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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Free speech, safe spaces, and HWSNBN

The recent speaker on campus has certainly sparked conversation, though for many of the wrong reasons. Everyone is sick of this topic so I will not even identify him, and simply refer to him as He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN). There are several issues related to his visit: open dialogue and free speech; hate speech and safe spaces; and the role of the University in navigating all of it.

Briefly, the new student organization, Tigers for Liberty, wanted a counter program to one on micro-aggressions. They invited HWSNBN, booked a space, and started publicizing the event before it could be vetted by staff. At that point, and because there was really no mechanism in place to cancel the event, it went on, though not without concerns. Those concerns were primarily around quality, education, and a student group being co-opted by a speaker and movement from others off campus. I think that's enough background.

Ideally, when students are subject to individual and boorish racist and biased attacks our student community will set the threshold and expectations for their environment. Part of their learning experience is to step up and push back rather than have us swoop in and save them. At the same time, the administration must always support them and declare clearly that the institution deplores such conduct.

I am a huge proponent of free speech on campus. I have deliberately avoided introducing time-place-and-manner policies because they limit and "manage" protests. Hate-speech codes have been routinely struck down by the courts. Indeed, our students are generally polite, respectful, and uncomfortable protesting lest doing so might make them seem weird. They just aren't good at it, historically. The key policies for us relate to harassment of individuals and disruption, through our Respect for Community policy. Shouting at an invited speaker for whom we might pay thousands, interrupting classes, or harassment are the primary actions that would draw conduct responses.

What students had hoped for with HWSNBN was a quality program worthy of the speakers we bring to campus as well as the educational programs we host. I did not attend, but by most accounts, HWSNBN just offered crude and shallow opinions, mostly meant to shock and incite as well as turn a profit.
My guests and teachers.

This week, at a program I hosted with the Black Student Union and the Black Male Leadership Initiative, I was asked why the University would sponsor such a speaker. The truth is, we didn't. A student group did. But we didn't stop it either. Halting a program in motion is a sure way to feed the furor of conservative groups over free speech and censorship. Which is what they often want.

The problem with free speech proponents is that while many present their political and social views under the auspices of free speech, they are often rooted in bigotry and oppression. Certainly libertarian viewpoints, capitalism, "less government" are valid perspectives and ideologies. Unfortunately for many, the progression plays out like this: we want to keep ours (resources and power)... others haven't worked for or earned theirs... others are lazy, poor, and want entitlements... these people are often not like us (white, Christian, American, wealthy)... these people are unworthy and threatening.

Yes, I know it is a generalization. But look at the national political landscape. Often, people in places of privilege got there because they had a head start, through birthright, luck, and passed-on wealth. When those who haven't been so lucky ask for respect, validation, and a fair chance, they are seen as militant or whiny or lazy. When they speak up and demand fairness, justice, and respect, then those in privileged places often push back. This is fertile ground for incredible dialogue. However, HWSNBN, and the likes of Donald Trump rarely want to engage in substantive and meaningful conversations. They zero in on the qualities they claim make others "less than." So those with different gender orientations, skin colors, and nationalities are mocked and attacked. They are restricted from bathrooms, educated in worse schools, jailed in higher numbers, kept out by walls and fences, and discriminated against because of their faith and turbans.

I am so proud of our students. I think the Tigers for Liberty, the Trinity Diversity Connection, and the Trinity Progressives are mostly educated, respectful, and open-minded. But the event with HWSNBN brought in others who resorted to chants for Trump and "White Power." Really.

When the black students I met with explained to me that this speaker created an unsafe environment for them, I had no response. They weren't just offended. They saw and heard a small number of students and a larger number of guests marginalize them in a way that was hateful and potentially violent. "How is this reflective of Trinity's values?" asked one. It isn't. We are not values free and we strive to create an environment for ALL of our students that honors their humanity.

Make no mistake, free speech is welcome, expected, and encouraged here. But using free speech as a ruse to spew hate and discrimination is a cheap trick and is disingenuous. Those in power will contend that offensive words and ideas are part of a society and come with dialogue and disagreements. Usually though, it is because they are the aggressors. Of course they don't mind. Those who are attacked don't feel that way. While I tend to agree that generally we are too sensitive and too easily offended, I also firmly believe that in order to learn from others we need to have open and civil discussions and to risk offending as a cost of learning and educating. Free speech as a mechanism for bullying, however, isn't acceptable, not just on campuses, but anywhere.

