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Thursday, March 26, 2015

White Lies

Small group of Black Student Union students at dinner in March 2015.
Growing up in suburban Milwaukee, I had little exposure to black people. I liked the players on the Packers and Bucks who were black, so that was a start. In fourth grade, on a field trip to a movie downtown, I had my first meaningful personal encounter with a black person. It was with a student from a mostly black school on a similar trip, and he was loud, ran into me, and knocked over my popcorn. I made a judgment and formed an impression. (What's worse, the movie was Disney's Fantasia. I know.)

My next significant contact occurred when Brookfield East played in the basketball sectionals in the late 1970's against Milwaukee North and then Milwaukee Washington. I was in the stands. These were two mostly black inner-city teams and they each had home court advantage. Their style on the court was fluid, flamboyant, and what I considered undisciplined. Their style in the stands was even more so. It was alarming, because it was different, and intimidating. Again, the experience fed into negative stereotypes I had learned.

Finally, there was one other encounter - or near encounter - when I learned that black people from downtown would be marching out to the suburbs. This seemed really scary and threatening. They wanted what we had. We called it a threat. Today we call it social justice.

So one of my biggest concerns  heading off to college was whether or not I would have a black roommate. I didn't. But by the end of my freshman year I wished I had. Harold Deaudine a black student from Chicago was my wall-mate and was the coolest and smoothest dude on the floor. My roommate, Jeff from Beaver Dam, not so much. (I was no prize either.) My stereotypes were challenged by reality.

When the parents of the OU fraternity members -- who are now infamous for their horrible song -- tell us there is more to their young men, I believe them. We are complex beings. These students weren't born racist. Racism is something we learn. Most of us, like me, are challenged to then un-learn it. And the best way we can have our erroneous ideas and biases challenged is to broaden our experiences and figure out that superficial and stereotypical negative first impressions may not be accurate, and shouldn't be lasting ones. Hopefully we can see, in hindsight, that wherever the fear came from, that fear was based on lies.

The scary thing about the Oklahoma fraternity men is that this isn't just about them. Because they are us. We are lying to ourselves if we think otherwise. And we are in Ferguson, and in New York, and Oakland, and Los Angeles, and, well, Seemingly Almost Everywhere. A colleague recently asked me why I care so much about this campus population. Maybe it is because I like them. Maybe it is because I learned to like them. Perhaps I have a little white guilt. Mostly, though, I think it must be terrible to live in a country where racism lurks under (and often above) the surface everywhere and always. That a hanging in Mississippi of a man, Otis Byrd, though yet unproven as a hate-crime, can even seem plausible, means we should all bow our heads in shame. It wasn't that long ago, after all, when another man named Byrd met a despicable and horrible fate at the hand of racists.

After working at two campuses in upstate New York, with many African-American students, my notions have continued to evolve. Being mentored by Coleen Grissom and Felicia Lee, and working side-by-side with the likes of Ankita Rakhe, JaNay Queen, Karen Pennington, Raphael Moffett, and Ben Newhouse, to name a mere few, I feel better equipped to live in a diverse world. Now what is scary are the innumerable subtle and violent examples of racism that continue today.

And yet... Several years ago on vacation with my family at Disney World I almost got beat up by a large and loud black woman vying for a spot on a shuttle. Despite my progress, I was confronted with an individual and deep-seated stereotypes I thought I had shaken. Suddenly I was in fourth grade all over again. And there was popcorn at my feet. Maybe there is a Disney curse.

We can never stop working on ourselves - individually - and collectively. We need to fight our biases all the time. This is why having conversations, programs, and open-minds on college campuses is so important. Our Black Student Union is doing a great job of this. They co-hosted a panel called "I Can't Breathe," that tapped the expertise of our learned faculty. They hosted a soul food study break, a film, and more for Black History Month. They participated in our MLK Jr. march and attended an inspirational speech on campus that week by Tim Wise.

Indeed, our responsibility as a campus administration is to be vigilant about our campus climate for our black students. I loathe the campus-racial-incident-response formula: Racial incident, leads to forum, leads to out-cries that this has been happening "here" for years, leads to charges of a clueless administration, leads to a task force, leads to programs and new staff. And then things go back to normal.

Instead, because every campus is one-drunk student-with-a-marker-away from a racial incident, we need to have conversations all the time. We need to nurture the climate proactively rather than re-actively. This isn't just the responsibility of BSU. This is everyone's responsibility. I meet with our BSU students annually. I like what I hear, mostly. I want them to feel like we care about their experience and that we are not on cruise-control about what they deal with daily.

Our NASPA award-winning orientation program about diversity challenges students to have their own conversations and take safe and respectful, even if uninformed, risks. I once asked my Korean friend, Felicia Lee, how Chinese fortune cookies were made. She scoffed at me for assuming she knew simply because she was Korean. I followed up, though and asked, "do you?" - to which she said, "well, yes." It is hard, I know. No one wants to be ignorant. Who wants to ask a black person about their hair and seem insensitive and uneducated? Who wants to put any black person in the position to speak on behalf of their race?

If we keep shoving our ideas and biases deeper inside ourselves, they will come out. Maybe someday on a video. Or worse. Someone recently said that something like what happened at OU couldn't happen at Trinity. Oh, it definitely could. While I agree our racial climate may be generally positive, it would be a lie to think any campus could be immune. Just a little white lie.

