Opinion

What we’re getting wrong about campus protests

Freedom of speech doesn’t go out the window just because students are fortunate enough to attend college

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Jonathan Butler, front left, addresses a crowd following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the university in Columbia, Mo.

“Crybullies,” “entitled whiner syndrome,” “spoiled sense of entitlement … ”

Since the start of the student protests on the University of Missouri campus that included a hunger strike by a graduate student and a sit-out by the Tigers’ football team, negative, demeaning and offensive comments have been hurled at student participants.

It is as if folks assume that being enrolled in college or university is such a privilege that one parks one’s capacity to criticize at the door.

Is the concept of students speaking up and out, asking for racial equality and harmony or improvements to the institution they attend verboten today?

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Stated differently, it strikes me that what folks are saying is: be quiet and thankful and go about your own life. It is rude and disrespectful, the argument goes, to get angry and exercised when one is fortunate enough (privileged enough) to be a college student, earning a degree and pursuing a pathway to future economic success.

The criticism of the Mizzou graduate student who went on a hunger strike has been wicked – pointing out that he comes from family wealth. Did his privilege mean he is barred from protesting or challenging authority? Do we really expect or want students to be “tame” and “compliant” and “respectful” even in the face of events, conduct and actions that are offensive, culturally inappropriate and racially insensitive – both in reality and as perceived? And, if the students perceive affronts that others of us do not perceive similarly, are we so sure our reactions are right? Who judges what is offensive?

I have been equally disquieted by many of the comments surrounding the more recent defacing of portraits of African American faculty at Harvard Law School. Instead of outrage, some commentators have been downright calm while others have suggested that the minority students at the institution are responsible in an effort to create added evidence of racism at Harvard Law School. Seriously?

Related: Yale students break through generations of pained black silence

As a product of the 60’s – when many protests turned sadly into violence and were accompanied by arrests – I have been disappointed by the absence of student protests over the past decades. Students need to learn to fight for what is right and fair and just, most especially those in positions of privilege whether of their own making or inherited. The alternative – silence in the face of wrongs – has a long and horrific history, of which the Holocaust is but one example.

I refuse to believe that our campuses are such paradigms of racial, ethnic and gender equality that we can afford to just “go along” calmly and without dissent. Anyone who has been on any campus knows there are inequities of all sorts. Just look and listen to the students of all ages, races, ethnicities and genders.

If we want a world in which we treat all people with decency, let’s not strip our students of their capacity to protest. Privilege does not demand that. Students can shout and levy charges; they can peacefully demonstrate; they can get angry over inequities. In fact, the two lessons referenced above tell me that students in college today are privileged (each in different ways to be sure) and with that privilege comes enormous responsibility to lead the charge for a better world. As educators, we can and should ask our students to use their “privilege” positively.

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When I became a college president, I was fortunate to spend time with one of the college’s major donors. Once, after I thanked her for her remarkable generosity, she turned to me and said: “Remember, I did not earn all this money; I inherited it. But, my parents always reminded me that with this wealth comes equally if not larger responsibilities and obligations to give back to others in ways that have meaning.”

Her words have also stayed with me; they have informed how I reflect on my own money and asking for donations. They have guided me as I reflect on the deep duty that accompanies (or at least should accompany) privilege for those with abundant resources. These are important lessons.

Folks, in the recent peaceful incidents on America’s campuses, the students are not whining; they are not being disrespectful; they are not being selfish. No, they are doing precisely with what we need for them to do with their privilege: improve the world we all inhabit and promote a brighter and better world for their children and our grandchildren to inherit.

That is, and should be, the obligation and responsibility of privilege.

Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College and former senior policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Education. She is currently senior counsel at Widmeyer Communications.

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Karen Gross

Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College and a former Senior Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of Education. See Archive

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