Essay on why colleges shouldn't worry about tents

Like college professors across the country, last week I witnessed the sprouting of tents on the campus quad. That can mean only one thing: It's time for that time-honored Juniata College tradition known as "tenting."

Every year Juniata students unwind before final exams with a holiday celebration known as Madrigal. The professors serve the students a formal dinner and then everyone sings Christmas carols. The highlight of the evening is singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but the honor of singing the linchpin five-golden-rings verse goes to the group of students that was first in line to buy their tickets. Which brings me back to tenting. To be first in line for the golden tickets, students pitch tents on the quad weeks before they go on sale. As it turns out, the most exciting part of Madrigal is the ritual of tenting that precedes it, which is replete with zany ceremonies and harmless tomfoolery.

Students across the country are also setting up tents on their campus quads, but their reasons are not nearly as quaint as they are here at Juniata. Instead, they are the latest foot soldiers in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Colleges and universities across the country could learn a lot from Juniata’s decades-long tenting tradition.

For starters, instead of fighting the tents, colleges should embrace them. And there is certainly no need for campus police to respond with pepper spray to disperse peaceful student protesters.

But why? Peaceful protesting is a rite of passage on college campuses. Whether or not you agree with any of the myriad complaints levied by the diverse and disorganized Occupy movement, letting students take a stand builds character. As an undergraduate in the early 1990s, I spent a night on the campus quad in a makeshift shanty as part of an effort to get the board of trustees to divest from investments in companies doing business in South Africa. These sorts of protests help student hone their social consciousness — an essential ingredient of good citizenship. Heavy-handed police response, on the other hand, can diminish students’ faith in authority and their trust in government.

Like police forces across the country that have been cracking down on Occupiers’ tent cities, UC-Davis officials cited safety concerns for the forced evictions. I’m not buying it. Juniata students have been constructing tent fortresses in preparation for Madrigal for years and there have been no major safety issues. Juniata College is proof that tenting can be done peacefully and safely, as is Duke University’s annual tent city – nicknamed “Krzyzewskiville” for the famed coach – consisting of basketball fans who want to get a jump on tickets.

Before the mass evictions at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, the Occupy protestors offered to meet with city officials to address any safety concerns. Their offers fell on deaf ears. If safety was their true concern, city officials should have at least tried to work with the protesters first to figure out if there was a way to address them. Likewise, UC-Davis officials should have worked with the protestors and campus police to ensure student safety. It seems like the biggest safety concern stemming from the UC-Davis incident came directly from the police.

The real aim at UC-Davis and at other colleges and city halls across the country seems to be the elimination of an eyesore or — worse yet — the suppression of free speech and free assembly. Colleges and universities should be the champions of the free expression of ideas and should welcome student tenting — whether the goal is to incite social change or to get the good seats for Madrigal.

Dennis Plane is associate professor of politics at Juniata College.

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Why Occupy Colleges?

At noon Wednesday, thousands of college students from at least 75 colleges walked out of class as part of Occupy Colleges, which is the collegiate version of Occupy Wall Street. Students are angry and they want to show their support for the 99 percent of American citizens whom they feel are being ignored by our political leaders and fleeced by Wall Street. Given the Arab Spring and the unrest caused by the youth in these countries, is it surprising that America could be on the brink of a College Fall?

They are angry about the debt that many of them must obtain to go to college and that their employment opportunities look vastly different from the way they did in the fall of 2007. They are stunned by the lack of economic progress over the last three years. Certainly a freshman in the fall of 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed, thought that things would be fixed by the time he graduated from college.

They are angry that many will need to live with their parents for years after they graduate, and their parents are not so happy either. They are frustrated that they are going to be stuck paying down the national debt that has gone from approximately $5 trillion in 2000 to nearly $15 trillion today. They know that Social Security and Medicare will be vastly different for them than for their parents and grandparents. They are wondering why society is making them pick up the check when they were not even invited to have dinner at the restaurant. They feel as though their future has been mortgaged for the benefit of the Wall Street elite and the baby boomers.

In 2009, the average college debt for a graduating senior with debt was $24,000. Outstanding student loan debt exceeded credit card debt for the first time in 2010. Interestingly, all consumer credit outstanding -- mortgage, home equity, auto loans and credit cards -- has declined by about 4 percent to 20 percent since the fourth quarter of 2008, with one exception: student loan debt is up 25 percent over that period. A 2008 study indicated that seniors graduated with an average of more than $4,100 in credit card debt and that nearly 20 percent had credit card debt in excess of $7,000.

College costs, just like healthcare, have had a shocking multidecade rise in cost that is more than double the inflation rate. College students are graduating into the worst job market since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate for young college graduates reached an all-time high in 2009 and has not been reduced much since then. Many are being forced to take jobs for which they are overqualified, so we see a business student working as a waitress or a law school graduate tending bar.

We should not underestimate the power of these “Occupy” grassroots movements. Our youth could channel their anger into a potent political force. Like Hosni Mubarak, the elites run the risk of underestimating the power of a large number of unemployed and underemployed educated young citizens armed with social media weapons to inflict significant damage. This Occupy movement could be 2012's answer to the Tea Party revolution of 2010. As I recall, the media and the political experts also underestimated the power of the Tea Party during its early days.

Of course they are angry — wouldn’t you be angry if you were graduating in the fall of 2012 with more than $30,000 in debt and fearing that you may not be able to find a job? These student protests are a call for help from our leaders. Will our leaders hear them, understand them and help them?

John Pelletier
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A Sit-In Threat on Day One

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
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Peter Laipson is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon's Rock.

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