My dear alma mater is a shining 21st century example of the Smallpox Blanket. I’d argue that the dissemination of the smallpox is not directly intended, as history suggests was the intention of our dear Old Lord Jeffrey, but rather the 21st century blankets are the unintended consequences of the appeals to symbolism that rule on college and university campuses to this day.
What do I mean?
Amherst College has been much in the news lately, and has itself been going nuts doing damage control, after rape victim Angie Epifano came forward with a disturbing account not only of her rape, but also of the way that the Administration at Amherst seemed to sweep the incident under the rug. This article reports that once Ms. Epifano came forward, many others have since shared similar stories not just at Amherst but from colleges across the country. Now, none of us know the facts of this case, or of the many others, but even if there is only a shred of truth to them, which folks have some good reason to suspect, the implications are disturbing beyond the very disturbing particulars of the Amherst case.
What do I mean?
Well, the case and the coverup should be expected. It’s shocking that anyone is shocked. And that is the story here in my view. Almost every selective college in America (or is it “every” college?) cares very deeply about reputation. I’ve argued many times that they care too deeply. And as a result of caring deeply about reputation (and the way it interacts with perverse institutional incentives unique to higher education) they find themselves engaged in many an arms race. Arms races are harmful because resources are destroyed and in the process the ultimate outcome we are racing toward becomes unaffected. In the case of reputation, only one school can “be the best” and only 10 schools can be in the “top 10″ and so forth. And if every single school is caught up in an arms race for prestige and reputation you can imagine that not only will schools “invest” in things which actually make themselves better institutions but also a good many things that have no bearing at all on the quality of the education and even in some cases make it worse.
This is where the Amherst rape incident fits in. And at the risk of being accused of making over-the-top and out-of-bounds comparisons, I see this case as no different at all than the myriad episodes on all college campuses where symbolism seems to be all that matters. Take the cases of green triumphalism that we have followed here at the Unbroken Window for a few years now. In every single one of those cases where the crickets have stopped making noise (i.e. when someone actually helps me understand what is going on and talks to me) it turns out the campus investments in green projects have nothing at all to do with achieving environmental or even economic or aesthetic outcomes (solar trashcans are ugly in my opinion), but everything to do with “showing students, parents, alumni and the community that you care.” It’s all a symbol, and I am told time and again, and I mean it, I am told time and again, that all of this symbolism is harmless.
Ignore for the time being that “harmless” to these folks means “ignore the wasted economic resources and the environmental damage that the investments create” because that is what is meant by “thanking me for my opinion” when I ask questions about costs and benefits. Ignore that entirely. This symbolism is not costless because it is part and parcel of the great rot that is eating out our academic institutions from the inside out. And what is that rot? It is the abandonment of reason. It is the abandonment of personal responsibility. It is the abandonment of real argument and debate. This all seems to be a big game students and university stakeholders think they are playing. It is not. People in all kinds of situations can make changes. We are not slaves to the competition. We are not slaves to “the man.” We are not slaves to social constructions. People in all manner of awful situations can make magnificent changes. But we have walked away from taking a close look at character, priorities and rsponsibilities on college campuses. We really have. There is simply no ethic of personal responsibility. There is no ethic of leadership. Sure, there are banners that tell everyone we develop leaders. Sure, there are annual slogans telling people we intend to promote responsibility – but it is all symbolism. All of it.
Do you think in my 4 years at Amherst any professor, staff person, fellow-student, etc. ever engaged me on the meaning of responsibility? Do you think there was a culture of accountability developed on campus? Do you think that students who stepped out of broad institutional stereotypes were celebrated as leaders by either the school or their classmates? Do you think the college ever spent millions of dollars commissioning a consulting group to measure exactly what the heck leadership and accountability means? Whether the college can do anything to really promote it? I doubt it. I saw no evidence of it when I was a student, nor do I see any evidence of it now that I am on the other side of it too. Do you think that we as faculty are regularly talking about building the character of our students, about promoting accountability in our students? Do you think people in positions of power to shape the culture of an institution are hiring faculty who have a particular skill at doing those sorts of things? I am not saying here that I am any of those things either, I may be the opposite – the point is that nobody would know because nobody has ever asked, or engaged in such a thing.
