This semester began with some of the most moving moments of community that I have seen during my 35 years in higher education. Little more than nine weeks later, we saw some of the most offensive and divisive of behaviors. Now that all are returned from fall break, you, our students, will decide what kinds of conduct will dominate your community in the semester’s final weeks.
When we lost four undergraduates so suddenly Aug. 25, those closest to them easily could have crumbled. Instead they rallied, united in their commitment to support grieving families and one another. The strength and grace shown during those first awful days illustrated your extraordinary character, as well as your sense of mutual connection.
Sadly, we saw an entirely different reaction Oct. 22, when members of the #webelonghere movement demonstrated outside the North Residential Village as part of a national day of protest against police brutality. Critics posted mean-spirited social media comments about the gathering, including one with racial slurs and another advocating police violence against the protesters.
These statements were so contrary to the university’s values that President Barbara Snyder sent a campus-wide email asking others to join her in condemning them. Count me among those who wholeheartedly support her position. We, as a campus community, together define our principles – not only by what we support, but also that which we reject.
The more important question, of course, is how you will respond to her call. One of the sites with posts regarding the demonstration is YikYak, a relatively new arrival on the online landscape in which all posts are anonymous. This lack of accountability emboldens some to offer crude and vulgar observations—not only on this campus, but across the country. And yet the day after the president’s message, the site included a thoughtful exchange of perspectives regarding the goals of #webelonghere and how success might be measured. In other instances, people have “voted down” negative posts so that they are less prominent on YikYak’s list.
The most defining aspect of social media is that it is open to anyone who wants to hear or be heard. As a result, the tone of those online conversations depends entirely on who talks. Some may object to taking part in a discussion among people who have shown such disregard for others. But avoidance only perpetuates the pattern, as one callous and cutting comment follows another, and another, in an unchallenged downward spiral. Case Western Reserve University is better than that. You are better than that. And you have an opportunity now to demonstrate this fact to others, and perhaps even change some minds along the way.
Posting online is only one of many ways that members of this community can express principles. People can pen columns in the school newspaper. Start discussions in dining halls. Hold their own demonstrations, sponsor resolutions and so on. How you express yourself is less important than that you do express yourself. Conversations build community: As opinions are exchanged, as you and your peers add the layers of nuance that only multiple numbers allow, we all will learn.
Learning, after all, is a central purpose of a university. You learn in your classes, on playing fields, in laboratories, volunteer efforts and in countless other places. This is the beauty of a university. It is a place that draws people together in common cause, no matter what other differences may separate them. It is a place where preconceived notions can be challenged, perspectives broadened and new bonds formed.
We know from the start of the year that you have enormous capacity for compassion. And we know from the middle that at least a few of you will succumb to the most base of instincts. All of us in student affairs stand ready to help you explore the meanings of those experiences, and the opportunities you have to reshape the worst of them. In the end, though, the decisions are yours.
Now you are in the proverbial last quarter, the final lap, game point: How will you choose to close this term? Classes end in just 35 days. I hope you make the most of every moment between now and then.
Lou Stark is Vice President for Student Affairs.