Going Public

In last month's message, I noted a few of the numerous national accolades received by Saint Mary's College. The list is ever-growing; we can add Rebecca Engle, one of seven awardees in the United States to be selected for the 2009 Kennedy Center National Teaching Artist Grant, placing her among the finest college directors in the country. We can also celebrate our inclusion on the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, the highest federal recognition a school can achieve for its commitment to service-learning and civic engagement. Perhaps less intentionally, we also captured national media attention for our invitation of Professor William Ayers to campus.

Many members of our extended community cherish the more private feeling of family engendered by their experiences here. Some of them, and others, think of SMC as a sheltered Bay Area institution with modest ambitions. As we have grown in size, reputation, accomplishments, and complexity, we have come to provide national service to others and international experiences for our students. And while we often see ourselves as the protector of truths expressed by the greatest thinkers of the western tradition, we sometimes forget that our greatest accomplishment is bringing the Great Books to a diverse group of students who are learning how to achieve their own greatness.

Of all of the lessons learned this last month, perhaps the most revealing are the implications of SMC "going public." We were reminded that the public impact of our programming affects more than our internal, immediate community. Some alumni and donors felt deep anger and pain about the appearance of Professor Ayers on campus. At the same time, we were commended by many alumni and the broader public for exemplifying our mission-based principles in the face controversy. Although well within our rights and educational purposes, we must acknowledge that the event caused distress for people we care about, and we must be willing to consider this and other kinds of impact as we make decisions about sponsoring public events. The debate about our decision, fueled largely by Internet blogging and opportunistic exploitation by a few individuals, brought the attention and presence of people who had scarcely heard of us. With them came behaviors unacceptable to our community. Eloquent and civil protest was eclipsed by moral condemnation articulated on campus, through e-mail, on the Internet and in the news media. Anger at the appearance of Professor Ayers was unfortunately transferred to our students, as in the Lafayette businessman who called to say he would never hire another Saint Mary's student. This call disturbed my office staff more than any other. As one of our Trustees argued passionately, although he despised Ayers, personal feelings should never compromise the support that we extend to our students.

Many students reported that they found the event an invigorating, thought-provoking and important moment in their collegiate experience. For them, the furor around Ayers illustrated the relevance of the SMC education. The world is messy, complex and full of conflict. Our students know this, and they expect us to challenge, provoke and inspire them rather than feed complacency, self-righteousness or insularity. Even students who objected to Professor Ayers and his views learned valuable lessons from the event. One student wrote about the importance of civil discourse: "I wanted to attend in order to understand my enemy, but upon sitting in that room and straining to hear Ayers over the hissing, heckling, cursing and what-have-you that was going on around me, after regaining my composure when I realized that I was afraid for my safety because of the kinds of escalating interactions going on around me, and afraid to leave because of the rowdiness of the protesters outside, I realized that Ayers stopped being the enemy a long time ago…. The enemy is the people in that room – heckler and supporter alike – who made me feel afraid because I had come to listen…. It was an eye-opening experience."

Even as our persona becomes more public, our identity remains in teaching our students to combine knowledge and critical thought with spiritual self-reflection. We don't make moral judgments for our students. We give them the tools to judge for themselves. The student above lamented the paucity of people "who actually recognized my ability, and my right, to make a decision for myself," and "who seemed to give me and the students around me any credit for our decision-making power…. It was a good opportunity to learn something, even if I didn't learn what I expected." We must remember that defying expectation is central to the SMC experience. Our students don't just read about controversy; they learn how to engage with it. They do good works, rather than watching them played out in a movie.

The Saint Mary's education is powerful because our students don't settle for being told what is right and wrong. They struggle with the hard questions, learn from others who are different, and decide for themselves. This kind of learning requires an environment characterized by safety and respect. All speakers, formal guests and informal visitors, are here at our invitation and because of our openness as a community. None may act in ways that destroy our learning environment. Individual students were poked by flagpoles and pushed. Some protesters chose to intimidate our faculty by putting professors' names on signs and condemning them as supporters of terrorism. These attempts at intimidation, and any others that create fear among targeted individuals or groups, should be stopped immediately and disciplinary actions taken as necessary.

The need to learn and practice civil disagreement is magnified as we become more public in our recognition and services, and as our community, both on campus and beyond, becomes more diverse. According to Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) Freshman and College Senior Surveys, compared to other four-year colleges and universities, our students report twice as much interaction with students who are ethnically, racially and religiously different from them. Our challenge as leaders and educators is to learn from the difference our students bring, keep their education deep and relevant, and create the inclusive community that makes the Saint Mary's experience truly transformative.