But back to the symbolism. When the best you can do is to appeal to the symbolism of almost everything you do – e.g. intellectual diversity, ethnic diversity, co-curricular learning, green-investments, community development, etc. then you create a system where it is not even possible in theory to develop a culture of accountability. What, exactly, do we think folks can be accountable for if the intentions are all that matter? Any administrator, faculty, student, stakeholder merely needs to say, “well, we tried and we meant well” and that makes almost any action taken on campus to be an acceptable one. When the best you can do is call every attempt at an objective understanding of a program “an opinion” well, then, we are sowing the seeds of unaccountability – particularly when “other opinions” are not offered up for evaluation. You see, what’s the harm in just “doing things” to raise awareness?
The harm of course is that the symbol is all you have left to appeal to and defend. And the symbol of colleges being places of great intellectual activities, of being places that are “safe” for people of all backgrounds, of being places that embrace difference, etc. requires that any and all efforts be taken to preserve the importance of those things as symbols in themselves. The ideals themselves become a mockery. It may be easy enough for a school not to do research (or report it) on whether a particular green investment is a good idea – learning that it is not a good idea probably isn’t powerful enough to dissuade some people from pursuing those things anyway (we are talking about religion here after all). But the same is not true of rape and sexual assault. But there is NO ONE (I guess except some evil Republican congressional candidates) out there that sees any silver lining in a rape (well, maybe some economic ignoramuses who of course would celebrate all of the psychology jobs and anti-depressant manufacturing jobs that are created for each rape that occurs). No one. And so if information about a rape gets out there and becomes general knowledge, there would be no ability at all for a college to appeal to intentions. Imagine Amherst coming out to parents, students and alumni and saying, “Well, Ms. Epifano’s rape sure was unfortunate, but we did have counselors around and we do put some posters up and wear some ribbons every once in a while to raise awareness about it, so really, that’s what’s most important, that we raise some awareness.” Even if that is true and the best any school can do is to raise awareness that this crap happens all too often, such a “defense” would be appalling to almost all stakeholders. So colleges simply cannot let the cat out of the bag.
Rapes cannot happen on campuses. They cannot. They must not. For if they do, they shatter the mirage not only about the campuses being a “safe” place (they may be, statistically – but that is for another post), they inevitably allow stakeholders to start asking questions like, “if something THIS important is swept under the rug or ill researched, what else must be going on?” And for sure, we cannot allow those kinds of questions to be asked and answered. So I am not surprised at all that Amherst didn’t do everything in its infinite power to treat Ms. Epifano better and be honest about what happens on campus. But if we were paragons of reason on campus, that incident would have been handled waaaay differently. It would have been a time for Amherst to remind people that unicorns do not exist. After all, Amherst and “the law” has “banned rape” i.e. it is illegal. But does that make it not happen? Do you think that if Amherst just tells everyone that it will “get tougher” that much can change? And of course given the incentive and accountability at colleges and universities about the only thing you can expect campuses to do in these situations is to respond like a government. Spend lots of money. And engage lots of commissions. That is already happening at Amherst. But remember, we have all kinds of resources already on campus. There are already counselors and resident counselors and psychologists and student support services of all kinds. There are already myriad training programs and educational programs to promote awareness about the problem of sexual assault on campus. Will hiring a Dean of Sexual Misconduct really do anything? Will forcing all freshmen students into a 1-credit Introduction to College Sexuality class do anything? Well, we know for sure what it will do is establish another vested interest group on campus who sees little virtue in saving money, and who will have an even LARGER incentive to hide problematic information when it comes to light. Do you think that cases of mismanaged sexual assaults are more or less likely to be swept under the rug when a school cares most about its reputation and also has an office of Sexual Misconduct, or when schools care about developing the whole character of a person, care little about reputation, and don’t have entire offices dedicated to single issues like this?
There is much, much, much more to say about this tragic event (and the ones that are not being reported elsewhere, I am sure that my own institution has similar ghosts to hide) including the inevitable reaction against fraternities and athletics (from the rhetoric I am reading in the Amherst Community it appears that the the perpetrator in this case and others was an athlete who is also in an off-campus fraternity), but the post is already too long and I’m sure I’ve alienated too many people already.