Moving forward, we will do a better job as a University in developing and producing guidelines for campus speakers and events, particularly those that draw external audiences bent on hijacking the educational experiences of our students in order to promote their own agendas. We routinely take heat for the speakers on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. Those are intellectual and yes, emotional discussions on difficult topics. But these programs and others create robust and necessary conversations that are part of the educational experiences. They aren't designed to put others down.

Students like the one asking about our values are right. We do stand for something. And if we want a diverse community we have an obligation to protect and nurture it. It is our responsibility to vet the speakers, not for their ideas, but for their value and for their adherence to ideals of respect and conflict with civility. We need that on campus and students here should demand it. How else will they know how to demand the same when they face similar issues out in the world once they graduate? There will be many more Milo's. Students need to know when and how to call them out. And they need to know them by name.They have had a good start.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Teach your children (well)

This is primarily written for my parent audience, with the misdirected hopes that their students will listen to them more than they listen to me...
Recently the Crisis Management Team conducted a campus-wide active shooter training drill. This followed years of smaller tabletop exercises by the CMT and various departments, such as TUPD. The purpose of a large-scale drill is to test the response by campus employees, students, visitors, and guests. As a CMT we are always learning things and hope we never have to put those lessons to use.

As if this isn't enough for parents to worry about, a murder of a UT student on the campus in Austin around the same time amplified anxiety about safety on campus. Unfortunately, there are crazy people in a crazy world, one in which subways, schools, campuses, offices, airplanes, stadiums, clubs, churches, and movie theaters are under constant threat. This generation of parents was reluctant to let their kids play outside, and perhaps they were on to something. Ultimately, being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to tragic results. And then sometimes we simply need to be lucky.

Nevertheless, there are some things college students can do to try to tilt luck their way just a little.

1. Prepare
The performance of our students in the recent drill was pretty positive on the upper campus in the academic and administrative buildings. In the residence halls it was woeful. Perhaps it is because they knew it was a drill. But we all know, how you practice is how you play. Residents mostly saw the drill as an inconvenience. On the upper campus we had more success, because the faculty and staff had more direct responsibility and impact. Even then, I encountered students blissfully ignoring warnings because, well, they had to study.

Parents, urge your students to participate in drills and respond to alarms. It could save them someday. Also, have them review our really well done web pages on emergency preparedness and TUPD procedures (excellent links on the left side of that site).

2. Use campus resources
Students are welcome to call TUPD for escorts at any time. Sometimes they are reluctant because they don't want to wait. A nice alternative is the under-utilized Elerts app, which enables a student to walk while holding a panic button on their mobile device. Releasing that button triggers an almost immediate response from TUPD.

3. Practice safe habits
This is always dangerous, because asking people to take precautions can be perceived as victim blaming. Victim blaming is something that is usually done after something bad happens and is directed toward an individual. We all have the right to not be mugged, to jog at night, and to go where we want when we want. Sometimes we do all the right things and bad things still happen. A group of students can be held up at gunpoint (it has happened) just as easily as an individual student can have a knife pulled on him or her (that happened too - a long time ago before dorms were locked).

But here are the basic harm-reduction strategies parents can stress with their students: travel in a group; be aware of surroundings; trust your gut feelings; use a designated driver; use seat belts; run in daylight; lock your room; only let people you know into buildings; and report suspicious activities.

A huge risk factor is alcohol. Urge students who drink to at least use the Optimal Buzz guidelines and avoid alcohol from public source containers (punch). Probably more good than bad has happened as a result of over-consumption, though most have to learn this by experience.

4. Keep your guard up
Students can very easily be lulled into a false sense of security. They will leave clothes in the dryer for days, walk away from laptops to get a snack, leave their balcony doors unlocked, and confuse a bubble for a fence.

It is natural for people to be vigilant after something bad happens. Sustained, reasonable, and appropriate concern can go a long way in helping students be safer.