David Horowitz's campaign -- posters with names of students and professors backing Israel boycott -- condemned as intimidation and leads to students blocking car carrying president of San Diego State U.
The Emory University community awoke on March 21 to “Trump 2016” and related messages chalked on walkways, stairways, building walls and other places across our campus. Anti-Trump protests followed. Free and open expression is strongly encouraged at Emory, so the chalked endorsements normally would not cause anyone to blink an eye. But, in this case, a particular set of circumstances created a flash point.
News media coverage and even our own campus dialogues have largely essentialized this incident into the right to free speech versus the need for students to be more resilient in coping with an often harsh world. Some argue for the primacy of open expression at any cost, while others insist on the right to feel safe and unthreatened by certain expressions of free speech. In fact, the issues are much more complex, especially with the incident at Emory.
Although the phrase “Trump 2016” in and of itself may seem innocuous to many, in the context of the important work happening on our campus to ensure that every student experiences a sense of belonging, the recent chalkings spurred students to enunciate their claim to an institution in which they can feel like invited guests. Emory students from many backgrounds work hard to make our community better for all by raising our social and political consciousness around the many pressing issues of social justice.
First, protest movements are encouraged and are alive and well on university campuses. Although we have much work ahead at Emory, we have made significant progress by coming together as a university community to address last fall’s demands by the Black Students at Emory movement. Having identified shared concerns, values and passions, we are now positioned to create a more racially just campus community.
Second, some of the chalkings on Emory’s campus were a violation of university policies, certainly not because of the content, but because the chalkings were done in unacceptable locations and without reserving the space. Our guidelines concerning public messaging are crucial to maintaining open expression.
Third, many students who are members of marginalized groups have encountered intolerance much of their lives. These lived experiences inform their campus activism. At Emory, like many other institutions, students have been subjected to bias incidents based on various aspects of their identities, including race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and political views. Such acts -- both overt and subtle -- take a profound toll on students on campuses that they genuinely want to embrace as home and haven.
Many of the same students find themselves serving in leadership roles and contributing their labor to improve our campus social climate, all the while continuing to manage rigorous academic demands.
It is no secret that many people -- across the political spectrum -- have expressed concern that some elements of this year’s presidential campaigns are offensive and prey on public anxieties about America’s changing demographics. The controversial and often vitriolic nature of current political discourse is clearly painful for many people and especially difficult for groups that historically have been marginalized -- groups that include many Emory students.
The intensity, timing and anonymity of the “Trump 2016” chalking incident produced a tipping point. In the context of a college campus, we thrive on open and civil dialogue, inviting even the most controversial perspectives and remarks. The college setting is a laboratory where students may, for the first time, grapple with such issues. Those conversations by their very nature can be difficult and must take place in a safe environment that is inclusive and guided by mutual respect and civility.
Demeaning language and personal threats are counterproductive and undercut the arguments that prioritize open expression, as well as those that call for a more sensitive community.
It is unequivocally wrong to suggest that students who support the Trump 2016 campaign should not have a right to express their support. Similarly, students opposed to the campaign have the right to express their views on what Trump 2016 means to them. One of our fundamental responsibilities as educators is to encourage respectful student activism across the array of complex public issues that challenge our nation and the world.
We must continue to work together at Emory and throughout our society to cultivate an environment in which we respect one another’s views and honor our collective right to express those views -- a community of practice in which discourse in the public square is as civil as it is robust.
Ajay Nair is senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University.
From angry student protests to the backlash that paints them as coddled and pampered, we have reached a watershed moment on college and university campuses across this country as we begin 2016. Empowered and emboldened by their peers at the University of Missouri and many other institutions, students have presented college presidents, faculty members and administrators with lists of demands meant to address discrimination, racism and sexism, and to create more inclusive environments.
Those requests have been wide-ranging: hire more minority faculty, remove the names of donors and patrons implicated in colonialism and racism from buildings, include questions about microaggressions against students in faculty evaluations. And that’s just the short list.
The pushback against these students has been equally lively and includes outright mockery and ridicule -- citing the grammatical errors in a list of demands, for example. Some observers have criticized the students for being too sensitive. The president of one university accused some of them of wanting to “arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn.” Unfortunately, those are precisely the responses we would expect when those with power are being challenged.
But some of the reactions of college administrators and faculty members are well reasoned. Certain things can’t be accomplished within existing faculty governance structures -- or if they can, they will take time. For example, much of the faculty hiring process is well beyond the jurisdiction of students. Colleges and universities have a duty to protect not just students but also faculty members.
Those are, in fact, reasonable responses. But sometimes administrators, faculty members, and other campus leaders have undercut those responses with an air of impatience and frustration: students just don’t get it. They don’t understand how the college or university works. They don’t understand the role of faculty. They don’t understand history.
All of which prompts me to ask, as students return to classes: Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for? Until this past year, our hand-wringing about students focused on their apathy and selfishness. We criticized Millennials for their passivity and lack of empathy. But lately they’ve been standing up, asking questions, criticizing the system and arguing not just for themselves but also on behalf of others. Isn’t this precisely the behavior we wanted?
Certainly, their responses are sometimes naïve, sometimes overly ambitious. They haven’t always reflected the complexities of the higher education environment and its management. But that’s OK. They’re college students. College should be the place where they try on controversial ideas, push the envelope, make demands. And get things wrong sometimes.
What if we -- administrators and faculty members -- leveraged this moment? There is an opportunity here. We have the students’ attention -- perhaps for some less than ideal reasons, but we have their attention nonetheless. The question is, what are we going to do with it?
We could simply rebuff them and say that they need to “humbly learn.” What if, rather than rejecting their ideas outright and saying they just don’t understand how things work, we taught them how the university works, acknowledging that it doesn’t always work well? What if we engaged their demands and told them to bring their critical-thinking skills (which we say we are teaching them in every curricular assessment report I’ve ever read) to bear on the situation?
