Student affairs / student services

Essay on why Occupy movement disrupts speakers on campus

Colleges and universities increasingly face tough decisions regarding how to deal with manifestations of the growing Occupy movement on their campuses. We are all now well aware of the intense negative press the University of California at Davis and its chancellor, Linda Katehi, received after a group of peacefully seated protesters were pepper-sprayed by a campus police officer. Since then, new incidents have made headlines: Students associated with the Occupy movement have been disrupting public presentations by academics, activists, and politicians (most of whom identify as conservative). The protesters delivered messages or rebuttals to the person on stage using a practice called "the human microphone." The human microphone amplifies a speaker’s voice by having many people repeat the speaker's words in unison. The speaker initiates the practice by calling out "mic check" and the speaker’s fellow protestors demonstrate that they are ready to act by repeating "mic check." The chorus then repeats the speaker's words one sentence at a time. This practice — which originated as means to communicate at Occupy encampments where electronic amplification was forbidden — has become an important and recognizable symbol of the movement.

A recent news article in Inside Higher Ed reports on several such instances occurring on university campuses. The article’s author, Allie Grasgreen, notes many people believe that the Occupy tactic of mic checking powerful speakers is tantamount to "censorship." This common assertion shares the logic of the demands made by Karl Rove when he was mic-checked at John Hopkins University: "If you believe in free speech and you have a chance to show it ... if you believe in the right of the First Amendment to free speech … then you demonstrate it by shutting up and waiting until the Q&A session … Line up behind the mic…."

But Grasgreen and Rove both miss the point. Occupiers are trying to demonstrate — through the very performance of this act — that "free speech" is not evenly distributed. The point is that only the 1 percent ever find themselves at the podium. The 99 percent are left to fill the seats in the audience, and, if they are lucky, they may have the chance to do as Rove commands and line up behind the mic for a few brief seconds in the spotlight. This is, of course, because the opportunity to speak and to be heard is inextricable from issues of wealth and power. The few who hold these assets in abundance have more purchasing power in the attention economy. K Street is nothing if not an industrialized machine for converting money and power into speech that will be heard. Sure, we all may have "free speech," but as George Orwell quipped in Animal Farm, "some animals are more equal than others."

When universities intervene to stop these protest actions, administrators tend to portray the institution as an impartial moderator attempting to uphold free speech for all political groups. Yet, these administrators fail to grasp the extent to which their own notions of free speech are politicized. Freedom of speech, like all freedom, has many dimensions and gradations. When we say "free speech," of course, we really mean "free political speech." The current discourse surrounding "free speech," as it pertains to the Occupy movement, has been cast in a radically conservative tone: It is backward-looking, toward the white, male, and aristocratic thinkers of the Enlightenment, who did not have to worry about power because they already had it. Yet, without attention and access, free speech is wholly inconsequential. Unfortunately, the contemporary public discourse has inherited a tendency is to assume that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we all somehow have equal access to the public sphere.

For political speech to be meaningful, it requires attention, which is a finite resource — and, a resource that has been highly marketized. Attention goes to the highest bidder — the person with most economic, social, cultural, or symbolic capital to trade. The attention economy is an ever-shifting field where those already in power seek to consolidate their position by establishing exclusionary practices that distinguish them from others and continue to draw attention their way. Those who control institutions get to write the rules and the rules will always ensure that they are heard at the expense of others. Only those at the very top have the luxury of (naïvely) assuming their speech is interpreted on its own intrinsic merits. And, this elite benefits when others embrace this same power-blind ideology. As a result, C.W. Mills observed long ago in The Power Elite, "American men of power tend, by convention, to deny that they are powerful." The world is not flat, and those at the top of the hill have an easier time projecting their voices. And, while universities certainly tolerate a few of what Patricia Hill Collins called "outsiders within" — who speak on behalf of the 99 percent — we should not fall into the trap of confusing the exception for the rule.

