• October 31, 2014

A Plea to College Presidents: Exercise Your Moral Leadership

A Plea to College Presidents: Exercise Your Moral Leadership 1

Wayne Tilcock, The Enterprise, AP Images

A campus police officer sprays protesters at the U. of California at Davis in an incident that has galvanized the Occupy movement and led to calls for the chancellor's resignation.

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close A Plea to College Presidents: Exercise Your Moral Leadership 1

Wayne Tilcock, The Enterprise, AP Images

A campus police officer sprays protesters at the U. of California at Davis in an incident that has galvanized the Occupy movement and led to calls for the chancellor's resignation.

On Saturday, November 18, I was shocked and saddened to watch the video of police breaking up a peaceful student protest at the University of California at Davis. I'd just given a lecture in the Chancellor's Colloquium series a few weeks before. I love this campus. I admire the brilliant students and faculty, the gracious staff, and the administrators and alumni and supporters I met during three days of energetic hospitality.

The scene in the video is nothing like the campus I visited. As students "occupying" the campus sit quietly, not far from their bright tents arranged as neatly as an ad for a sporting-goods store, campus police arrive, complete with protective headgear. One officer walks past the students, calmly spraying them with pepper gas. He could be exterminating cockroaches. Eyes and ears stinging, the students continue to sit peacefully. Then the arrests begin.

How could this be happening at Davis—and at other campuses too? Why are students who are peaceably protesting being treated like criminals? At the University of California at Berkeley, the former poet laureate of the United States Robert Hass was clubbed by police in anti-terrorist SWAT gear when he went to see for himself if there really was brutality against students occupying the area in front of Sproul Hall, once the home of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s.

What is this madness? The justification for calling in the police is typically to "maintain order" or to preserve "safety" or "security" or "health." But surely violence is a distorted response to the desire for "order," "health," and "safety." And it is certainly incommensurate when dealing with such minor crimes as camping overnight on university property.

Is this really what university leaders want for our campuses? Where are today's leaders who will take the moral high ground and side sympathetically with the rising tide of students who are Occupying Higher Ed and protesting what all of us—and university presidents more than anyone else—agree is a national crisis in higher education?

The issues students "occupying" our campuses are protesting, however, are not just student issues. They are widespread economic and social problems that, statistics confirm, hit the students' generation particularly hard. Those include the radical economic disparity between rich and poor that leaves a depleted middle class, a compromised future for productive and satisfying work, escalating educational costs that burden students with impossible debt, declining support for public education, and the irrelevance of much of the current educational system for 21st-century challenges that today's students will face tomorrow. There's not an administrator in America who isn't rattling off that list when talking to alumni groups or legislators.

More important, some universities are not only aware of such issues, but are also working with student protesters, often with good, "teachable" results—at the New School, at Union Theological Seminary, at Duke University where I teach, and elsewhere. I've heard from faculty and administrators who see the Occupy activities as appropriate for thoughtful conversation and debate across a numerous departments, whether economics or ethics. The president of Union Theological Seminary, Serene Jones, has even dubbed her campus's response "Protest 101."

We also need to learn from our mistakes, because as protesters are being shifted out of the city parks of metropolitan areas, they are moving to college campuses. First, the claim that the Occupy encampments are unsanitary, unsafe, and insecure is almost comical to someone at Duke, where "tenting" has been a venerable student tradition since 1986. "Krzyzewskiville" is an encampment of students staying in tents, in winter, for weeks at time in order not to lose priority getting into Duke home basketball games. A few years ago, in one of my classes, we studied K-Ville's rules as a model of self-organizing and self-policing communities. If K-Ville can thrive despite the frenzy of winning and losing championship basketball games, so can a well-organized group of students advocating on behalf of their educational future.

Second, there is so much educational value to be gained by a real, open, public engagement with the Occupy issues. I think back to the Anti-Sweatshop Movement of 1997-98, when dozens of Duke students, as part of worldwide movement, occupied the administration building at the university and hung protest flags from the window outside the president's office. The only police 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). Not only were students treated with respect, but then-President Nannerl Keohane and other administrators, faculty, and students talked with the students, served pizza during the course of a long night, and then formed a student-led task force that resulted in new Fair Trade policies for official Duke paraphernalia.

Students are not the enemy of administrators and faculty unless we invite them to be. Students, parents, faculty, administrators, and alumni should be banding together to fight for higher-education support and higher-education reforms, including such things as limitations on student debt. Instead, by sending in the police, we make enemies of allies. Watch the Davis video, and you see the seeds of that destructive turn.

It is painful to witness professional policemen on a university campus responding to students with such violence. I suspect the police don't like the role either. After being pepper-sprayed, the students hold one another in quiet, moaning solidarity. Later, after violent arrests, as the students chant "Shame on You!" the police huddle, almost fearfully, without direction. Two officers continue to point tear-gas-filled rifles at the crowd, fingers on the trigger, as if waiting for a provocation. It's as if they don't know what to do next.

What will we do next? We are at a turning point, a Gettysburg Address moment, where moral leadership is required, where moral authority and moral force need to be eloquently articulated before this historical moment devolves into violence and polarization. Linda Katehi, Davis's chancellor, has suspended two officers with pay and, amid calls for her resignation, begun an investigation. Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system, has called for all the chancellors to meet to re-evaluate the proper law-enforcement response to student protest.

Well and good. But we need more. We need prominent, articulate leadership that concedes that students putting their bodies literally on the line are also raising profound issues about the future of education, which is to say the future of our nation. We don't just need better "procedures" or "task forces." We need Lincolnesque moral fervor that honors the courage of young students who have put themselves in peril, to date with remarkable self-control and self-organization. And with the awareness that the education they support is rapidly becoming something only the elite—1 percent—will be able to afford.

Our students are not wrong in the content of their protests on behalf of education. Calling the police does not solve their problems; as we have seen too often, it can foster violence—with an ever-more-imminent potential for tragedy.

Please, dear college presidents, stop sending for the police. Our students face a difficult future. This should not be a time to beat them up, to spray them with mace or pepper juice, to kick and hit them. On the contrary, in the brochures and in the Web sites advertising our campuses, we promise that we will inspire students to "change the world." Isn't that what these students are trying to do?

Right now, we are on a course toward tragedy, but we can change that. It is not too late for university leaders across the nation to step back, think about what is happening, and why. We need wisdom and strong leadership. We say that is an aim of higher education. It's a Gettysburg moment. I very much hope our university leaders will claim it.

Cathy N. Davidson is a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. She is the author most recently of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press).

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