Campus communication

People who communicate for presidents of colleges and universities work in a world you might not recognize.

It's a rule at the PSA's Leadership Communication Days meetings that what's said there stays there. That's why the events are so candid—sometimes painfully, sometimes hilariously, always usefully.

But over a couple years we've held two separate Leadership Communication Days events just for the people who support university presidents. So I can spread out the plausible deniability over both of them and tell you three things about modern college life, and the people who have to communicate about it.

1. A lot of college students these days are nuts. Some of them (not all, and the campus free speech issue is complicated in a hundred ways) arrive at college literally not understanding about free speech, and thus unprepared for the inevitable pain and discomfort of same. They behave as if they have never heard the quote wrongly attributed to Voltaire but rightly applied to the First Amendment: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." So it's not necessarily liberal professors' fault that students are shouting down conservative speakers on campus. I don't remember when I internalized "defend to the death your right to say it," but college is a little too late for an idea like that. 

2. Some (but not most) professors are also nuts (but some is enough). To hear Rush Limbaugh tell it, all they're doing at college these days is indoctrinating liberal snowflakes. Actually, they're doing all kinds of things, most of which have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with educating a class of people who can do the math, science, engineering, lawyering, reading and leading to keep American's problems first-world. But all you need is one asshole tenured professor who is practicing "progressive stacking"—the nifty new trick of instructors correctively calling on minorities and women before whites and men—and Rush has a half-hour segment of glee, and his listeners have another truthy reason to think the intellectuals have all gone mad.

3. University administrators have no idea what to do about any of it. Remember "battle fatigue"? University administrators have "statement fatigue." Pretty much every university president who's anybody has to deal on an exasperatingly regular basis these days with requests from student groups, the student newspaper, faculty groups, parent groups or community groups of two or two thousand who are demanding a statement, on any and all matters, ranging from a swastika drawn on a classroom wall to the Charlottesville incident to the Las Vegas shooting. Why do they care what the university president says about all these things, when you and I didn't even know that our university had a president? Well, I guess we've discussed that enough this month.

And do you know what happens every time? After days of the administrative sturm und drang necessary to create such a statement, the group that demanded it complains bitterly that it doesn't go far enough. And the people who didn't think to demand a statement don't notice that it was ever issued because they stopped reading these stupid statements—and everything else the university president wrote—they can't remember when.

"What," one university communicator yelled over her own half-crazed cackle, "are we doing?"

The one Leadership Communication Days participant who I can name is Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of the history of education at University of Pennsylvania and author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. At the meeting, I interviewed Zimmerman about modern campus life of trigger warnings, safe spaces, in loco parentis, microaggressions, sexual harassment and hazing—a life I summed up by saying it's hard to tell the Ivy League from the bar in Star Wars.

"Your conclusion," I asked him, "refers to Hillary Rodham's 1969 Wellesley commencement speech, where she said the tumultuous campus politics at that time was a 'great adventure.' Seems to many in this group more like an 'Excedrin headache.' Was that just a nice up-note on which to end your book? Or do you really see what's happening on campus as a great adventure that's lurching and staggering in some kind of positive direction?"

He said essentially that if you know how the adventure ends, it's not an adventure. And as a professor of the history of education, he's up for the adventure. He also has tenure, and acknowledged that to be fired he would have to do things so unspeakable as to be indescribable.

The rest of university communicators will to be careful these next few years. —DM

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