Monday, March 16, 2015

In the Heart of a Campus

Sometime after 11 a.m on Wednesday, March 4, Trinity's heart stopped beating. Life came to a standstill when popular professor Dr. Michael Kearl suffered an apparent heart attack in the area of campus between the library and Northrup Hall. Students and an instructor stopped to render assistance until TUPD arrived to take over resuscitation efforts. After being taken to the hospital by ambulance, the campus learned through a campus-wide notice at 1:25 p.m. that Dr. Kearl had died.

Though we shared the same campus for over 25 years, I don't feel like I knew Dr. Kearl well enough to memorialize him. He seemed to abide me in the execution of my duties. He would probably say "Tuttle. You don't have better things to do than blog about me dying?"

I will let others memorialize him with their greater personal knowledge and insight. Like most others, I respected him as a bigger than life campus figure with a caustic wit, swagger, and booming voice. I was a little afraid of him. He was world-renowned for his sociological website, A Sociological Tour Through Cyberspace. More specifically, Dr. Kearl was famous for his sociological study of death. In a 1984 Trinitonian article on the topic (I hope to link this soon), Dr. Kearl was quoted, "A good ending really helps the overall effect. If we are designed to die with a meaningless epilogue, it could wreck the meaning of the rest of the story."

That part I can write about. It seems morbidly ironic, and somewhat poetic, that this international expert on death and dying would die publicly, in the heart of the campus, in front of mostly students. I learned from Reverend Nickle that Dr. Kearl railed against our society's relegation of details of death to the unspeakable, hiding them in sterile hospitals and nursing homes. To die in front of students was perhaps the greatest final lesson Dr. Kearl could give his students. Perhaps not. Certainly a comfortable and peaceful time and place would have been better. As that 1984 article noted, "Kearl is an authority on death, though he has yet to experience it." It happened how it happened, so I want to think that for him, this was his "rest of the story," and that it offered incredible punctuation to a rich life of teaching and learning.

1984 Trinitonian piece (courtesy MK Cooper)
One could imagine his spirit fluttering, wishing to take notes and deliver a final soliloquy to a classroom about what took place. Imagine how thrilled he might have been to come back from a near-death experience - taking his research to unparalleled heights. 

On that day, though, I was phoned by a colleague, who believed a student had collapsed. As I arrived to the scene my heart skipped several times: first to see it was not a student, but an older adult, second to see it was a campus colleague, and third, to see the intense life-saving efforts of the TUPD officers. I saw something else. People, mostly students, standing silently. One could hear the officers communicating and the computer-generated voice instructions of the AED.

Students stood out of the way, some embracing, most stone-faced, and some quietly crying. The dueling images of the life-saving efforts and the absolute student hope was moving and eerie. On this dreary, muggy day, students, many of whom who never took Dr. Kearl's courses on death, were pulling for his life. Some there knew him and were suffering profound and personal feelings of fear and loss. We eventually moved people away. To do so immediately would have robbed Dr. Kearl of the love being directed at him, as well as robbed the students of the experience to participate in a community of hope and determination. There was no gawking, no texting, no talking. Simply care. People prayed for a miracle. I will never forget it.

To be clear, it would have been much better had he lived. He had good years ahead of him and family, friends, and students who cared deeply for him. Beyond the obvious lessons - that life is fragile, and tenuous - there were more personal ones. Some students, I know, reflected on those they had lost, while others reflected forward, thinking about their parents and grandparents and their mortality.

Former Chaplain Raymond Judd used to speak about the heart of Trinity's campus being pierced when it experienced a loss. I saw that again. I saw Mike's friends and colleagues rushing to the site with looks of grave concern, shock, and pain. These same people having lost another colleague just months earlier. I listened as a student asked me (and he apologized for being morbid - which he wasn't) whether or not they would learn what the outcome would be. I learned that TUPD is well-trained, and that on this difficult day would be challenged again, hours later, having to be focused differently, nabbing a campus robber. I learned that parents, upon receiving notice, would express condolences, care, and concern for Dr. Kearl's campus and personal family. I learned the Trinitonian staff is pretty good.

I learned again, about the incredible character of our students. The following day some of his students went to his class to simply sit in silence. The student government president, Sean McCutchen, would send his own message to students in a spontaneous campus email. It was sweet, honest, and inviting:

I was one of the many students that passed through campus and saw this tragedy. I have to admit, I'm still trying to process all of this even though I never had a class with Dr. Kearl. Trinity is such a close knit community that when we lose someone, it almost feels as if we lost a family member... If you want to just talk with another student, I'm more than willing to listen. I say this not from some false sense of heightened self-importance, but as a student and as a representative of the student body.

I would learn the next day of students wishing to formalize through their pre-med organizations student CPR training. Anything to take away the helplessness some felt the day before. I learned that one student was going to really miss her teacher. I learned another was worried about another professor, and would value every moment with him moving forward.

I will never walk through this spot on campus and not think of Mike Kearl. I suspect others will feel the same. Dr. Kearl was a bedrock of the faculty and institution. And the students were his top beneficiaries. Most of all, I am reminded that the heart of this community isn't its endowment, its strategic plan, or its buildings. The heart of Trinity is its people. It includes faculty, students, staff, parents, and alumni. Trinity's heart broke a little on March 4.  For a moment, we were reminded. That doesn't change things. But it's not a bad epilogue.