Don’t Tread on Me
In the twenty years that the Lady and I have been married we’ve moved three times. Each time into a further remote
location. We still have jobs. We both teach. She teaches at the local public school. I teach journalism at a state university about an hour away. But the reason behind the moves mostly come down to two things:
1.) Increased ability for sustainability
2.) To be left alone.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the sustainability part on these digital pages, but not much about the other. I don’t sit around telling other people how to live their lives and I appreciate the same courtesy for me and the people I surround myself with. But, due to some recent events at my university I want to dive down there for a while. But here it is in a nutshell. Some conservative Republican legislators don’t like the president of my university, Dr. Robin Bowen, or the Department of Diversity and Inclusion. As a result they proposed legislation (House Bill 1213) to force the university to defund the department. Not the diversity and inclusion departments at the rest of the state universities. Just this one.
Okay fine. They’re conservative Republicans from the Bible Belt. I get it. No surprise. This has been going on for a couple of years. Such is life in higher education in the South.
There are just a couple of problems.
- The Department of Diversity and Inclusion is part of the solution to deal with requirements for university accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission. Not to mention it assists with meeting requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act. You’ll find a similar department on just about every university campus in the state of Arkansas and every other state in the country. Departments that I’ll again mention aren’t being subjected to legislation to defund them.
The legislators took particular offense to a student organization’s (which is sponsored by the department) sex education event that was entitled “Sex on the Lawn.” This gets a bit tricky and confusing because the 90th General Assembly of the State Legislature passed House Bill 1534 that requires state universities to provide students with resources to prevent unplanned pregnancy. A bill that was voted in favor of by both the author of HB 1213, Rep. Trevor Drown, and co-sponsor Rep. Mary Bentley. The bill requires universities to provide the same kind of education and resources that were available at the event.
So to put things from the university’s perspective. Both the HLC and the State of Arkansas require the university to fulfill certain obligations that are met in many ways by the department of diversity and inclusion. The department that the state legislators now want them to defund.
A contradiction that I’m quite sure all parties involved are well aware.
So what gives?
There are plenty more details that could be added. I should mention that the student organization that put on the event was an LGBT organization, but really that just confounds the issue because immediately folks want to start moralizing on what is or what isn’t “appropriate.” Which on the surface seems to be the crux of the legislators’ complaint. I should also mention that the Dr. Bowen, as the previous university president before her, has been pushing for the past couple of years for the state legislature to re-write school funding models because our particular university falls toward the bottom of state funding in spite of being the third largest in the state, falling only behind the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University. A formula that is deeply entrenched and protected by well-heeled supporters and lobbyists in the state. It might also be noteworthy to mention that the legislators pushing the bill are the local legislators whose districts surround the university. In other words, these are state reps who normally should be defending the university from such attacks.
Boiled down it comes to this. The state reps want her to stop pushing for money and to tone down the whole diversity and inclusion business. Especially the LGBT business.
But, nevertheless she persisted.
They claim Dr. Bowen won’t listen to them (and perhaps she won’t) and now they’re mad so they decided to make life as difficult as possible for her. To do that they’re writing legislation with the sole purpose of punishing a university president. Legislation, that if passed could result in loss of accreditation for the university which would result in a severe economic impact for the river valley. All other things aside, their actual goal to get her to leave by using students, who are typically underdogs, as leverage.
If you want to know what’s really going on, that’s it.
As a rule I typically stay out of this stuff. But, when someone threatens my students I’m not going to stay silent.
I don’t think we get anywhere by slinging insults. Everyone thinks they have the moral high ground. I’m also not going to subject you to moralization. You can have your own views and what you do or don’t want to do. I really don’t care as long is it isn’t hurting anyone who can’t hit back. I’m going back to that whole bit about being left alone.
The kind of men I truly admire are the Teddy Roosevelts and Earnest Hemingways of the world. Both were physically and intellectually strong. Fearless, driven and with their own particular code of the way things ought to be. Men who were both valued education, books and a good fight. They weren’t afraid to put themselves out there and not afraid to step on the sensibilities of others. Roosevelt especially was drawn to fights and to do everything he could to make the world a better place for the underdogs. He fought corruption. He took on powerful enemies. He got shot in the chest on the way to give a speech and gave the speech with the bullet in his chest before going to a hospital. I admire people with tenacity. People who do things for themselves. People who aren’t afraid to work until they’re exhausted to make things happen. They don’t complain even when they can. They just do what needs to be done to make things happen.
I don’t admire people who hide behind walls. People who blame others for their failures. People who are lazy and apathetic. People who act as if they’re morally superior. And I really don’t admire people who’ll throw an innocent person or group under a bus if they think it’ll earn them political points.
One of the things that I love about working on a university campus is that students are given the freedom to work things out for themselves. Contrary to much of the coddling, safe space, snow flake accusations, students are certainly given the opportunity to succeed or fail. And university educations are about much more than job training. There is a reason that much of classical education revolves around philosophy and literature as it does mathematics. At a university students get confronted with things that make them uncomfortable and give them the room and the tools to deal with it. It helps establish reasoning skills and mental tenacity. It doesn’t allow them to hide behind walls and throw rocks at ideas and people. In short, it helps them become better thinkers.
Our job at universities is to build. We challenge thought. We offer knowledge. Experience. Insight. Every professor is different. Every university is different. Every one brings their own particular set of skills to the table. It’s not perfect. But it works. But on top of that there a lot of internal checks and balances going on that most people don’t know about. There is a lot of self-governance. And things have a way of working out as a result.
For example. Arkansas Tech has a board of directors and a faculty senate. The current university president was chosen and confirmed by both the university faculty, a university search committee and a board of directors through a democratic process. If you’re looking for a mandate that’s about as close as you can get. And from my own particular way of thinking that pretty well means she’s the president of the university and as such and gets to lead as she sees fit until the governing body of the university deems otherwise.
Except when a couple of state level politicians serving two year-terms decide they know better and make it a point to swerve into someone else’s lane.
The thing that most frustrates me the most is that I’m very familiar with the districts these two state reps serve. Both are rural districts as I live in one of them. And I know that in those districts there are some very real needs that could improve the lives of the people who live in them. There are chronic levels of poverty and food insecurity. There are problems with infrastructure that makes it difficult to attract both industry and people. There are very real things that can be done to help improve that situation, but it takes leadership, commitment and tenacity.
Throwing rocks at the gay kids doesn’t seem like it’s making a single person’s life better. It may earn you brownie points from a particular crowd but mostly it looks like a sign of weakness and meddling in other people’s business instead of taking care of your own. It takes no strength or courage to be against something. In fact it takes nothing at all. Tearing things down is easy. Building is hard. Very hard. If you want to make the world or your community a better place then you have to do things that actually make the world and your community a better place.
So when it comes to my university and its president, it doesn’t matter if I agree with them on everything. They have the right to be left alone to do their job. A university isn’t a church and it isn’t an elementary school. We’re all adults here. Students are free to attend whatever they want and free to not attend whatever they want. They’re also free to go somewhere else, but they came here for a reason. A reason that didn’t include the moral judgement of a politician.