Guns in Higher Ed

Just a Shot Away

Guns on campuses make the vulnerable even more vulnerable, argues Philip Nel. They uphold established systems of power: white supremacy, patriarchy and the privilege of the tenured.

April 12, 2016

Shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre, a mentally disturbed former student of mine contacted Kansas State University (where I teach), saying it would be too bad if something like Virginia Tech happened at Kansas State -- and if I, in particular, were the target of the shooting. The university recognized the email for the threat it was and contacted me. Fortunately, I was then out of town. Before I returned, the university determined that the ex-student, who had been expelled for several reasons, sent the email from his home abroad.

Students, faculty members and administrators at American colleges and universities all know that, at any time, we could be shot dead. Mostly, we try not to think about it -- until another mass shooting, such as at Umpqua Community College in Oregon (nine killed, nine wounded, October 2015) or the University of California at Santa Barbara (six killed, 15 wounded, May 2014). Then we are forced again to face the possibility that, one day, we too may join the next sad, inevitable list of the murdered.

In 2012, a white male student in my class was behaving strangely. During discussion, he would either offer oddly confrontational comments or he would look down, refusing to meet anyone’s eye. Often, he sat silently in the back of the room, shaking with what seemed like suppressed rage. I tried talking with him about his behavior privately, not during class. (I didn’t want to make him feel ashamed.) But it didn’t help. He was making the other students uncomfortable. He was making me uncomfortable. After each class with him, I would think, “Gee, I hope he doesn’t come back in here with a gun and kill all of us before turning the gun on himself.” Other instructors had also reported the student’s strange, belligerent interactions. The university intervened, and the student withdrew.

Both the email and classroom incidents occurred when only members of the university’s police department were armed. As of July 1, 2017, the state Legislature’s Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act (yes, that’s really its name) forces guns onto all state university campuses. This law will make Kansas the ninth state to invite guns into classrooms, dormitories, libraries, laboratories and offices. Before the Virginia Tech massacre, only the university system in Utah required colleges and universities to allow guns on campus.

The shooting at Virginia Tech, which killed 32 people, should have motivated gun-safety advocates (as the National Rifle Association claims to be) to support legislation that helps keep weapons off college and university campuses. Instead, the reverse has occurred. The NRA drafted a “campus carry” law, versions of which have now been adopted by Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin against the wishes of those who actually work and study at higher education institutions in those states. It’s not a popular move in Kansas, either. According to a survey conducted by the nonpartisan Docking Institute of Public Affairs, 70 percent of state university employees in Kansas oppose campus carry.

The governor and Legislature are unlikely to back down. After all, the same governor and Legislature have already deregulated firearms, removing background checks and the requirement that gun owners learn to use their weapons. In Kansas, all you need to own a gun is a heartbeat and a credit card. The Legislature has even proposed lowering the age requirement from 21 to 18.

How Do We Adapt?

Kansas may be the ninth state to weaponize its campuses, but it’s the first state to have both campus carry and no meaningful gun regulation. So what can we do? A few older faculty members have decided to take early retirement. Other teachers are changing the curriculum. Since some students will be armed, instructors are less comfortable talking about racism, sexism and other sensitive subjects.

At the University of Houston, avoiding sensitive topics is already becoming policy. As part of a Campus Carry Faculty Forum in January and February, the Faculty Senate offered advice to help professors adapt to Texas’ new campus carry law: “Be careful discussing sensitive topics,” “drop certain topics from your curriculum” and do “not ‘go there’ if you sense anger.” As Dominican University history professor David Perry recently wrote, “Every one of these bullet points conflicts with basic principles of what makes education work. As a teacher, my job is to raise difficult topics, push students to think about topics in new ways and to assess their work, even if that process can sometimes be uncomfortable.” Campus carry effectively ends freedom of speech in college classrooms and thus fundamentally compromises our ability to do our jobs.

As Perry notes, it can be pedagogically useful to explore subjects that make your students cognitively uncomfortable. Here at Kansas State University, a colleague teaches her students about colonialism by conducting the first 15 minutes of one class entirely in French: What’s it like when an authority figure issues you instructions in a language you don’t understand? What challenges does it pose? It gets the students, for a moment, to imagine themselves as the colonized. It’s a very tense and effective 15 minutes. Once, a student said, “Stop it!” and pointed a finger gun at her. Fortunately, it was only a finger gun. If the students are armed, that could become a real gun. This is why, on an armed campus, we’re less likely to explore uncomfortable subjects. Classrooms can offer a place for vigorous debate, spirited exchanges of ideas -- but only if these classrooms are safe.

In other words, guns on campus uphold established systems of power: white supremacy, patriarchy and the privilege of the tenured. As a University Distinguished Professor and a straight white male, I’m more likely to continue pursuing ways in which my students can explore difficult subjects. However, I’ll also be more cautious than I was, less willing to embrace the risks that accompany creative teaching. I would quite understand if my colleagues who are women, people of color, LGBTQ or nontenured decide to be even more cautious.

Guns in the workplace make the already vulnerable even more vulnerable. Armed students make the free exchange of ideas less free. Of course, since the Kansas Board of Regents abridged state employees’ rights to freedom of speech back in 2013, we have come to accept the steady erosion of intellectual inquiry as a condition of working at Kansas universities. But guns only make this problem worse.

What can be done? There’s a pervasive sense of hopelessness here. Appealing to the Legislature is like pleading before the court in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most of our legislators genuinely think that increased lethality leads to increased safety. In February, they passed legislation expanding concealed carry for public employees and defeated a measure that would have delayed campus carry at state universities. Senator Michael O’Donnell also proposed an amendment to move up the campus carry date to July 1 of this year. His reasoning? “We just want Kansans to be safe. There is no reason to put that off another year when we know there are people in society who want to harm other people.” That measure failed, but O’Donnell speaks for the majority of his colleagues when he equates more guns with less gun violence. With legislators like him, you can see why, even though the majority of students, faculty and staff at Kansas universities oppose this law, we despair at being able to change it.

Should We Fight?

Yet those of us facing this law and similar ones across the country must not stand by and let campus carry become our new reality. If we accept armed campuses as inevitable, then we are adapting our way toward the demise of the public university in America. We already endure funding cuts, crumbling infrastructure, the adjunctification of teaching, assaults on academic freedom and now … assault rifles in our classrooms? If we accept this latest legislative attack, we risk becoming the proverbial frog who is slowly boiled alive. Although recent experiments refute the scientific veracity of this tale, it is nonetheless an apt metaphor for where the modern public institution finds itself -- in hot water that’s getting hotter.

Here are five ways to respond.

First, protest. Despite legislative disdain for educators, we should protest. Elected officials need to at least pretend to care about what we think, and a minority of them actually do care. Our voices may go unheeded by the majority, but this is quite literally a matter of life and death. Win or lose, our right to freedom from harm is worth fighting for.

Second, practice civil disobedience. Nobel laureate and University of Texas physics professor Steven Weinberg is opposing his state’s guns-on-campus legislation by stating on his syllabus that his “class is not open to students carrying guns.” That statement violates Texas law and will violate Kansas law, too. It is also going on my syllabus, come July 1, 2017. Including that sentence may mean that I end up in court and get a different kind of sentence. But other people’s right to own firearms does not supersede my right to being alive, nor my students’ right to being alive.

If we faculty collectively adopt a no-guns-in-class policy, then we will make a more powerful statement. I realize that, unless the university installs gun detectors and guards outside of each classroom door, our no-guns policy will be unenforceable. But it makes a principled statement upon which we can build our case for gun-free campuses.

Third, if this approach fails or if civil disobedience simply isn’t your style, insist on teaching only online. Then, if any in the class are armed, they will at least not all be in the same room. I prefer being in the classroom with my students, but teaching online would allow me to continue doing my job while keeping my students and myself safer.

Online teaching and the civil disobedience approach are both imperfect. There yet may be occasions when we are required to be on campus -- to work in a lab, to retrieve a library book or to go to a meeting. In those situations, we will not be able to avoid the threat posed by guns.

For those who feel that the civil disobedience model doesn’t go far enough, a fourth approach is to strike. Whether we teach on a unionized campus or not, we can simply refuse to teach until the Legislature restores our university’s right to maintain a safe, gun-free campus. In the fall of 2017, students arriving at their first class of the term could encounter a sign on each classroom door: “No class until the Legislature repeals campus carry. Guns do not belong in classrooms. Contact your state legislator and governor.” If the legislators complain (as they surely will), we can say, “Effective teaching requires a safe environment for debate; armed students create fear in the classroom, stifling the free and open exchange of ideas. Guns in our classes make it impossible for us to do our jobs. We will return to our jobs when you let us do them. End campus carry.”

Or Should We Leave?

Fifth and last, vote with your feet. I realize that this is easier in theory than in practice. The scarcity of academic jobs (see adjunctification, above) makes it difficult for faculty and staff members to pack up and move or to decline a job offer at a university in a campus-carry state. Distinguished faculty and junior faculty are a bit more mobile; everyone else is stuck. For example, the University of Texas at Austin’s dean of architecture, Fritz Steiner, recently announced he would be moving to become dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. “I would have never applied for another job if not for campus carry,” he explained. Just last month, we learned that Kansas State’s own president, Kirk Schulz, is leaving to become Washington State University’s next president. He is too politic to cite campus carry as a reason, but I strongly suspect that it’s a motivating factor.

It’s certainly motivating me. In addition to exploring the other four options (protest, civil disobedience, online teaching, strike), I am also looking for another job. This decision has been hard. I like my job. I have fantastic colleagues. However, when the phrase “killing higher education” ceases being a metaphor and becomes state policy, I need to seek a safer harbor.

As director of K-State’s graduate program in children’s literature, I cannot in good conscience advise prospective students to come to a university where they put their lives at greater risk. As a member of my department’s Graduate Advisory Committee, I feel uncomfortable recruiting new graduate students. When we have job candidates on campus, I feel guilty when I fail to warn them of the imminent arrival of firearms.

If I were more at peace with the inevitability of my own death, perhaps I could bravely face a weaponized campus. But I am not. I still have books to write, more to learn, ideas to pursue, cities and countries to visit. I want to see my four-year-old niece grow up and be there for my 74-year-old mother as she ages. I want to be here for my wife -- and I want her to have the chance to age.

It won’t be easy to find another pair of academic jobs in the same place: any move would also require a position for my wife. We may yet remain here a while longer; we may not leave at all. I am well aware that all colleges and universities have problems. Should we leave, there is much that I would miss about Kansas State University -- my colleagues, most of all.

But guns change my relationship with what has been a nurturing academic home. When your state Legislature threatens to kill you and your students, then it’s time to look for a new job.

They Know Not What They Do. Or Do They?

I wonder if those who cut funds from education, inflict weapons on campuses and restrict freedom of speech have any sense of the long-term damage they cause. Are they aware that they’re poisoning healthy communities of learning, driving faculty and students away, and fostering fear in those who remain? Do they know that we feel their contempt for us? Yes, campus carry will change colleges and universities, but not for the better. And it’s so much easier to destroy than it is to create.


Philip Nel is a University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University, where he directs the program in children’s literature.


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