Where are the university leaders, today, who will take the moral high ground and side sympathetically with the rising tide of students who are Occupying Higher Ed and protesting the current assault against higher ed and the subsequent rising costs of tuition and fees? All of us–and university presidents more than anyone else–know the state of higher ed today demands critical attention. Yet, instead of working with the protesting students, too many university leaders are calling in police to “maintain order” or to preserve “safety” or “security” or “sanitation.” But the police don’t preserve order but, instead, enact brutality incommensurate with minor crimes such as camping over night on university property. There are real choices that need to be made about how to address the Occupy protests. We’re at a turning point, a Gettysburg Address moment, where moral authority and moral force needs to be eloquently articulated before this historical moment devolves into violence and polarization. Our students are not wrong in the content of their protests. Calling the police does not address their issues; as we have seen too often, it can foster violence –with an ever-more imminent potential for tragedy.
The issues students are protesting today are not just student issues. They are wide social issues that hit students with particular force and emphasis. These issues include the radical economic disparity of rich and poor that leaves a depleted middle class, a compromised future of productive possibility for work, escalating educational costs and decline support for public education, and the irrelevance of much of the current educational system (K-20) for the 21st century that students today face.
I do not believe there is an administrator in America today who could not rattle off these issues. So why, when our students are peacefully sitting in the quads of universities all over America, expressing these serious concerns, are so many universities reacting by sending in the police? Equally important, why are some other universities willing to listen to the protestors–often with very good, “teachable” results from which everyone learns? New School, Union Theological Seminary, Duke and other universities are realizing that our students have valid issues and, instead of sending in the police, we are trying, collectively, to address this historical moment in a positive, forceful way. What makes the difference? What can we learn from universities where administrators are reaching out to students? And how can we hold them up as models and examples? We live in difficult times that require all of us to listen, learn, and lead together.
First, let’s look at the reason for calling the police in the first place. I keep hearing the arguments that universities have to call in the police to protect the students, that the Occupy encampments are unsanitary, unsafe, and insecure. That’s almost comical when you teach at Duke where “tenting” is one of our most venerable student traditions. A tent-city called K-Ville has been thriving since 1986. Krzyzewskiville (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krzyzewskiville) is an encampment of students staying in tents, in winter, for weeks at time in order not to lose priority getting into Duke basketball games. A few years ago, my students and I even looked at the community rules and community standards for K-Ville in order to understand self-organizing community groups, constitutions, and regulation. You can read the university’s own evolving rules for this extraordinary phenomenon here: http://www.kville.info/ If K-Ville can thrive safely, securely, and with proper sanitation even in the heat of winning and losing basketball championships, for a quarter of a century, so can a well-organized group of students fighting for their education, for better funding for their university, and for their future. (And certainly the photographs, linked to in the comment section below this blog, show an encampment at UC Davis that was clean and orderly as an ad in a sporting goods catalog: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jessedrew/sets/72157628060955103/.)
Second, there is so much to be gained by a real, open, public conversation about the Occupy issues. I think of the Anti-Sweatshop movement of 2001 when dozens of Duke students, as part of worldwide movement, occupied the administration building at Duke and hung protest flags from the second floor window outside the President’s office. The only police who were summoned were seasoned, professional Duke police, to make sure everyone was safe and sound (for that is the ultimate, first responsibility of any college president), and they were treated with respect and treated the students with respect. Then President Nannerl Keohane addressed the students, as did her husband, the distinguished political scientist Robert Keohane, as did the Vice President for Government and Community Relations. I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at the time. I went out and talked with students and was proud of their intelligence and clear thinking. I do not remember whose idea it was but soon faculty, administrators, and students were talking about what we, at Duke could do and soon there were new commissions designed, with the representation of these students, to come up with policies for not selling any Duke-endorsed paraphernalia unless it complied with Fair Trade and environmental standards. A humorous aside: a few days later there was a much smaller encampment of students in the halls of Allen Building and I and Provost Peter Lange came out about the same time to meet with these students, only to find poet and writing prof Joe Donahue was having them sit in the halls to write poems inspired by the beautiful photography exhibit in our halls. I am very pleased to say that this spirit of exchange, not repression is continuing at Duke (http://dukechronicle.com/article/occupy-duke-one-few-collegiate-demonstrations).
The point? Students are not the enemy of administrators and faculty unless we invite them to be.
What makes a student hate their teachers, their university leaders? Watch this wrenching video and you will see what provokes fury and hatred: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/19/uc-davis-police-pepper-spray-students_n_1102728.html?ref=mostpopular The headline reads “UC Davis Police Pepper-Spray Seated Students In Occupy Dispute.” It is very painful to watch this video, the brutality against the students. It is also painful to think about how professional policemen on a university campus could respond to students in this way. The officer spraying the pepper spray does so with the indifferent thoroughness of someone exterminating cockroaches. And yet the students, their eyes and ears burning, continue to sit, holding one another, in quiet, moaning solidarity. They have become symbols at this point as well as suffering human beings who, it must be emphasized, are protesting for a better education, supporting a just cause.
At the end of the UC Davis video, the police huddle, almost fearfully, without direction, as the students shout “Shame on You!” for what they have done. In one shot, a few of the officers continue to point rifles at the crowd, fingers on the trigger, as if waiting for a provocation. (I’ve since writing this blog heard that these were not assault rifles but paint ball rifles fitted with tear-gas canisters. Thank goodness.) There is evidence that all over America police are being trained to respond to the Occupy movement with systematic use of force, even excessive force (http://www.sfbg.com/politics/2011/11/18/cop-group-coordinating-occupy-crackdowns). Is this what university leaders want for our campuses? Really? It does not have to be this way.
Please, dear College Presidents, stop sending for the police. Our students face a difficult enough future. This should not be a time to beat them up, to spray them with mace or pepper juice, to kick and hit them.
We are at a turning point, and leadership is required to prevent disaster. We need to take in what is happening and change course. It is not too late. University leaders across the nation need to step back, think about what is happening, and be on the side of justice and right and, in the end, on the side of education. That is what our students want, and we want that too.
We need wisdom and passion and moral vision. That is what we all say higher education is for. It’s a Gettysburg moment. I very much hope our university leaders will claim it.