To take just one example: the historian in me can’t help but wonder what would happen if we harnessed the student critique of donors, patrons, named buildings and the like to examine our institutional histories. I’m envisioning a series of conversations among faculty members, students and administrators that explored the lives of the historical figures whom students find controversial and whose names they want erased from the institution. Rather than dismissing such demands out of hand as too sensitive or misinformed, we should use students’ demands and critiques to further their education and the cultivation of critical-thinking skills.
What if professors and students engaged in the process of curricular design to increase the diversity of course offerings? We could harness student enthusiasm for particular issues and topics and involve them in the research and work necessary to guide curricula in new directions.
What if we pulled back the curtain and let students see what shared governance and the administration of higher education looks like? I’ve mentioned a university’s obligation to protect its faculty members -- which to students often sounds like an excuse for inaction. But what if we invited them to participate in a series of conversations about academic freedom and what it protects?
Even as I pose these questions, I know why we haven’t done it yet. Digging deep into the past of our institutions’ donors and patrons might result in some uncomfortable discoveries. It might even incite the removal of those names from our campus buildings. Involving students in curricular design would mean exposing our teaching and pedagogy. And a conversation about academic freedom? I can’t even get my colleagues to have such a discussion among themselves, much less with students and administrators.
The reason we hesitate is because these protests and these demands, even when they are naïve and even when they overreach, challenge our power and authority. But that’s just it: we have the power and the authority in this situation. And without perhaps fully realizing it, our students may be asking us to use it in the service of their education. Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for?
Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Honors College and Mandel Professor in Humanities at Cleveland State University and vice president of the teaching division of the American Historical Association. She blogs at Tales Told Out of School.
Not surprisingly, the news media are reporting the incident as a violation of freedom of the press, and they may be right. But there are boundaries when it comes to media access on campus, and it's worth discussing them.
Years ago when I was an administrator at the University of Michigan, we had a horrific incident in which a student living in graduate student housing was stabbed to death by her live-in boyfriend. The assailant followed her out of the apartment and finished his attack outside in the yard in full view of the residents, many of whom had families with children. The sensational nature of the crime led to an embankment of satellite trucks, cameras and reporters in the grassy area outside the apartments, many of whom shone lights on and took up camera angles that looked right into the apartment windows of nearby residents.
We did not feel we could remove them because this was a major news story and because Michigan is a public university. But after the disaster was over, we began to question our decision making. Was it really reasonable to allow families to have their homes intruded on in this way? Could we not set reasonable and respectful boundaries?
I remember another circumstance when, after the Sept. 11 attacks, students were holding a candlelight vigil to grieve and express their sorrow. That created powerful visuals for the media, who again showed up in droves. The cameras sometimes positioned themselves inches from a crying student's face. Purely on compassionate grounds, that would seem to be an unreasonable invasion of privacy. But where to draw the line? Would it be OK for cameras to record the vigil but from a reasonable distance? How much personal space is sufficient?
Yet another ambiguous circumstance occurs when student reporters have access to potential sources in situations that are normally shielded from the media. Is it OK for student reporters to interview students in their dorm who are grieving over a fellow student who has died? Can they take pictures for publication in spaces that are normally off-limits to the public?
For public institutions funded by taxpayers, the presumption should be for access. But, even there, limits can be set. Conversely, private institutions have more latitude to restrict media access, but it is not always in their best interest to exercise that right. Many private colleges have a "public square" space where events and protests more frequently occur, and they often grant journalists broader access to those spaces than to private campus buildings.
In the aftermath of the stabbing death at Michigan, a group of us who worked at the university got together to create some clear policies around media access. We consulted many experts, including lawyers and those who advise the student media. In the end, we formalized and disseminated a set of guidelines that could help everyone make better decisions, rather than acting in the heat of the moment.
We shared the guidelines with media outlets regularly covered the university, including the student newspaper. We educated student groups that might be in the news about both access and boundaries. And when we knew big events were coming up that would attract media (such as the Sept. 11 vigil), we reached out in advance to remind reporters of our policies. All of this proactive work led both to more access when it was warranted and to better adherence by the media to reasonable boundaries.
Michigan's guidelines have been updated periodically over the years, but the core ideas have remained consistent. The presumption is for access, and the university typically allows all media such access in outdoor campus spaces and inside events that are open to the public.
However, some clear exceptions are spelled out. Among other situations, media access may be limited in:
Clinical or waiting areas where counseling or medical care is being provided, in order to protect patient privacy
Student housing areas including courtyards, lounges and other places where people may have a reasonable expectation of privacy
Classrooms when class is in session
Libraries, museums and other areas where quiet study is enforced or collections may be damaged by media equipment
Private functions that are by invitation only
Active crime scenes or areas deemed to be unsafe (such as after a fire or earthquake).
If your campus has not created such guidelines, I encourage you to do so and to consult widely, using this as an opportunity to have a thoughtful conversation about your college or university’s particular culture, values and reasonable boundaries. It is more helpful to have the discussion before you are in the midst of an incident where emotions are running high and people may act without thinking.
In addition, I recommend that campuses provide guidance to student groups and their advisers about interacting with the media. You can use development of media access policies as a hook for a discussion with students.
You can also watch for student groups that emerge in the news and get to them early in the cycle with expert counsel and an offer of support. During my time at Michigan, we frequently did this through a close partnership between the communications office and student affairs.
All of this proactive work will help you get through the moments when your campus is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. By the time the satellite trucks show up, it may be too late.
Julie Peterson is a consultant focused on strategic communication and leadership development in higher education. She previously served as vice president for communications at the University of Chicago and in a variety of leadership roles at the University of Michigan.