The current debate surrounding Occupy’s mic-check tactic is in desperate need of an updated notion of free speech that accounts not only for negative freedom (i.e., freedom from constraints) but also for positive freedom (i.e., freedom to be recognized) as well. That is to say, for the right to free (political) speech to have a practical significance, it must also imply a right of equal access to the public sphere. Of course, there are practical limits to equal access. Attention given to one individual or group usually comes at the expense of attention to others. But what the Occupy movement seems to be rejecting is the current (arguably anti-democratic) reality where distribution of access is left to be determined by market forces. Occupiers are struggling for the democratization of political speech. The primary purpose of Occupy’s use of the human microphone at public speaking events is not to disrupt, but to be heard. It is not an assault on free speech but a tactic for obtaining it.

The logic of this debate over access and control extends beyond issues of free speech and the human microphone. Political opponents have made similar criticisms of the Occupy movement's tactic of indefinite encampment on (often privately owned) public spaces. These detractors have argued that by camping in a public space, Occupiers are, simultaneously, denying others the freedom to use that space. Again, this concept of freedom is blind to power. Like speech, space is not evenly distributed. If the mic-check tactic aims at the democratization of speech, encampments aim at the democratization of space. Occupiers are protesting a society in which the town square has given way to the shopping mall.  The encampments are, in part, a statement about the forfeiture of public space to the private sector — that is, out of the hands of the 99 percent and into the hands of the 1 percent. Absence of public space precludes public assembly. The thought of protests on Las Vegas’ sidewalk-less strips is difficult to entertain. As such, claims that the encampments constitute a denial of their freedom to assemble (especially when articulated by those who already control the vast majority of the space) ring hollow.

Beyond the fact that university administrators are using politically charged interpretations of freedom to justify their crackdown on protests, the underlying motivations of the institutional actors are also suspect. Though administrators have a tendency to try to positively spin crackdowns by valorizing the police who interrupt these mic checks as defenders of free speech, such claims are naïve, if not outright deceptive. The real reason why universities break up these actions is because they want to preserve and protect the routine operation of the bureaucracy; it has little to do with freedom and is, instead, about rationalization (what sociologist Max Weber described as the tendency of Modern bureaucratic institutions to value efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control above all else). Universities are frightened that speakers might back out or avoid their campus if they develop a reputation for disorder. The primary stakes for universities are prestige and profit, not freedom and democracy. We should not conflate the maintenance of order and the protection of institutional reputation (zwecktrational action) with struggles motivated by the pursuit of an abstract ideal of freedom (wertrational action).

Both administrators and journalists will sound hopelessly out of touch as long as they continue to apply to Occupy the very concept of freedom that the movement is criticizing. Occupy affirms what Cicero observed long ago: "Freedom is participation in power." While this aphorism may be a bit simplistic, it is certainly true that a concept of freedom that is blind to power merely serves to reinforce it.

PJ Rey is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park. He currently is working on theoretical issues pertaining to social media, including the blending of online/offline, the cultural implications of visibility and digital labor.

Essay on lack of understanding between academic and student affairs

I’m beginning to think academic affairs leaders are from Mars and student affairs leaders are from Venus. Imagine the following scenario:

A vice president for academic affairs and a vice president for student affairs arrive at the student union for lunch, each carrying a book camouflaged in brown paper. The two make small talk and greet students they know who are relaxing with their peers. Then the conversation takes a turn. The vice president for academic affairs opens his book to a page marked with a tape flag and comments, "Look at this. All that crap you have been talking about on student engagement? Here it says that not only does it not contribute positively to learning, it degrades learning!"

The vice president for student affairs, mildly taken aback, quickly recovers and, whipping out her brown paper-covered book says, "Yes, and did you notice that it’s the faculty whose low expectations and lack of rigor by not assigning enough reading and writing is the real problem?  That’s why our students are not learning as much as they should!"

A student nearby was listening to the exchange. The two vice presidents quickly turn and ask a nearby student listening to the exchange, “And what do you think?”

“Don’t you get it?” responds the student. “College is about more than just classroom assignments or activities outside of class.”

“Then, what do you think it’s about?” the academic VP inquires.

The student affairs VP, eagerly awaiting vindication, smiles at the student, only to hear the reply, “I don’t know. I’m just repeating what I heard in orientation.”

