Oct 18, 2011

The Responsibilities of Higher Education: Inside Peter Laipson's Recent Article

Here is the article that I am talking about. What you read will make infinitely more sense if you look over this first: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/09/26/essay_on_a_threatened_sit_in_during_a_first_day_leading_a_college
On September 26th Peter Laipson, our newly inaugurated provost [at Simon's Rock], posted an article on Inside Higher Education outlining his views on recent student protests and attempts at negotiation about the recent change in library hours. He describes how “four juniors and seniors, who claimed to speak for the student body at large” wrote him a letter outlining their reasons for dissatisfaction and the promise that if the administration failed to heed them, there would be a sit-in. Laipson describes how he handled this calmly, all the while impressed with the students’ precociousness and initiative, managing to successfully brush off the responsibility of a dialogue with the assertion of compromise. The compromise, as I’m sure we all know, is that the library is now open from 11 to 5 on Saturdays instead of being entirely closed. This, however, is exactly what the students were protesting against; yes, it is better than nothing, but it is certainly not enough for a functioning college campus. It is in his article that Laipson steps back and delivers the kind of paternally level-headed statement that attempted to explain the college’s unresponsiveness to these students’ demands. He writes, “I was also piqued that students had planned a sit-in even before asking for a meeting. Real dialogue is an honest conversation in which both parties are prepared to change their minds, not a negotiation coerced by displays of power.”

By far the most illuminating part of Laipson’s article is the debate that kindled, sparked, and intermittently exploded in the comments section below. Dylan, who signed himself as a Simon’s Rock alumn, responded eloquently with, “It’s hypocritical to be piques that they called a sit-in before asking for a meeting, yet to take it as a given that you were right in making a decision related to student resources without consulting students (As a side-note, one of the most popular things the old provost ever did in the four years I was at Simon’s Rock was extend the library hours” (emphasis mine). It’s true that the administration has not asked students directly what they think of the library hours, or what they feel that they need out of their college resources. And when a group of students attempts to assert their opinion to the provost, they are treated more as a curious phenomenon than contenders for discussion. Marie Holtby, mother of sophomore Carmen Holtby, was particularly indignant about Laipson’s treatment of the issue: “Why on earth does the provost feel that chipping away at the only key study facility for the students could ever be justified? Makes this parent think that the students’ education isn’t really very high on his list of priorities.”

Jared Weiss (current sophomore), one of the only commenters siding with the administration, writes, “I hope that the alumni reading this will rethink their criticisms. I know that you too are all well-meaning and are looking out for us students, but in general, it is not best to criticize somebody or something that you do not fully understand.” This smacks of the same condescending paternal tone that Laipson uses in his article, and also implies the same misconception about students’ complaints about the administration; any criticism about or decisive organization and action against authority figures is not merely insolence. It is an effort to generate some kind of reaction, make the higher-ups aware of inner workings of the body that they supposedly govern, and create dialogue about relevant issues. If we are to have mutual understanding, through honest non-evasive dialogue, then maybe both parties will be able to more fully understand each other and come to some kind of constructive compromise. Upholding the principle of sanctity and immunity of administrative opinion will only lead to further power-struggles and miscommunication, and certainly will not produce any results in favor of student interest.

I personally wrote an email to Laipson one Saturday night after dinner, saying that I was thinking of him because dinner had just ended and this would ordinarily be the time that I go to the library to study for a few hours but I realized that I could not. I told him that on a college campus, the library is the last resource that you should skimp on for budgeting reasons. It’s insulting to have this basic, essential need cut off from students on the weekend – a time when, despite Laipson’s assertions that it is a low-traffic time for the library, the majority of cramming is done. It is true that there are other places on campus to study, especially for non-freshmen (all dorms except the tri-dorms have isolated study rooms), but you have to search for quiet sanctuaries if you do not have access to these rooms. The Student Union is obviously not a quiet study space, and other buildings on campus close well before midnight. Darcy addressed this issue in a comment on the article: “As a recent alumn, I know exactly why students reacted so poorly to the library being closed; the past few years have brought a constant erosion of space for students… Every year, we came back with fewer and fewer collective spaces.” Another thing that hasn’t been discussed much at all in this controversy is the resource of the actual books in the library; these are essential resources for study and college life in general.

The fact remains that there has been no believably honest statement released about why the college is unable to hire another person to fill the vacant position on library staff, or why they are not at least looking to remedy the situation. Despite student efforts, there has yet to be a mutually respectful discussion with the administration about this issue. At least Peter Laipson cannot be quite as contented with himself and his ability to “say yes when you can so you can say no when you have to” after the backlash that his article has received. 

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