The university as a politically contested space

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Two events in the recent past helped me gain some insights into how politically contested a university campus can be. This political nature of American campuses is not new, but offers opportunities for students to engage, deliberate about issues that they are passionate about and can be seen as a positive factor in one’s education. The flip side of over-politicization of campuses is a danger too, as we will see.

The first was the abrupt appearance of an AIPAC member in one of my classrooms, to recruit volunteers for their conference in Washington D.C, which is taking place in March. And she appeared on the day of the controversial talk by Boycott Divestment and Sanctions activists in Brooklyn College, NY. The second was the recent debate about assault weapons ban spear-headed by President Obama. I believe that the way in which we handle both issues in the U.S will have implications not only for freedom on campuses, but also shape the narrative about freedom and responsibility in this country. These two examples serve as a good prism to look at the broader fights going on in contemporary American politics.

Both issues are highly politicized, controversial and arouse equal passion from the supporters and their detractors. While they are both very complex arguments, which cannot be evaluated in this short piece, I will focus only briefly on how they play out on a university campus and what implications it has for student politics as well as the notion of “freedom.” I believe the progress of both these will define a key national and international issue, which will impact the youth of this country in a significant way.

Also involved in these two issues is the question of justice, violence, rights of the oppressed, racism as well as the exercise of power. These two issues couldn’t be more far apart and yet so close. One is a domestic issue, while the other involves a land thousands of miles away. Ironically, they seem to involve the same strands and binaries which characterize the fight for justice.

Freedom of speech and the American university

The controversy notwithstanding, what is telling is New York Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks following the incident. A man of courage, he stood up for the right of the speakers and organizers to carry on with their event, despite opposition. His remarks are telling :

“ If you want to go a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea … I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students. The freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system. Take that away, and higher education in this country would certainly die.”

                While one can read this and say that he was being partisan ( as his detractors have accused), these are words which essentially speak to what is enshrined in the first amendment of the U.S constitution and also what makes American universities unique: their ability to allow free speech and allow for dissent, debate, discussion and counter-debates to exist. While the speakers at this event were critics of Israel, those who are supporters of Israel have the right to organize, protest and speak all they want. Why should the rights of these BDS activists be taken away? The argument about representing “both sides” of the debate seems hollow at best. One need only ask the question: How many pro-Palestinian speakers are invited at the AIPAC meetings?

Speaking at the event, Philosopher Judith Butler said :” You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.” She went on to talk about why this issue is relevant to our generation and what role each one of us can or not play in this – depending on our choice.

Gun control and college campuses

The most recent development in this regard is the legislation in Colorado, passed this week that sought to increase regulations and banned concealed guns on campuses. This follows intense debates at the national level, involving the president’s direct intervention following Sandy Hook shooting earlier this year which shook the nation and forced a debate, which has been unprecedented in the nation’s history.

Yahoo news reported this legislation whereby ammunition restrictions limit magazines to 15 rounds for firearms, and eight for shotguns. Three Democrats joined all Republicans voting no on the bill, but the proposal passed 34-31. While this debate is still playing out in its entirety, it is interesting to see how university campuses are reacting to it. There is a strong pro-gun lobby on campuses too, with some sides arguing that students need guns to protect themselves. The pro-gun sentiment was captured by a representative in these words: “Do not disarm our young adults in general and our young women in particular on our college campuses in the name of a gun-free zone,” Republican Rep. Jim Wilson said. This line of argument, while valid constitutionally and legally is coming at a time when the country is still coming to grips with several mass shootings in the year 2012 and a charged political environment.

But at Virginia Tech, where I am a student and one which witnessed the horrific shooting in 2005, the mood is somewhat somber. Recently, VP Joe Biden spoke about this incident and called for compulsory background checks to anyone who wants to purchase a gun. The issue of gun-control seems to be gaining traction and we can see more laws in the country restricting sales of guns.

Protect freedoms, allow deliberation and debate

While I am clear about both issues and know where I stand, I believe it is important that all parties to these two issues have the right to express their opinion and within legal bounds, be allowed to act on them. If a college campus is the venue they choose organize on, so be it. There ought not to be false restrictions based on any viewpoint, even if the climate for discussion seems quite tense.

One couldn’t frame this anymore eloquently than Butler, who said :” These are your rights of free expression, but they are, perhaps even more importantly, your rights to education, which involves the freedom to hear, to read and to consider any number of viewpoints as part of an ongoing public deliberation on this issue. Your presence here, even your support for the event, does not assume agreement among us. There is no unanimity of opinion here; indeed, achieving unanimity is not the goal.”

As far as the gun-control debate is concerned, while the pro-gun student groups have the right to garner support and do what they think is right, the maxim that one’s freedom stops where the other’s rights begin should be kept in mind.

2 thoughts on “The university as a politically contested space”

  1. I really love the way that you put everything, sometimes people can’t understand that “one’s freedom stops where the other’s rights begin”. I have lived a civil war and believe me , I know what a shooting is, but we felt safe in school and we knew to who be afraid of.

  2. I very much agree with your assessment that the university has and always will be a politically contested environment, whether we want it to or not.

    However, I find your two examples contrasting. If the university is ideally an institution free of opinion- and emotion-based policy and regulation, why is it that public institutions of higher learning are permitted to override state policies on legal possession of firearms? In that respect, the university is restricting licensed students and faculty from exercising rights that may be freely expressed once they step off campus. How can this discrepancy be reconciled, whereby some controversial (yet constitutionally supported) activities are passionately encouraged, and others are banned?

    While there are no easy or correct answers in this debate, universities undoubtedly play an active part in the national discussion of countless political issues. I am curious what the role (if any) of the individual faculty member should be regarding involvement in sensitive issues such as these. Debate can facilitate an uncomfortable and distracting work environment, but many look up to universities to provide educated answers. I think you have raised some interesting points of discussion.

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