By Fleming Smith
As a journalist for The Sewanee Purple for almost four years now, I’ve been in a unique position, able to begin conversations that most students can’t about tough issues on campus. Looking back, I’m wondering why these conversations don’t happen more often, and not just for the sake of articles in the newspaper.
When we advertise Sewanee to the world, to prospective students or just us trying to explain this school to our friends and family, we always mention community. There’s nothing like it, we say, and we’re proud. However, over my time on the paper and as a student, I’ve seen how easily that community can fracture without us even noticing.
To be honest, I don’t think I would notice these fractures if I wasn’t on the editorial staff for The Purple and involved with student leadership. There are plenty of divisions in the Sewanee community, but the one I feel most qualified to address is the division between students and the administration.
Firstly, “administration” is a nebulous term. What do we mean when we use it? Does it refer to all of the deans and associated staff members, or is it supposed to mean the Vice-Chancellor? Are the Boards of Regents or Trustees included in this term? I think this is part of the problem; most students don’t actually know who composes the administration, so an Orwellian “Big Brother” idea comes into play.
The Sewanee community shouldn’t mean separate communities of faculty, students, staff, alumni, administrators. Over the years, I’ve found that so often, none of us are on the same page because we just don’t talk to each other. Rumors and complaints rule the day, while solvable issues are deemed hopeless.
To be a community, we have to act like one. This doesn’t just mean the easy moments, when we all gather for a Christmas tree lighting or listen to Sewanee Monologues. This means having hard conversations on all sides.
When I began as editor-in-chief of The Purple last year, one of the first stories I tackled was the Charlie Rose controversy. It became evident very quickly that while students and faculty wanted to talk to me, most of the administration did not. Being a journalist means avoiding one-sided conversations, but I learned how hard that can be. On the other side of things, while students were passionate about the issue, many of them were misinformed about certain aspects because they weren’t engaging with and learning from the administration.
On each side of the controversy, it was obvious that emotion trumped reason. People didn’t want to talk to each other because it wasn’t about defending a position, it was about accusing the other side of wronging them.
It only took about a month for Charlie Rose’s honorary degree to be revoked. During that time, many groups on campus talked among themselves, but I don’t think we saw any groundbreaking communication between disparate parts of our community. I genuinely doubt that many people changed their minds because of what other people said.
After that brief flash point, while some people may have gotten the result they wanted, did our community actually change and learn to listen to each other? Unfortunately, I’ve personally experienced a growing hostility to having tough conversations that I try to start on behalf of the paper.
We often have an instinct to protect our reputations and image rather than make ourselves vulnerable to questioning or criticism. I argue that if our Sewanee community is truly as great as we proclaim, we shouldn’t be so afraid of each other. Right now, it’s clear that many members of our community just don’t trust each other, particularly in the student/administration divide.
It’s time to stop thinking of the other person as the problem. We don’t all have to like each other, but I think that’s not what a community requires in any case. We won’t always get along or understand the other person’s position. If we make an effort to listen, and explain our own thoughts, we might actually get somewhere.
If you think police enforcement, discrimination, sexual misconduct, etc., is a problem on this campus, don’t just speak up to people like yourself. Most importantly, if you think our community is divided, don’t give up on it. Work to bridge those divisions. I truly believe our Sewanee community is worth the effort.