When a University President Becomes a Scold

Dr. Everett Piper, the President of Oklahoma Wesleyan, has brought a great deal of attention to himself and to his institution because of a blog post that he wrote to students. The most widely quoted portion of the post has been its closing:

“At OKWU, we teach you to be selfless rather than self-centered. We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge. We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict. We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin. We don’t believe that you have been victimized every time you feel guilty and we don’t issue ‘trigger warnings’ before altar calls.

“Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a ‘safe place,’ but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up!

“This is not a day care. This is a university!”

Although I am inclined agree with some, even much of what Piper has written, something about the whole message struck me almost immediately as off-note, if not as off-base.

But I probably would not have continued to give it much more thought except that the Far-Right website RedState ran an item on Piper’s blog post with the headline “Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Applauded for Wake-Up Call to Special Snowflakes.” If RedState was applauding the post in those terms, I knew immediately that there very likely had to be something very off-note, if not completely off-base, about it.

There are, I think, actually at least two things very “wrong” about Piper’s post.

First, the whole point is ostensibly that the university wishes to treat students as adults and expects them to behave as adults should behave. But the tone is very patronizing—the sort of lecture that one would give to an adolescent, not the sort of exchange that one would have with an adult. Although one could argue that Piper’s message is directed very pointedly at very immature students, one should also acknowledge that Piper’s university chose to admit these students, and if there are more than a handful of them that are falling well short of the university’s expectations of them, then the university’s screening of applicants would seem to be at least part of the problem. Or, if they are continuing students, then the “education” that the university is providing is perhaps not producing results as advertised.

Moreover, Piper is himself engaging in the sort of complaining that he is supposedly denouncing: that is, he is blaming students for their immaturity and judging their concerns as frivolous simply because he finds the airing of those concerns to be disruptive or annoying. Yes, I do actually think that, despite the polished rhetoric and the high-sounding sentiments of his statement, Piper is ultimately modeling the sort of behavior about which he is complaining.

Second, in his message, Piper makes no real effort to distinguish between very mature, if determined and unsettling, dissent and frivolous complaints. The Far-Right media has recently been having a field day mocking a Columbia University student who publicly complained about the stress caused to her by having reading assignments for general-education courses, readings which uniformly celebrate the White culture that has long oppressed people of color. It’s the sort of complaint that can sound silly—especially to a White person who has never given much thought even to what the phrase “White culture” might mean to a person of color. But, notably, in the same news cycle, students in North Carolina have been applauded in the Far-Right media for objecting vociferously to the reading assignments for a particular course that present an Islamic view of the world. Are both of these matters trite? Are both exercises in exaggerating trivial issues? Or is one situation or the other trite because it does not conform with our ideological assumptions, whereas the other is significant because it does conform to those assumptions? And, even more to the point, is there any room to explore the profound issues that might, paradoxically, be exposed by or emerge from a controversy that, in itself, is trite?

Viewed in this context, Piper’s message seems to discourage discussion of issues that might provoke these sorts of difficult to moderate–that is, immoderate–and even messy confrontations between points of view. Such issues are, however, not just among the most critical issues of our day but among the longstanding issues with which this nation has struggled as it has attempted to define itself against a broad spectrum of historical events. If students are discouraged from confronting these issues and confronting each other over these issues, unless they can do so politely and “maturely,” I do not see how that “education” is actually preparing them to enter the broader world. In many instances, we confront things within our own characters through confrontations with others over issues that matter a great deal not just to ourselves but also to the broader society and culture. In many instances, we recognize only in hindsight the significance of the insights that we have gained through what seemed at the time to be inconsequential experiences.

Piper alludes to Martin Luther King, Jr., when he says “We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin,” but confronting and even acknowledging historical and systemic issues such as racism do involve more than “repent[ing] of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blam[ing] others for everything that’s wrong with them.” As a White person, I may need to acknowledge that some deeply imbedded racist assumptions almost inevitably shape some of my thoughts and actions, but my need to make such acknowledgements should not prevent me from, at the same time, firmly opposing systemic racism or from vigorously condemning overt racism.

In the end, I suspect that Piper’s message to his students actually amounts to a sort of personal venting as much about the state of American society and American culture as about the state of higher education or the limitations of the current crop of college students. Piper clearly desires the sort of well-ordered and well-mannered institutional environment, and broader society, that may seem ideal but that would actually be a workable idea only if human beings were generally governed by enlightened principles—and only if contemporary life warranted a sort of universal, benign satisfaction with one’s circumstances. I don’t think that it is an especially harsh or self-indulgent criticism of American society and culture to assert that we are still have a considerable way to go before we get anywhere close to that state of human affairs.



6 thoughts on “When a University President Becomes a Scold

  1. Pingback: What I’m reading 23 Nov 2015 through 1 Dec 2015 | Morgan's Log

  2. Excellent analysis of that same creepy feeling I got when I read this pompous OKWU proclamation. The alerts embedded in his piece are the words believed by the Right to be hot buttons for the Left. I, too, am disinclined to issue trigger warnings, but I don’t put the phrase in sarcasm quotation marks, largely because I don’t actually use the phrase. I do let students know at the end of each class what the next class’s reading entails and what we’re going to be focusing on. I suppose this is a warning of sorts! Anyway, his horse seems to get higher with each paragraph, and ultimately he does seem to be saying “get along, keep quiet, blame yourself, conform.” Very bad messages for someone in the education biz.

  3. Pingback: Oh, the Hypocrisy! | The Academe Blog

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