State of Sewanee: The value of student voices

By Colton Williams

This week is my last as editor-in-chief of the Purple. The paper will continue on and surely will be even better with Claire Smith (C’22) at the helm for the next year, who will guide the paper and push it in new and exciting directions to live up to being the ‘student organ’ of the University of the South. I believe the Purple will always be here, will always be the student organ, will always be invaluable, and that students’ voices are more important now than ever. 

Since I arrived at Sewanee, the Purple has been the orienting aspect of my college experience. I still remember where I was and how I felt when I got an email from former editor-in-chief Robert Beeland (C’18) that I had been hired as a junior editor my freshman year. Since then, under the leadership of Fleming Smith (C’19) and Anna Mann (C’20) – both incredible and kind – I continued to learn and grow, had fun, stressed out, spent many long days in the Purple’s dingy but lovable office in the BC, and always cherished it. Even when I slogged through an article or came up against a deadline or spent twelve hours laying out the paper, I anticipated with sadness this week and writing this last piece. The Purple was always there for me. It was always there for me to say something, to write, to make my point, to make my voice heard. 

I’m not a particularly assuming figure on campus. I don’t really go to parties, I have a small circle of friends, I’m a bookish history major who rarely causes a scene and can usually be found in my room or at my carrel. But the Purple has always been a way for me to connect to campus, and help others do the same. My first article was a humorous take on the Oxford comma, and I later had my greatest success and acclaim with a satirical piece on Barbour jackets. At the same time, I’ve covered events with iconic speakers like Diane Nash, interviewed both Vice-Chancellors Brigety and McCardell, helped break news of the University’s reopening plans, and muddled my way through a disastrous drama with WUTS and the University. I’ve also covered things I hardly remember, and, frankly, hardly care about. All of this is to say that the Purple offers an opportunity for great diversity in pursuing your interests, expressing your voice, and making your mark on your campus.

It is important that students recognize the power in their voice. Our voices aren’t just frivolous or self-serving. Having an outlet to express yourself for any reason is good, but it is even better to have a purpose. Right at the start of this changed semester, after the bungled debacle of the University’s new drug enforcement policies, it was students who made the change. Students made it clear that they were in opposition, and that made the difference.

Similarly, Max Saltman’s (C’21) work on the University’s starting wages have changed how we have conversations about complex issues on campus. Why hadn’t we written about the University’s low starting wages before? Shamefully, the truth is we just didn’t think about it. We were truly in a ‘bubble’ of our own making. Once we did take up the issue, though, it became a primary and pressing issue that everyone knows about. Students hold power at this institution — believe it or not — and Max’s reporting along with Alexa Fults’ (C’21) efforts with #StandUpSewanee have made a real difference. 

Luke Williamson, a former student, wrote a piece on Greek life this summer with the provocative title “When will Sewanee abolish Greek Life?” which predictably caused a small firestorm of controversy. Good. I don’t feel particularly strongly one way or the other about Williamson’s argument, but what’s the point of a student newspaper if it doesn’t ruffle some feathers every now and then? If it doesn’t upset somebody? 

Other important issues have either been neglected by us or haven’t received much oxygen when we do cover them. We should do more to write about the experiences of international students, working conditions for staff, the University’s relationship to the surrounding area, the University’s investments, the experiences of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students and religious minorities, and the decisions made by the administration. 

The role of the press is definitionally an adversarial one. The student body, myself included, often suffer from apathy. We get stuck in our routines, in our isolated lives as liberal arts students on a pristine mountaintop. We worry more about our next essay than our next door neighbor. But we shouldn’t be content to do that. The Purple won’t be winning any Pulitzer Prizes, but it really does matter for our community. The paper, along with the rest of the student body, should always be asking questions and pushing for what we think is right. We are the stakeholders in our education. We are the only reason this university exists. It doesn’t exist for the faculty, for the deans, for the donors, for the U.S. News and World Report. It exists for us.

The Purple exists for us too. It helped me find my place on campus, and I look back with gratitude on how important this little publication has been and always will be to me. If I hadn’t had the courage to apply as a freshman, to write, to put my byline out there for the world to see, I wouldn’t be who I am now. I can say that with more certainty than nearly anything else. I encourage every student now and in perpetuity to do the same. The Purple exists for you. If your place isn’t at the Purple, make your voice heard in the Mountain Goat, in student government, in a club, or as an advocate. Speak, write, argue, debate, get angry, get sad, think. Use your voice. You might realize you have something to say.