The Administrative College and the Fettering of Political Expression

Last week, the Swarthmore Conservative Society in partnership with Swarthmore Democrats brought to campus Prof. Jonathan Zimmerman to address the current state of free speech on college campuses. Dr. Zimmerman, a self-professed liberal of the 1970s variety, in his lecture and subsequent discussion seemed to resonate with students from across the political spectrum.

Many a student, whatever his ideological branding, has been struck by the dual fists of censorship and bias, explicit and otherwise, which join to pummel the wretch of unapproved political persuasion. As is par for the course of such a speech, the Penn professor argued against educational institutions taking official positions on contentious issues, thereby obstructing the inquisitive student’s quest for objective understanding. He also decried the poor representation of right-wing views among academics. What seemed particularly pointed, however, was his critique of the “administrative university,” that is a rapid inflation in staff members of every sort, who often meddle in issues best resolved by conscientious students. These deans’ paychecks swell our tuition, while their incessant intervention shrinks our intellectual and emotional independence.

To use the example Zimmerman provided, when a fraternity at an ivy league school rather recently was accused of vile racism, a complaint was filed with the college administration, while the some of the accusers were seen continuing to attend the fraternity’s parties – an extreme example, perhaps, but nonetheless applicable to our own dealings with the college administration. Resolving offense by administrative action creates an environment where pontificated decree speaks louder than student initiative, and an email by Pres. Smith precedes open discussion. In cases of crime such as sexual assault, the college of course must take action. But when it comes to the latest trespass by Pres. Trump, must we hear the ominous clang of the college’s condemnation in approbation of our own disdain?

Of course, some movements in the American political sphere are so heinously horrid, so dastardly despicable, that their putridity would set our nostrils afire, should they be left unmitigated by the college’s affirmation of our disgust. I even realize that some political actions directly affect students here, and neglecting their struggle could further their alienation. If that is so, then shouldn’t we strive to create an atmosphere all the more supportive and hospitable to the affected students? Besides the material resources (immigration legal counseling, for example) that only the college can supply, wouldn’t student responses alone be more meaningful?

Simply put, lining up the college’s authority behind a contested political view reduces the weight of our own unaided conviction, and contributes to dogmatizing that view. As for me, I like my religion dogmatic, but politics are another story. Dogmatic views stifle debate, preventing the deeper understanding of our own opinions that only the educational process of encountering opposing views can bring about. These debates were foundational to the university since its medieval establishment, and today such discussions, if they are to be meaningful, must be held on students’ own terms, without the biased prodding of a politicized administration.

If our convictions are truly strong and well-informed, then let them conquer in trial by combat (figuratively of course, although ANTIFA might take that a trifle literally), without  fighting alongside legions of deans. Besides, are we to let our youthful defiance waste away in acquiescence to the administrative machine? I’m the first to argue for law and order, but what happened to the fun of a little rebellion?

2 comments

  1. Okay but consider-

    From your perspective an announcement from the university on policy changes to DACA would be a value laden political stance; for others it serves the function of letting them know if they can keep living at Swarthmore.

    Or like a response to Betsy DeVos’ legally confusing actions regarding Title IX – the school’s policies needed to be clarified, hence an email blast.

    A few days ago, the head of the DOJ said that civil rights don’t necessarily apply to transgender people. Being apolitical by your standards would mean not “clanging the ominous bell” or whatever, leaving students in the dark about harassment and discrimination rules among other things.

    The college provides resources and information to students regarding politics when it affects their day to day lives. That is their job.

    • Thank you for your comment, Jodie. You raise an important point of distinction between political preferment and proffering of resource. I apologize for any unclarity in my article.

      As for your point to DACA, I do believe that legal council is a benefaction that any organization to which undocumented immigrants entrust themselves ought to provide if they can. After all, legal council is apolitical. I do not see, however, why we ought expect any more from a college administration than we would from the administration of anywhere in which we live. Of course, it is up to the members of a community to provide for an atmosphere of security and establish the community’s values. Should residents expect political responses from the president of their condominium? How much more so should an educational institution resist the impulse to do aught but aid in understanding, rather than opining on a political issue. Where that line is to be drawn, I conceed, is blurry, but better to err away from bias.

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