Photo of George Orwell, speaking into a BBC microphone.
If you make enough mistakes you’ll have a substantial life but only if you spot the mistakes. As THE General Body’s protest at Syracuse University seems to show no sign it will come to an end anytime soon I want to offer some ideas about living a life of good mistakes. I’m an expert in this area. My favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, once told me he was the world’s foremost authority on tooth fairies. I’m the genius of blunders.
Make no mistake about it: I’m not saying THE General Body has blundered in its righteousness. Far from it. Students occupying Crouse-Hinds Hall have done a profound service for the SU community by demanding better mental health services, ADA compliance on campus, more financial aid for our best minority students, an expansion of services for rape crisis, restoration of the women’s advocacy center, and a commitment to transparency and engagement by the university’s trustees and administration. THE General Body has also demanded other crucial things—clean energy investment, greater student input about the future direction of the university—in essence calling for a commitment to democracy. No blunders anywhere.
But as the king of blunders its time for me to stick my neck out. To echo Kurt Vonnegut: I think there are plenty of hopeless ideas going around. One is that Kent Syverud, Chancellor of Syracuse University is unmindful of diversity. In truth he has committed his life to championing inclusion. He has defended affirmative action. Kent Syverud is not the enemy of inclusiveness he’s being made out to be. This is a careless mistake.
The problem with careless mistakes is they become canonical. If THE General Body paints Chancellor Syverud as being opposed to campus diversity it can then create an alternative reality, one where no one in authority can be counted on. I remember the Sixties and the specious phrase: “don’t trust anyone over thirty”.
Now the administration also has made mistakes. Placing a construction fence outside the protest? A blunder. Treating the occupation as merely a “negotiation” rather than an opportunity for education—a genuine campus wide “teach in” with faculty and administration and students— that was a blunder. Students have been made to feel like the enemy while presenting their demands. I for one would never have sent the university’s chief counsel out to meet the students “first thing”. Blunder blunder.
But now what? THE General Body is invested in the idea that Chancellor Syverud is not trustworthy. I think this is a terrible mistake. “Ah,” you say, “but Grasshopper, haven’t you already said you’re the king of blunders? Why should you be heard at all?”
You’ve got me. I make mistakes. Often I make them because of my passionate intensity. But I also know a good mistake depends upon thorough recognition.
THE General Body needs to recognize three things straightaway: 1. Media notoriety is addictive but not always productive. 2. The Chancellor is likely more reliable and trustworthy than you think. 3. Since I said “likely” the advantage is yours. The Chancellor must now demonstrate he can be trusted. I believe you can count on him. Yes, I’m just a blundering writer. But I don’t think I’m making a mistake by saying THE General Body can count on Kent Syverud to faithfully communicate with students while pressing for reforms. If these developments do not transpire the blunder will be the administration’s and clearly observable. But for now I think THE General Body should decamp and give the Chancellor the chance to demonstrate his integrity. I think he has a lot more of it than he’s being given credit for.