by Oliver Young
In last week’s essay, To Educate or Expel?, Jacob Bruggeman raised many important questions, but failed to address the larger context in which the central issue has been raised. His simple approach to a complex topic fails to do justice to the core foundations of what makes a university strong, and why strong action should be encouraged if thoroughly considered. If arguments like those Bruggeman puts forth maintain, I worry that racist acts on college campuses will continue as students feel emboldened by the absence of a fear of harsh punishment. For this reason, I find it necessary to refute his characterizations of expulsion and the purpose of the university, and reject his argument against expulsion in cases like those outlined in the Miami Student.
First, Bruggeman mischaracterizes expulsion. He writes, “Expulsion is a process of punishment in which the simplest solution is invoked: we’re done here, we don’t have to deal with you, pack your bags.” In actuality, expulsion is a difficult decision for universities–one not taken lightly by administrations as they weigh the consequences of dismissing a student. As the son of two school administrators, I know and understand what it takes for a student to be expelled, and by no means is it a simple solution. Expulsion is an intensive and thoroughly considered process of last resort that school administrators take very seriously. For this reason, many administrators view each incident of expulsion as the setting of a precedent; they want to minimize their use of it because–when invoked too frequently–it is likely to result in lawsuits, bad press, and an even bigger mess. It is actually in the interest of the school not to expel students. This is not a concession to Bruggeman’s main thesis of arguing against dismissal in this scenario, but simply to state that schools frequently choose not to dismiss students to avoid retribution.
Second, I disagree with how Bruggeman defines the purpose of the university. In general, the purpose of a university is indeed “to educate.” However, the contingency of a quality education relies heavily on various factors, the most notable of which being a healthy climate. How much quality education is likely to occur while a student’s days are spent preoccupied by the thought that they are unwelcome at their university? That they applied, got in–just as deservedly as everyone else–and now feel suddenly unwelcome because of their gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. would constitute the utmost distraction. This situation erodes at the core principles of any university. A strong university is one which promotes a healthy environment in which students feel impelled to find their passions and be challenged, all while expanding their perspectives and learning more about a greater community, and themselves. Students that experience healthy environments graduate with the necessary skills and passions to tackle complex problems, and will undoubtedly make great contributions to a growing global community. Bruggeman’s simple definition of the purpose of a university does not capture the complex whole of a quality education.
Rather than being a simple solution, expulsion is a tool by which a university should define its climate. Bruggeman posits that expulsion of those students in the example highlighted by the Miami Student would actually be detrimental to the overall campus climate. Bruggeman’s first concern is that “Dismissal is likely to do more harm than good by […] creating a polarized campus climate in which more harmful things might be both done and said.” Yet a college that experiences racism (or has a history of such) already has a polarizing climate which is hidden from the average viewer. Miami University has a history of racist acts and the administration has historically chosen not to dismiss student perpetrators.
Furthermore, the university has not addressed the issue of historic campus racism, and is now dealing with an increased pressure from members of its community to act. Until the 1990’s, the school mascot was the Redskin (and it is worth noting that a popular cocktail at one of the local bars takes this term as its namesake). Only 4% of the student body identifies as African American. These tensions bubble up to the surface every year or so, when a student says or does something racist and the school goes into lockdown mode, continually releasing ineffectual statements claiming that “this is not who we are as an institution.” After so many of these are released without meaningful action, perhaps it is possible to assume that there is a tacit acceptance of the institutionalized racism that breeds on a college campus. If Miami University were to take decisive action–action that would set precedents for the future–such as expelling students that consistently display a tendency to be racist, the school would experience a healthier climate. As we saw at the University of Missouri two years ago, inaction on the administration’s part saw the President step down and resulted in a considerable drop in attendance.
Bruggeman’s second point is again a misunderstanding, as he claims that by “drawing national attention to campus from groups on both sides,” expulsion risks “further polarizing the student body and making both courses and extracurricular activities into venues for extended, exasperating arguments.” I do not see either clause of Bruggeman’s cautions as actual problems. As I articulated before, universities already take expulsion very seriously and view it as a reflection of their values as an institution. Expelling the student in the case laid out by the Miami Student would simply make clear that the school is taking a strong stance against racism. Students that would normally be outwardly racist would be less inclined to be so, because the school would demonstrate that language and actions beyond the scope of accepted behavior will no longer be accepted. The climate on campus would improve as students become more conscious of their preconceived biases. The “I may not like what you say, but I will always defend your right to say it” crowd would be upset, but so what? For how long do the arguments of staunch defenders of free speech hold water while they justify the actions of consistently racist students? The concern for “both groups” is a superfluous concern. Instead, we should allow for a national debate about a school’s courageous decision to expel a student for actively trying to make certain groups feel unwelcome on campus.
As to Bruggeman’s fears that courses and extracurricular activities might become “venues for extended, exasperating arguments”–doesn’t this objection contradict his argument about education being the core principle of a university? Should it not be imperative that students discuss racism at college, with their peers, in order to better understand its reality, what their roles are, and if they might be contributing to a climate of racism? In my experience, conversations amongst students on such topics have resulted in better perspectives on how to approach the issue, as well as be sympathetic to others’ opinions. Regardless of the final decision as to whether or not certain students should be expelled, these conversations actually help cultivate the climate necessary for a productive learning environment. Students that analyze, question, and challenge their peers are much better prepared to interact with a dynamic world after graduation. I find confusing Bruggeman’s claims that freedom of speech cases are difficult to adjudicate because there are gray areas and that it is a positive to have less “exasperating arguments.” Shouldn’t college be a place to be challenged on your opinions and be encouraged to have as many of these kinds of arguments as possible? Exasperating arguments are arguments in which students are challenged to explain their opinions and find common ground.
In sum, I advocate for the expulsion of the Miami University student Thomas Wright. He has proven the point that expulsion is sometimes essential to a university’s mission. By setting a precedent that Miami will not tolerate racist acts, the administration would marginalize students who feel inclined to be racist in the future, thus putting a question to the tacit acceptance of the idea that there is no way to stop racism on campus. Just as Miami has strict rules on sexual assault, drinking, and using tobacco–repeated offenses of which can lead to expulsion–Miami would show that racism contributes to a negative campus climate. Previously marginalized students would finally feel safe in the assumption that the administration has their back and encouraged to pursue their passions to better the world after graduation. In fairness to Bruggeman, I too agree that education is integral to truly resolving these problems, but it will take many long years of quality programming designed by experts on the subject–not singling out students to attend sensitivity classes.
Oliver Young is a senior at Miami University studying political science and philosophy.