Friday, March 11, 2016

Defending Intellectual Freedom and Building Consensus

One of the facets of administrative life which is often a frustration is that I never know what each day will bring.  Will it be quiet?  Will I see a steady stream of students with a variety of complaints?  What faculty problems will need to be solved?  What joys will I share?

Yesterday seemed on track to be one of the quiet days.  We have people who are out on personal leave, so I knew we were unlikely to have meetings.  In the middle of the day, I went upstairs to share a coffee with a colleague--she brings the coffee in and makes it in a drip pot, with one of those special, non-artificial, cream concoctions.  It was delicious.  I went back to my office feeling perky with a boost from caffeine and good conversation.

I was going to need that energy.  In the half hour I was gone, controversy had overtaken my inbox.

Some background:  for many months, one of my department's faculty members has displayed student artwork in the library--the students create final projects, using the medium(s) of their choice, to prove that they understand one of the concepts the class has studied.  So far, the display has received nothing but praise.

Yesterday, one of the students took great offense to two of the projects that talked about the status of women throughout the world.  In an attempt to de-escalate the situation, the librarian took down the two pieces.

I spent the afternoon dealing with the fallout.  I spent two hours crafting an e-mail in response to the exchange between the librarian and the faculty member.  I met with various people, both by way of phone and in offices.  We were all wrestling with the issue of how one creates a welcoming space without sacrificing intellectual freedom and first amendment rights.

Let me stress that the artwork was not as explicit as some of the projects I've seen.  And there were no outrageous claims--the statistics can be backed up by facts.  And yes, those facts are horrifying, but I'm not about to deny them just because they display some countries, countries of origin of some of our students, in an unflattering light.

In the end, we decided that we'd put the artwork back up, and I did.  I left a stack of my cards with the librarian so that upset students can come to me if they want to talk about the status of women, the pedagogy of my department's classes, and the protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution.  Students who are still upset can write a letter to the Library Committee, who will respond.

Of course, I don't expect any visitors.  We've never had complaints before.

I left work feeling both pleasantly exhausted and happy that I spent the afternoon wrestling with very important issues.  I spent a few moments thinking about consensus building, which had consumed a large part of my afternoon, and how difficult the process can be.

Difficult is perhaps the wrong word.  Maybe I mean time-consuming.  Cyclical also comes to mind.

It's something they don't teach in leadership training sessions.  No one ever says, "You will have difficult conversations and move to stages where community is stronger.  And then, 2 months later, you will again have to have difficult conversations which will strengthen your community.  Some of those conversations will be exactly the same two months later or six months later or three years later."

I understand why people decide that community building is just too hard.  I have more sympathy for the U.S. Congress than most people might have.  I understand the frustration of having to get along with all those people and how many of them must have decided to just be done with it.  I also understand why no leader has emerged who can do or even wants to do the work of bringing that particular community together.

I understand why people want to leave their jobs, their families, their churches and other communities--the work of community and consensus building is so cyclical that it's easy to believe we're making no progress, that life would be better elsewhere.  Some times, of course, that's true.  But we often forget that we will be taking ourselves with us wherever we go.  We will be building community with quirky humans no matter the setting.

I have a tendency towards being an autocrat because it's more efficient.  But I also understand, deeply, the importance of consensus and reconciliation.  It's a tension that I walk most weeks.

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