Friday, January 11, 2008

Common Sense and Paranoia on Campus

From Inside Higher Ed comes the bizarre story of a young man who was expelled from Valdosta State University in Georgia for opposing the construction of two parking garages on campus. He was evidently quite the nuisance, sending out mass e-mailings, posting flyers, and penning letters to the school paper. I don't pretend to understand all the motivations behind college activism, but I can think of an injustice or two more pressing than a university's desire to spend student fees erecting a parking structure. Nevertheless, this was the cause that apparently galvanized one T. Hayden Barnes into action, and I suppose not every protest has to be about peace and freedom.

This is, of course, the sort of thing that happens on every campus every now and then, but rarely matters even if it reaches the stage of a student government resolution or a faculty senate hissy fit. But Valdosta State officials didn't wait for Mr. Barnes to generate meaningful support for his initiative. Instead, they declared him a threat to campus security and directed him to leave the university pending psychological evaluation.

The evidence of danger in this case proved particularly flimsy; Mr. Barnes had not even drawn one of those stick-figure hangmen that cause the modern university to go into penitentiary-style lockdown. As one indicator of the student's supposedly warped psyche, administrators cited a Facebook entry in which the young man stated that he was “cleaning out and rearranging his room and thus, his mind, or so he hopes”. And of course they made reference to last April's massacre at Virginia Tech.

I am not the free speech absolutist I once was, particularly when it comes to colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education exist for a specific purpose—or really, several specific purposes—and they are not the equivalent of the town square. There is no reason, in my view, why even a public university shouldn't have the right, within clear limits, to circumscribe expression contrary to its mission. Racists, for example, who are otherwise free to clutter the landscape, should not necessarily enjoy the same privileges on a campus that is dedicated to fostering a culture of mutual respect and diversity. The Nazi Party's right to march in Grant Park should not, for example, necessarily apply to nearby Chicago State University.

Still, there is no need to create a slippery slope here. Students who run around in blackface should be punished; students who peacefully and without ridicule hand out literature opposing affirmative action should not. And special scrutiny should be given to any case in which an individual or organization is sanctioned for opposing the plans or policies of university administrators. That doesn't mean that lines cannot be crossed, but the burden should rest heavily on any institution that chooses to, say, expel a young man who has decided that his life's mission is to keep parking in Valdosta, Georgia, from going vertical.

But the scariest aspect to this whole situation is the invocation of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Just as Columbine has become an excuse for primary and secondary school administrators to overreact, VaTech is now having a similar impact on higher ed. Safety, of course, is only part of the equation. Increasingly, colleges and universities dance to the tune of campus attorneys for whom liability matters above all else. Make a joke about firebombing the administration building and you might as well be in the security line at the airport. If you are lucky, your weak attempt at humor will only result in police interrogation and mandatory counseling. If you are unlucky, you will find yourself banished from campus entirely.

The lawyers, of course, are supported in their efforts by professors and administrators who, like grade school parents, see the occasional televised shooting and assume that clear and present danger lurks behind dormitory walls. This attitude, in turn, breeds paranoia, the same sort that threatens high school kids with a criminal record for carrying a Swiss Army Knife to class. Or, in this case, the kind that makes officials at Valdosta State see potential carnage in a student's on-line link to an advertisement for a video contest that reads, "Shoot it. Upload it. Get famous." Calmer heads would have understood that this was a call for the new Quentin Tarantino, not the next Lee Harvey Oswald. But we live in a society today in which hyper-vigilance, not calm reflection, has become the industry standard.

Being in the professor business myself, it's not as though I am unaware of the potential perils of the unhinged student. Years ago, one of my undergraduates made threatening noises on my telephone answering machine—long before Called ID—and I brought in the university police. I really didn't want them to investigate; I just wanted to make a report in case things turned nastier. I was confident that even if the cops located the late-night caller, they would simply question him, scare him a little, and move on. Under the same circumstances today, knowing that I could be ruining some drunken kid's life, I might well keep it to myself. Don’t get me wrong: I'm no fool. If the threat seemed angry enough, or personal enough, or detailed enough, I wouldn't hesitate to get in touch with the authorities. But, within certain boundaries, I trust that my common sense and experience allow me to distinguish between the idiot and the terrorist.

Every time one of these shooting incidents occurs, the news media show up and begin to ask why nobody saw the clues beforehand. And working the maze backwards, there are always clues. Teachers and classmates and counselors are interviewed and each one can usually conjure up something that, with the power of hindsight, now appears an obvious cry for help.

This is, however, an enormously stupid and damaging approach. A lot of kids think dark thoughts and even put them to paper; almost none of these kids is dangerous. Now, the young man at Virginia Tech did seem to have been more overtly troubled and threatening than most, and some sort of prior intervention may well have been justified. Still, we must resist the temptation to become amateur profilers, scrutinizing every odd, dorky, or unhappy undergraduate for any traits that he or she may seemingly share with one of more of the notorious campus killers.

We live in a time when people demand perfect safety from a world in which 100% of living participants ultimately die. Since September 11, 2001, Americans have been disturbingly eager to endure nearly any diminution of their rights and liberties so long as the government can justify it in terms of national security. Thus, we now have warrantless wiretapping, suspension of habeas corpus, and other personal intrusions that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.

On college campuses, of all places, we cannot yield to our fears at the expense of our students. Of course we can be smart and careful and vigilant. But we must use both our judgment and our compassion in dealing with people who are, in most cases, just emerging from the tribulations of adolescence. More than anything else, we cannot allow ourselves, either through paranoia or self-interest, to see threats where students are merely expressing opposition.

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