I teach at a university that has lately been in the news for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately I’m in no way unique when making this statement: faculty from Syracuse to Oklahoma, from Chapel Hill to Harvard are now working under the overarching impression of widespread chicanery and deceit in higher education. In a troubled era it’s hard to get the word out that faculty across the nation are by and large rather extraordinary citizens. Of course this is also true of cab drivers—the majority are great. But therein lies the problem. A controlling image of disagreeable aspect has overtaken the public’s perception about academia.
Campus problems are genuine. From sexual assaults to racism to scandals involving academic fraud and sports programs, we’ve seen countless instances of criminality and wrongdoing. Worse are the attendant failures of admission. We’ve heard variants of “we had no idea this was going on” from all too many administrative quarters at too many schools for credulity to stand.
No one can excuse the apparent cavalier exceptionalism of the ivory tower and I applaud New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s support of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. While laws don’t necessarily provide solutions, CASA will make it much harder for colleges to sweep instances of sexual assault under the rug. But here is something the public should know: many colleges are key players in the effort to establish safe campuses and are playing a vital role in assuring transparency. Chances are good you won’t know this from the headlines.
I have a sign on my office door that says “safe space” and this means more to me than my graduate degree. I was a disabled kid in the fifties and sixties who was routinely bullied and often assaulted. If you’re lucky and have the right support network, you’ll grow up understanding the past and know it’s not the prologue to your future. As a faculty member with a disability I have the right and expectation that my diversity is accepted, understood, and even celebrated on occasion. And this is where I must return to my opening assertion: the faculty with whom I work (or who I’ve had the fortune to meet around the world) are remarkable people. This is not Pollyanna-ism or an optimism bias on my part. Day by day I encounter scholars and advisors who are deeply committed to equal opportunity, fairness, and human rights. It is a shame this needs to be said.
“Safe space” means more than just my office or the office of a colleague. It means the whole university. It means together we pledge to live up to standards of excellence both in the classroom and without. The American professoriate does not have a motto but if it did I think it would be: “we want everyone to succeed”. This means every single student who enrolls. While recent news reports from the halls of learning haven’t been very good, name another place in our civic square where there’s so much desire from so many corners to see that public space is triumphant space.
I walk everywhere in the company of a guide dog. As a result, because people like dogs, I have frequent casual conversations. On a normal day at Syracuse University I talk with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, Latina people, people of color, foreign students, disabled folks, trans-gender students, very old men, and yes, people who are likely hurting inside. But here on “the hill” as we call our quadrangle, we strive, all of us together, to be better than we were yesterday or better than we were this morning. If you think this doesn’t bear repeating you’re probably in search of bad news.
While many argue the traditional college campus will or should become a thing of the past, I disagree. Only by meeting and sharing our experiences, often in casual conversation, do we see how alike we are and how much strength and wisdom we can share. Perhaps some day online courses can deliver this unanticipated news but I doubt it. “Safe space” is real space. I know of no faculty who would easily disagree.