Questioning free speech on college campuses is quite popular these days, with outlets like The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Huffington Post and others discussing whether college students are “coddled” or not. At least on our campus, I would not say that I see this notion manifesting itself in any ways other than fierce reactions over inviting controversial speakers like Ben Shapiro last year. We are not a school that has too much attention always paid to it like some of the Ivies or bigger state schools, by which I mean we would not find ourselves in a position to be a metric for schools across the country. We find Brandeis mentioned in “Gilmore Girls,” by Woody Allen, by Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks and on an Al Jazeera graphic about how expensive college is in the U.S. (I have mentioned this in a previous OP). However, when we are used as a Litmus test, it never seems to be positive.
Take for example sometime in early August 2014, weeks before move-in, when I received a newspaper clipping from my local newspaper concerning free speech on college campuses. This was before many of the larger demonstrations and debates about the subject began; either that or I knew very little about the subject. It detailed instances from three recognizable—but apparently mostly not memorable—institutions, one of which was Brandeis. The article on the clipping explained its view on the rescinding of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree. I was not happy about my grandparents having given me this article, being that it was talking negatively about the school I chose to attend after much anxiety and debating.
However, since then, student protests intensified, viral videos of activists have spread everywhere and so have videos like Fox anchors walking around Yale asking students if they think the First Amendment should be repealed. There has been a lot of craziness, a huge lack of understanding and a massive amount of this generation’s insecurity becoming evident on both the student and administrative sides of many universities, including ours. We have had our own share of protests and issues on the same topics, but the impact was not the same, nor as nationally spread. There have been incidents of students and administrators finding themselves at a disconnect with what they think the campus needs to do. On the student side, we have had protests for greater inclusion and climate justice, sometimes using tactics that would not allow for much visible, open dialogue. On the administrative side, we have had controversial dealings with students when it comes to parties, sexual assault, DCL and leaving students protesters out in the freezing rain for over an hour before meeting with them.
Many who are not up to date with administrative dealings (as in a student’s daily duties, why would you need to be? Classes reliably proceed on schedule without bad weather) are left to question why these tales of improper treatment on both sides takes place. Why do protesters interrupt administrators? Why are we not given full information about the usage of our tuition increases? Why were the people who tore down banners belonging to groups they disagree with not punished to anyone’s knowledge? From these events, our values as students and the values of the administration certainly come into question.
The problems found in the culture of the U.S. citizenry have manifested themselves in the political arena, with political disagreements erupting in violence. In some cases, it really is a lack of understanding that precipitates these incidents. In others, it is a disagreement between two or more people that have no respect for each other. This culture that is covered extensively and amplified by national media easily finds its way into higher education. With youth looking for a cause to anchor their identities to, emancipation from their problems at home and educational culture focused on attracting parents and students with the fun of college and security, problems are bound to happen.
Our university is small and its reputation for being current on a wide range of social issues put those who run it in a unique position: cater to those who come here to cause ‘trouble’ by keeping out of issues that will be more widely decried if left alone, or leave students to their discourse and moderate it to keep it healthy. This is where the inconsistency in policy comes from. We are an institution which needs to appear stable enough and open enough to attract all types of students, while promoting debatable social agendas (in the eyes of most, except in the opinions of some activists) put forth by its population.
I have worked for The Brandeis Hoot for almost a full academic year now, and have had friends on it for longer than that. I have watched protests, had lunch with administrators, seen plays presented here, heard speakers and read articles in Brandeis’ publications, past and present. It seems to me that there needs to be a greater deal of respect on both sides, and values and policies that are not applied inconsistently. If there is an organization that gains permission to fly a banner, those who tear it down should be punished, or at least a statement should be released. If a student commits sexual assault, it should be dealt with fairly and harshly. If administrators do not respond to sweeping demands given only a day in advance, of course they cannot do that. If students elected to essentially a well-financed club position are not making efficient use of their funds to make the campus more sustainable, then maybe they should not receive the money. If someone has filled the requirements for an honorary degree, they should have it given to them. If someone tweets something controversial, the campus need not get involved unless they cause problems to campus security. Students are more capable than their older superiors give them credit for, but few students give their superiors credit where credit is due.
What should definitely be acknowledged is the fact that this is all natural. This has happened before, on numerous campuses for decades. However, given that we are young, grappling with figuring out who we are, and that this institution claims to care about social justice (however ambiguous), we all need to take the time to figure out how we can break this cycle. The administrators cannot do everything for us, nor do they have the ability. If we, as students, want to make change, we need legitimate channels to be used first, and take a little more time. We can be organized, not yell or give into passion, and our administrators will be human in response. Sometimes we should remember that all individuals deserve respect, that disagreement most likely does not come from a place of true hatred and that practicality is something we all need to keep in mind. It is a very good thing that we are only listed as a “yellow” school on FIRE’s list of schools with ambiguous speech policies, which means there are few rules in place preventing new, constructive and critical exchanges from happening.