From Strength to Strength

To promote real growth by students, colleges need to stop helping them avoid everything that dismays or offends, writes Judith Shapiro.

December 15, 2014
Protest of Confederate flag at Bryn Mawr

It should not be controversial to believe that growing up involves becoming stronger, becoming better able to withstand whatever slings and arrows life throws at us and to pursue our goals even against difficult challenges. Surely the college years can and should play an important role in that growing-up process.

And yet, too often colleges treat their students like hatchlings not yet ready to leave the nest, as opposed to preparing and encouraging them to fly.

There are a variety of policies and practices that give students what most of them seem to want, but not necessarily what they most need. Speech codes and trigger warnings are two over-protecting initiatives that have received considerable attention in the higher education press and beyond. 

So much has been written about the problems with speech codes that there is no need to belabor the subject at this point.  Aside from the legal problems they can present with regard to free speech issues, especially in public higher education, they presume that students cannot withstand, much less respond with vigor to, speech they find objectionable.  They also serve as an example of how formal codes and policies are no substitute for shared norms and values concerning how people should behave with one another.

The trigger warning movement, which has offered another field day for those on the lookout for opportunities to ridicule colleges and universities, advocates alerting students in advance to anything potentially upsetting in materials required for a course. Above and beyond being forewarned, some students would presumably be allowed to avoid an encounter with such materials altogether. Aside from this being an insult to the intelligence and good sense of students and faculty members alike, it also threatens to spoil the thrill of discovery.  After all, would all first-time readers of Anna Karenina really want to be told ahead of time that [SPOILER ALERT!!] Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a train at the end of the novel.

And then there is the rash of speaker cancellations due to student unwillingness to be exposed to “objectionable” views from a guest to the campus. Part of this particular problem might be addressed by recognizing that an essentially ritual occasion like a graduation ceremony may not be the best venue for a controversial, as opposed to celebratory, message. That issue taken care of, it should be easier to push back on other occasions against students who are being overly selective in their defense of free speech.

Student reactions to displays of racial insensitivity and prejudice can be considered in this context. The persistence of racism in our society and on our campuses is most certainly disturbing and unacceptable. At the same time, while a couple of students hanging a Confederate flag in their dormitory window or some students sending anonymous offensive tweets should not go without some critical response, incidents like these do not seem sufficient to put an entire campus into a state of turmoil. Surely, that is attributing too much power to the offenders and displaying too much vulnerability on the part of those they would offend.

It is important to consider which institutional customs may be at odds with the task at hand. There is, for example, the practice that has become common of designating certain areas of campus as “safe spaces” for certain kinds of activities and identities. Such language goes above and beyond the informal establishing of preferred comfortable gathering spaces. The implication is that certain students, depending on their identities or preferred activities, are “unsafe” on other areas of campus. This magnifies the sense of personal danger out of all proportion and interferes with students’ appreciation of what it means to be in real peril. It is an obstacle to the development of authentic courage.

The exponential growth of professional student services staff – which, to be sure, has had its positive side – has played into a tendency toward what we might see as self-infantilization on the part of students, who are now in the habit of seeking formal institutional support and approval for the kinds of activities they used to be capable of managing themselves. The most unusual example of this in my own years as a college president occurred when a student came to me seeking institutional recognition for the group she represented, which, as it happened, was composed of students favoring safe, consensual S&M sex. I inquired as to why it was not sufficient that her group was not being interfered with by the administration. That was apparently not good enough for her: she wanted a blessing from those in authority. I declined to provide the blessing, preferring to encourage her to see that she could manage without it.

This support-seeking seems to be of a piece with the prolonged umbilical role that many students maintain with their parents into their college years, calling them several times a day on their cellphones. The parents, for their part, remain overly involved with their children – at least those parents whose life circumstances allow them to do so.  And so we have socialization in reverse: rather than helping their offspring achieve adulthood, those who should be the grown-ups are living the lives of their children along with them. Parental over-involvement can make the institutional exercise of authority all the more challenging when it rises to (or descends into) litigiousness.

So -- whose responsibility is it to address this and other aspects of campus culture that stand in the way of students developing the kind of resilience and strength that they need in life? First and foremost, this job, like so many other tough and often thankless tasks, falls to college and university presidents. A job far easier to assign than to fulfill. 

Those of us who have moved on to less complicated lives must at least have the good grace to feel their pain. The task, however, must be taken up if the undergraduate experience is to be what it should be. Where presidents lead, staff will follow – and so even will the faculty, if a persuasively argued connection is made to the essential purposes of the institution.

Here, then, are the questions that must frame a president’s response when one of those increasingly common eruptions breaks out on campus:  How high does this measure on the Richter scale of crises? How can I respond in a way that plays to my students’ strengths as opposed to their weaknesses? How can this serve as an occasion to increase their wisdom and self-confidence?  How will I help them to grow up?

To invoke the timelessly wise words of the Rolling Stones: If students can’t always get what they want, if we try sometimes, we might just find they get what they need.



Judith Shapiro is a former faculty member and provost at Bryn Mawr College and former president of Barnard College.



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