By Max Saltman
The University is exploiting our apathy.
In many ways, the job of opinions editor is pleasantly slow. We rarely receive submissions, and I spend more time writing my own opinions than editing others. Yet last week, when the Vice-Chancellor announced via video a new approach to enforcing Sewanee’s existing no-tolerance drug policies, my email inbox was suddenly full of student submissions. Alumni sent in missives bemoaning the changing climate at Sewanee. Our campus seemed to be in the midst of realizing our collective powers of persuasion.
Then, after intervention by student leaders, the Vice-Chancellor reversed his previous statements. Before we could publish a single opinion from the many lining my inbox, Brigety called for a moratorium on enforcing the zero-tolerance policy “until we have a full review of the student code in this regard.” The suspended students were released from their short exile, Sewanee’s tokers exhumed the paraphernalia they’d buried in the woods, and my phone stopped vibrating. Sewanee became as sleepy as it always was.
We might be inclined to say that the tide of student opinion was so swift in this case because “they tried to mess with our drugs,” but I’m not convinced this is true. As many have pointed out, the new enforcement plans were first published on June 30 with few complaints. Additionally, Sewanee has always messed with our drugs! K9 units are nothing new, and Brigety himself noted that the Domain was averaging “75-100 drug arrests…every year.” Some have pointed out on social media that BIPOC students regularly received harsher punishments for drug use than predominantly white fraternities, yet in those cases the massive outrage seen last week was nowhere to be found. I have a theory as to why this time was different.
In my three years at Sewanee, there have been two notable instances of intense student activism. The first was after the Board of Regents declined to take back Charlie Rose’s honorary degree after multiple women publicly accused the TV host of sexual misconduct. The second was last week. In both cases, the University made public statements that students quickly ridiculed as tone-deaf and naive. With the Charlie Rose controversy, the Board of Regents penned a letter arguing that as a Christian school, Sewanee is required to forgive sinners their transgressions, a response criticized as extremely offensive.
The Vice-Chancellor’s nine-minute video was much less controversial, yet it included phrasing like “the era of drug culture at the University of the South is over” and that he was willing to expel and suspend students “again and again and again and again until the message is received.” Furthermore, the “my fellow Americans” style made it seem like Brigety was declaring war rather than solving a health crisis. And since watching a video is easier than reviewing an updated EQB guide, the response to it was predictably strong.
What I find extremely embarrassing about this phenomenon is that it shows that we, Sewanee students, are unable to smell bullshit unless it’s thrust directly under our noses. It’s clear that the University can get away with anything as long as they don’t make a fool of themselves doing it.
The University’s leadership are the ones who benefit the most from our apathy. They’ve saved themselves lots and lots of money by failing to provide students with a health insurance plan, by keeping our postal workers in a cramped cupboard, by kicking the firefighters out of Wiggins, by refusing transparency on our $408 million endowment, by cutting Japanese and allowing Arabic to die, and countless other cheap-and-easy practices.
I was inspired by the way all students acted so quickly on this one, but I want to see us all act with as much speed when we aren’t ourselves affected by bad leadership. When it isn’t our paycheck. When the students suspended or expelled aren’t our white friends. When the rich alumni don’t care. When the steep medical bills aren’t ours, but someone else’s. And when it’s a problem that we ourselves may perpetuate, not the administration.
I won’t congratulate Vice-Chancellor Brigety on responding so quickly to student action, because I see that as the bare minimum any college president should do. But I’ll say this to my fellow classmates: I’ll pay attention if you will.