Activism on Campus
The vibrancy of the campus and the involvement of students in the life of the College are among the barometers of Bates’s health and vitality. College campuses must be places of dialectic between ideas and principles, words and action, alternative perspectives, challenged authority and the growing pains that result from stretching conventionality.As I often tell prospective students, Bates must surprise them as it leads them to the unexpected; it must be challenging and demanding, asking for more than they think reasonable to offer — it should expect them to squawk. The College depends on participation and involvement; there are few spectator activities here. Bates asks its students to see the connections between knowing and serving others, as they adopt principles that are greater than self-interest. And at Bates, students should understand that their education is in part liberation, an emancipation that they are responsible for initiating in themselves.
The sounds and expressions of student vitality, of participation, and of intellectual liberation are being added to the clamor of steel girders framing the new academic building — for they are the many voices that compose the College. They are welcome sounds — although, in the emotion of the moment, they can get mixed with frustration, anger, and uncritical judgments.
Current student activism may remind you of experiences you shared twenty or more years ago; you would be proud of the involvement that is exhibited and the commitment to principle that underlies their efforts.
I share a few highlights:
In October a “coming out” event, intended to celebrate gay awareness and organized by several campus organizations, was disrupted. Unfortunately, an administrative decision to remove a display on the Quad was not resolved by a restoration of the display and a public apology from the Office of the Dean of Students. The action was viewed as symptomatic of a perception of unacknowledged homophobia on campus and the marginalization, if not the silencing, of difference. Open discussions were followed by a student-supported sit-in on the first floor of Lane Hall. In its resolution, the deans acknowledged their resolve to learn from the episode and pledged their assistance and involvement. They pledged to be more informed, to help communicate, and to help the community better understand the concerns that gay and lesbian students are raising regarding recognition, and the resulting restrictions they feel to their own potential.
Later in the month, a silent sit-in by students with signs was held outside of the room where faculty members debated the merits of proposals for revising the general-education requirements. The “statement” of the episode confirmed the sentiment of many that the nature of the curriculum is of significant interest to students — as well as to the faculty who are charged with the responsibility of crafting it. Involving students and asking them to take greater responsibility for their learning are noble objectives that require the reality of working toward meaningful ways in which student perspectives on the curriculum add to the debate.
Nearly two-thirds of the students at Bates are involved in varsity or club athletics. Athletic competition can be a learning context — especially at a residential liberal arts college featuring participation, involvement, and the encouragement of leadership.
Bates belongs to NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference: Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut College, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Wesleyan, and Williams). Post-season play by teams within NESCAC had not been permitted from 1971 (when the conference was founded) until 1993. In 1993, the NESCAC presidents voted to initiate an experiment that would permit NESCAC teams to participate in NCAA championships. That experiment comes to an end in 1999.
Students and coaches at Bates are very supportive of permitting post-season team play to continue. A spirited student effort was initiated at Bates, as well as on other campuses. Open hearings, a Quimby Council-sponsored debate on the topic, and extensive meetings with committees of the Board of Trustees, with the Athletics Council (composed of students), committees of the faculty, and with coaches and the athletics director have resulted in broader campus understanding, and, I believe, general support for what is understood as a compromise position that uses this opportunity to strengthen NESCAC and honor the basic principles that define the conference.
The Goals 2005 Vision for Bates states, in part, that Bates will “remain a distinctive learning community…recognizing academic achievement, individual expression, the centrality of responsibility, and the dignity and value of difference.”
When we hear students and others express issues of intense concern, and when we sense the vitality that underlies that deeply felt expression, we appreciate the persistent qualities of the College. In the sounds of student activism, we hear defining echoes of the College’s excellence.