Friday, May 12, 2006

A Bittersweet Graduation Day

A powerful letter sent by a member of the UM faculty to some of the editors of this blog. The letter is slightly edited and the name of its author is withheld for confidentiality reasons. Thank you to the writer for allowing us to post this on picketline.

The immigrant protests of last week have taught many of us much about the power of collective action. The trends of late in this country (e.g. wanting to turn undocumented immigrants into felons; trying to strike from the Voting Rights Act the provision that allows for bilingual ballots; the list is endless) show that the only way to get our leaders to hear the voices of the powerless is to gather and expresses ourselves collectively.

For those graduating [on May 12 at the University of Miami], they have much to be proud of and should celebrate this momentous occasion. However, not all students might be allowed to enjoy this kind of event in the future. That's because a group of students who supported the striking janitors this semester are being threatened with charges of expulsion for their peaceful protests. Inevitably, this sends the message to future student activists to keep their mouths shut. If they don't, they may join the "blacklist" of student "agitators" (as UM would call them).

As a social scientist, many of my classes draw attention to the plight of the powerless and leave students wondering, how do we bring about social change? Never have I witnessed what I did this semester: a group of students took their educations a step further by not just feeling bad about the poverty-wages of janitors, but actually aligning with them to get their voices heard. In my view, these students have learned. They should get full honors when graduating. They took the knowledge that they have acquired in the classroom outside of the ivory tower and selflessly put it to use. Yet, how is the university administration rewarding them? With the threat of expulsion. And what is the administration's message to the community supporting them? A full-page ad in the Miami Herald the day before graduation discouraging any sympathizer from expressing their solidarity.

I think we faculty can learn a lot from our students. Among these lessons, I've learned that courage is contagious. I also have been reminded that we should practice what we preach. What good am I as an educator if I can't learn this from my students? What good is a university as a place of higher learning when the administration admonishes those who try to live out what they have learned?

To the graduating students and their families, I express my wholehearted congratulations. To the university administration, I hope you will listen to the not-so-powerful in the community and cease your attempts to squelch free speech.


Anonymous said...

If they broke the rules then there must be some consequence for that.

If they missed so many classes to hunger strike or whatever, that they're failing, then there must be some consequence for that.

We shouldn't just suspend the rules because some among us think the cause for doing so was just.

Part of sacrificing for a cause is that you accept the consequences of having done so.

They need to stand up and take the hit whatever that may be.

You can spin it as "squelching free speech" all you want, but those students made their choice and now they must accept what comes from that. If they truly believe in what they did, then they will undoubtedly agree that the cost was worth it.

I don't recall any who encouraged them to do so placing themselves in a position to have to deal with consequences themselves. But then I guess not everyone can have tenure to hide behind.

OOR said...

You make the assumption that whatever consequences are doled out are, in fact, just. Heck, if they are supposed to just sit back and accept whatever the University dictates is appropriate, why not just give them hard time? Maybe 5-10 in the state pen with good behavior....Hey, just "take the hit, whatever that may be!"

And your argument would certainly hold water, if the writer of this letter were actually know what they say about assuming.........

Anonymous said...

I don't expect them to just accept anything. I in fact don't think its unreasonable at all for them to fight punishment.

What is being said here is that there should be no punishment at all and that to do so is tantamount to the suppression of their civil rights.

An exaggeration.

If for the sake of argument we are to accept that, then whenever one feels that a rule or regulation is at odds with their moral convictions they should just disregard it. I ask then what is the point of having any rules at all? There are a plethora of arguments that would be made by those who are philisophically inclined as most of you are that a person's beliefs should not overshadow someone else's or the law or applicable rules and regulations.

This blog stated very clearly that one of the goals of trying to enter the building was (in addition to seeking a meeting with Shalala) to "occupy the admissions office".

Occupy for the purpose of disrupting operations. My point is that in doing so you're breaking any number of operational regulations and there should be expected to be some form of consequences for that.

For those that support the students to say that to even bring that up is to "squlech free speech" is the same kind of spin we've seen all along.

I doubt anything serious will happen to any of them because of the negative publicity it would generate from media saavy advocates. But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be subject to some sort of consequences for what they've done, regardless of how noble one might believe their actions to be.

