Sunday November 15, 2015
The Columbus Dispatch
Page I 7
College students should be treated as adults
By Mark R. Weaver
College students are dizzy in the whirlwind of change from the teenage drama years to the vastly different burdens and joys of adulthood. Payers of tuition, parents and students alike, expect university officials to be wise Sherpas, accompanying those students along that rocky climb. Yet recent incidents at the University of Missouri, Ithaca College and Yale University have shown that those who lead many of our colleges and universities are failing in their responsibilities.
My perspective on this is manifold and sweeps over several decades. As a student-government leader at a large state university, I negotiated with administrators and trustees over student demands. In graduate school, I was the resident director in charge of two large freshman dormitories. Today, I teach at three major universities and my two children are college students.
Every aspect of university life is, and ought to be, a learning experience. Ideas of every type should be discussed, debated, and considered during these years that are made for acquiring the knowledge that will guide and govern the travails of life. But there’s a dichotomy that sets the table for the trouble we’re seeing today.
When it comes to issues such as alcohol use, sexual activity and political participation, many college students desperately want to be treated like hardy adults. But those who demand “safe space” and college-enforced protection from offensive words or ideas incongruently are asking university officials to treat them like fragile children.
These paradoxes shouldn’t surprise us. Research shows that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25. For that reason, our call for redress should primarily be aimed at those who’ve been educated and trained to help young adults thrive and mature in a college setting. Yet it’s precisely those administrators who too often seem to be paragons of pusillanimity when this challenge calls for them to be people of principle.
The most glaring example of this is Timothy Wolfe, who resigned as the president of the University of Missouri under pressure from a losing football team refusing to play, a fraction of the student body boycotting classes, and a solitary student declaring he would not eat until the president resigned. The entire offbeat episode evoked the unmistakable analogy of a toddler threatening to hold his breath until he gets his own way.
None of this is to say that some of the issues raised by the students, such as issues of racial division or social unrest, are unserious or unworthy of substantive debate. Rather, the notion that students with grievances — perceived or actual — claiming the forced resignation of a university president as a trophy should be as offensive to those of us who revere higher education as the poaching of Cecil the lion was to those who love animals.
And lost in the noisy swirl of chants, declarations of being offended and accusations of so-called micro-aggressions is a larger, more durable concern. At least at public universities, which are unequivocally bound by the restraints of the U.S. Constitution, the willingness of the army of the aggrieved to deny the value and applicability of First Amendment free-speech protections is deeply troubling.
One student leader at the University of Missouri gave a national television interview in which she declared that she was tired of those who cite to the First Amendment as a reason why she might have to allow others to speak. Funny thing about the Constitution: it’s not optional.
Such a misshapen view of basic American tenets is a prime opportunity for college leaders to step in and advocate for civil dialogue from all sides. Yet, as resignations hung in the air, most were too intimidated to do so.
I’ve taught hundreds of students over the years. I’ve learned as much from them as they did from me. Our exchange of information took place in and out of the classroom on a wide variety of topics, some of which were nowhere in my syllabus.
Foremost in my mind in those interactions was the hope that these young people could get something from my class that would better prepare them for the vexing challenges that awaited them beyond the wide green expanses and metaphorical training wheels of campus life.
University leaders must not shrink from their duties to be the rock of principle in a rushing stream of anger, confusion and unrest. Students won’t always like it when they don’t get all they ask for. But they will learn a great deal about the real world of family life and career where angry demands are not always met and shouted grievances are often rebuffed.
Mark R. Weaver is a Columbus attorney who teaches at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, the University of Akron, and the School of Government at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Original link here: http://tinyurl.com/ColumnOnCollege