets, and little sense of physical continuity. Any psychiatrist will tell you that moving domiciles is one of the most stressful life events that humans experience, and yet we make college students move around like carnies, in and out of dorm rooms, and perhaps urging them to relocate to off-campus housing as upperclassmen. On September 13, the fraternity house of Pi Kappa Alpha at the University of Maine, where I teach, was condemned and 22 students were tossed out. My, how lucky they are to know nothing of real-world pressure!
College years are exciting and liberating, certainly, but they are also a time of myriad deadlines, limited self-efficacy, and a tightrope of time management. I met a college student a few years ago wearing a shirt popular among his classmates that read: “The University of Chicago: Where Fun Goes to Die.” While I doubt this elite institution resembles the Gulag, I did believe the young man when he told me that University of Chicago students are worked like dogs.
Not as a college student, but rather now, as a professor, I’m living the dream. I make a fair wage, have strong benefits, and get over three months a year to work almost exclusively on my own research projects. I wear jeans to the office and shave only when I’m bored. I feel no shred of guilt for such freedom; I didn’t start earning a livable wage until I was almost 30, and the creative flexibility of the professor’s life is what I toiled a decade for. I still work very hard, but I’m paid for it now, and the professional stress I feel is not at the unsustainable decibel that nagged me as an undergraduate.
Nostalgia is a sexy elixir, and it often blurs our recollection of distress as opposed to eustress. Eustress represents life pressures that motivate us and are pro-social, like a manageable work deadline or the tug on our conscience to exercise a few times a week. Distress is harmful pressure that causes us to lose sleep, eat or fast in unhealthy patterns, or exhibit short tempers. When many middle-agers compare their current lives with their college years, they do so while remembering their youthful distress as eustress, and by mislabeling many of their current positive pressures as atypical distress.
The stereotypes that college years are marked by experimentation with substances and sexual precocity do bear some truth, and these pleasures are what many Americans care to remember about their time in the academy, but the idea that college is a low-stress, light-work period is a damn lie.
Young Americans don’t go to college to avoid work. They work hard in college so they have a shot at earning a modestly rewarding living. Unfortunately for these young aspirants, they’re slogging toward a labor market that older generations of Americans have sullied. Rather than insulting college students by suggesting that they don’t know what hard work is, older Americans might instead consider apologizing for the pathetic employment market staring down graduates in this country.
The students I teach are professional jugglers who make a Cirque du Soleil show look like a barn dance. Among them they’re balancing academic course loads, community service, part-time or even full-time jobs, loan debt, athletic training and competition, transient housing situations, along with some of life’s other gems like a sick parent, a sibling in Afghanistan, or an unplanned pregnancy.
One of the primary reasons educated Americans are such successful professionals is that the college years are hard. “The real world” isn’t so daunting to college graduates because they’ve already spent four or five years in it. The deadlines they face are very real, and I know this because I rigidly impose some of them, and my students know that the word “dead” is in deadline for a reason. I don’t go easy on my students, but I also don’t belittle the loads they carry. College students in the U.S. are impressive people, and their hard work should be praised, not demeaned.
Justin D. Martin
Justin D. Martin is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin