Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Could not have said it better myself 

My colleague and friend Dick Andzenge has written a column for today's St. Cloud Times that takes dead-aim at the affront to free speech and educational excellence that has been the university's response to the swastikas. He politely refers to us as a unique institution, in ways that we might lead us to prefer to be more common:

First, I see a one-dimensional approach to diversity. When some people at St. Cloud State talk of prejudice, discrimination, insensitivity and related hostility, they assume that only white, Christian, heterosexual men are capable of these sentiments. To these people, diversity is the exclusive empowerment and increased opportunity for non-whites, non-Christians, non-males and non-heterosexuals.

To satisfy this approach, the university has accommodated a curriculum that differs from traditional Western academic curriculum.

Many students do not know much about Western concepts such as rationalism, enlightenment and the industrial revolution and their connections to modernity.

On the other hand, multiple courses are offered in democratic citizenship without a clear identification of its theoretical, historical, substantive content and academic value. Students are required to take sensitivity training courses, all of which focus largely on passive accommodation of protected groups.

Long time readers of SCSU Scholars are aware of the sensitivity training, of democratic citizenship and its descendants, of mandatory diversity training and the use of diversity in "strategic planning" to mean anything other than permitting students to hear fully the western canon. Will anyone admit this is a failure? No -- and Dick argues that someone should ask why.

The second approach I find unique at St. Cloud State is the focus on problem identification without acknowledgment of successes in dealing with those problems. Evaluating efforts to solve problems enables us to see which efforts work and which ones do not work. Complaints should be fully investigated, findings and actions taken by the university or the community made public.

A third unique issue at St. Cloud State is the tendency to allow dealing with complaints to become the major agenda of the university.

One would have expected that because the previous president introduced so many changes, the institution would be able to put those problems behind and allow the new president to focus on the real mission for the university.

Indeed, when current President Earl Potter arrived, I had hoped that there would be focus on academics; someone reported to me that in a meeting with local leaders this president wondered whether or not the university was in the education business or the diversity business. Perhaps others were worried about the answer he might find...
That these issues have surfaced at this moment suggests a persistent tendency to make sure that bigotry continues to be the university's main agenda.
The most recent incident, within a campus dormitory after students had left for semester break, might raise some question whether it is a group of jackals from off-campus or -- could it be? -- someone interested in making sure which business we stay in? Surely you'll say I'm just being paranoid, engaged in fantasy. And I hope you're right. Oh, Kerri Dunn says hi, and don't think it can't happen here. It did.

Based on the above, I suggest the president require a shared and inclusive definition of harassment, discrimination and abuse-related conduct to which everyone is held accountable.

I suggest further that complaints, allegations and claims are reported as such rather than as facts. Such complaints should be handed to the police for careful investigation and appropriate criminal justice interventions.

I've stated on a campus discussion email list that these acts are acts of vandalism first and foremost. They can be prosecuted that way. Because they also invade private spaces, they are criminal trespass. But the university has labeled all these acts hate crimes, which Dick finds objectionable.
Referring to anonymous bathroom graffiti as a hate crime, rather than juvenile acts of vandalism, is overreacting, which makes a mockery of real acts of hate that might occur.
Another colleague of mine shared with me a letter sent to President Potter. It makes the point of what we are setting up when we promise so much more than we can actually deliver, in a free, pluralistic society:

... I think your administration does a disservice to our students and our community when it simplifies a complicated issue, and when it assumes that all students will have the same reaction to these incidents. I read a comment of yours that some students are now afraid to be at SCSU and are thinking of leaving the university. But where will they go? Which university in this country can promise a better environment, or guarantee that similar incidents will never happen there? Not one. And, while I understand and genuinely sympathize with those students [who express hurt and fear --kb], legally their reaction has to be "reasonable." The entity that decides whether a victim's fear is reasonable is the jury, but only after all of the evidence is presented. Unless we want to be judge, jury, and executioner, we should not jump to conclusions that may or may not be supported by the actual evidence.

I think it is important for our students to understand how the law works and how the first amendment works because, ultimately, these will be used to decide the fate of the perpetrator. For all of the outrage being expressed now, how will you and the university community react if the perpetrator's conduct is adjudicated to be legally protected speech? Will you condemn the first amendment in equally harsh terms, because it rendered a result with which our community must disagree? Will you backtrack and explain that the law was always a part of the (non-existent) discourse as these events unfolded on our campus? Will you tell our students that their disappointment in the court's finding is understandable, and that you, too, are disappointed? I would hate to see our students set up for a fall -- waiting for the system to come down hard on this person who has so grievously injured our community, only to find him/her exonerated?
President Potter announced two weeks ago that there will be a forum "that will invite broad perspectives on characterizing and dealing with hate crimes, as well as provide support and information about resources to help those in our community who are feeling threatened or intimidated." There has so far been no forum planned on free speech, but never has one been more needed. To both of my colleagues, bravo.

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