As you probably already guessed, the camouflaged book is Academically Adrift, and -- whether its research is on target or not -- it has focused attention on the incongruence of what we say we do and what we really do in colleges and universities. In theory, the “good” news is that everyone is to blame if students are not attaining a quality education, including students.

Let’s assume that students who enter college expect a return on their investment -- they want to get what they’ve been promised. What are the responsibilities of academic and student affairs to deliver on the promises? Certainly academic learning, career preparation, skill development, and the development of habits that lead to personal and social responsibility are all part of the mission of higher education. The burden of delivering on these promises falls on both the academic and student affairs sides of the equation.

Instead of pointing fingers and nodding in agreement with the parts of the book that seem to vindicate a particular point of view, the book’s message should serve as a wake-up call for all parties.  It’s time to move beyond talking, accept responsibility, and take action.

For those in student affairs, it’s time to stop saying that our programs complement the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom when at too many campuses student affairs has no relationship with the faculty and no idea about what the student’s experience is in the classroom.

A student affairs colleague at one university told me about a meeting with a group of residence hall directors and their supervisors that included much complaining about the lack of faculty appreciation. He asked the group if they knew the graduation requirements for their students. The response: silence – and then an embarrassed awareness of their lack of knowledge. He added that he’s also asked staff to indicate the amount of time in their weeklong training sessions for residential directors and residential advisers that is allocated to addressing the academic mission of the institutions. He reported, “I’ve yet to have a staff find more than an hour or two that does that.  We in student affairs are too often not really in touch with the primary mission of our institution — the earning of an academic degree.”

Student affairs professionals cannot complement what goes on in the classroom if they do not know what is being taught or what students are expected to learn.

At the same time, faculty members have vague and usually inaccurate ideas about the programs and activities in student affairs. They accept the stereotype and paint student affairs with the old brush of party people, babysitter, and balloon people. Commented a student affairs administrator who conducts a session each fall with faculty members about dealing with challenging students and creating connections and relationships to enhance learning, “The discussion always goes back to ‘How can I teach them?’ They truly don’t know and no one is answering these questions for them.  It’s an opportunity for us to help.”

Still another colleague shared that at her university, the debate over learning assessments has unfortunately stopped earnest efforts to actually measure learning. The time has come to stop permitting disdain for metrics. Faculty members who refuse to consider expanding learning outcomes beyond the discipline and assert that to address learning outcomes will diminish the objectives of teaching are doing a tremendous disservice to their students and the parents of those students, short- and long-term.

The truly good news is that there are some bright spots on the horizon. At the University of the Pacific, student affairs leaders are encouraged to teach academic courses, and most do – and not just in graduate programs in education. The retention task force at the University of Puget Sound includes student affairs professionals and faculty members, and the collaboration has reportedly increased appreciation on both sides. Student affairs now has a greater understanding of the impact of faculty on the lives of students, and faculty members are informed advocates for student affairs.

We can no longer afford to toss barbs at each other across a chasm. Faculty and student affairs need to reconnect the programs and activities outside the classroom to the intellectual and ethical purposes of higher education.

College is about more than just classroom assignments or activities outside of class, but we need to walk this talk with which we orient students when they enter college as hopeful learners.

Gwen Dungy is executive director of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Dean of students

Date Announced: 
Thu, 12/15/2011

Colleges announce commencement speakers

Smart Title: 

The following colleges and universities have announced their commencement speakers for spring 2012:

UC Riverside protest guidelines trouble students, faculty

Smart Title: 

University of California says it embraces peaceful protest. Students and faculty say new rules at Riverside suggest otherwise.

Dean College uses video to identify, expel students in fight

Smart Title: 

After video surfaces online, Dean College officials expel students who attacked a peer on campus in broad daylight, along with those who witnessed the altercation and did nothing.

UMass Amherst Occupy protest resembles Irvine case

Smart Title: 

Occupy movement's orchestrated disruption of lecture resembles controversial 'Irvine 11' case, but ends in no arrests.


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