As for my comment about tenure, my point in making that comment was to remind you that I saw no professors blocking the doorway or in the admissions office. In fact I saw no professor doing anything that placed them at professional risk. The most vocal professors are tenured and still did nothing of that sort. Even the faculty members that set up this blog in doing so assume no actual risk for their advocacy. This does not mean that their right to do so is in any way in question it just means that the students, who were the most vocal advocates, assumed all the risk involved with doing so.

Tenure is obviously very important so that professors can speak their minds as they feel necessary, but in this case those that were protected from risk assumed the least of it.

Writing a blog and giving numerous press conferences and public statements as a tenured professor is not assuming risk. Holding class outside on the grass is not assuming risk. These are rights that one has, obviously, but they place no professor at actual risk, which I would agree they should not. But to block the entrance as was done is a different matter. Go ahead and say it was really the university since they're the ones that locked the door and you are again guilty of spin. It is not unreasonable for the institution to prohibit from entry any group that had proven a desire to disrupt operations.

"Occupy the admission office." I assume this wasn't to have afternoon tea.

giovanna said...

Dear student commentator,

I believe your first comment has a point. I also believe the STAND students might just be in agreement with you. I, for one, haven't heard them complain about the investigations.

We do not know at this point what the charges against the students are -- they have not been filed. They may have nothing to do with occupying the Admissions office. We just don't know. (You can assume, if you want, but maybe you shouldn't).

Rules and laws are the backbone of civil society. You are right in implying that (you do, right?). If, however, rules and laws were routinely, summarily, and literally applied, we would not need courts and juries, and the adversarial (lawyers and prosecutors) system that comes with them. Laws are often difficult to interpret; they contradict one another; there are exceptions; and sentencing is generally discretionary (mandatory sentencing applies in a relatively small number of cases). The wisdom of judges and juries is called upon to make distincions and apply the law with intelligence and humanity.

So, no, I don't think that students who engaged in peaceful civil disobedience against labor and human rights abuses in the university in which they are enrolled -- because, mind you, with its unwillingness to stop its unjust behavior, the university had left them few other paths -- should be punished. I think they should be praised, just as many practicers of civil disobedience (Rosa Parks, MLK, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, etc.) are praised and held up as high examples of courage and righteousness in this country and all over the world.

I acknowledge that it is difficult for the administration to do both the enforcing and the praising -- at least at the same time! The administration is in an awkward position. Let us remember, though, that this is a university, not a prison camp. Exceptions are routinely made by administrators and faculty towards the students, and second chances are given all the time (if you have not experience this, I hope you might consider taking my word for it). This, it seems to me, is a time for reconciliation and healing, not a time for punishing. It has been a long year. Hurricanes will be upon us again soon. We need unity, not division, in this community of ours. We need a community that is ready to start a new year with a smile on its face.

I would like to add that your presence here as a student who often disagrees with this blog's position makes the blog more interesting and alive to debate and exchange of ideas. Thank you, and thanks also to all other students who take the time to write here.

OOR said...

Question....In Shalala's speech to graduating seniors, she told them to baically follow their conscience and act upon it. So would you then not find it hypocritical for Shalala to punish students such as yourself for aspiring to that ideal? Or was Shalala, as politicians often do, catering to her audience without actually believing what she was saying? Frankly, I can't believe she made that statement with a straight face...
As for your statements regarding professors having classes outside, I think you'd be well advised to inform yourself as to how vindictive an administrator can be, if they choose to. It takes guts for a faculty member w/o tenure to make themselves visible in that manner, and for you to dismiss it as without risk is silly. Ideally, it SHOULD have no bearing on their status. PRACTICALLY, I think you are being rather naive if you don't think it could.

P.S. Accoring to your own statement "Tenure is obviously very important so that professors can speak their minds..." don't you find something very wrong in a society where we are guaranteed free speech with the idea that professors might feel so threatened that your statement could be accurate?

Anonymous said...


"It takes guts for a faculty member w/o tenure to make themselves visible in that manner, and for you to dismiss it as without risk is silly"

Silly? I think not. Silly was the pointless symbolism of having class on the lawn in the first place.

That was not clear - not a risk for tenured faculty is what I was talking about. Clearly a risk for non-tenured. I was talking about tenured faculty so I didn't think the distinction was necessary.

In any event, free speech is not speech without cost.

Of course let's not forget that UM is a private university and therefore able to restrict what it chooses more so than a state school.

You will find no human society in which one can say whatever they want without some cost. That's just the way it is - hence the need for tenure. The idealism your question implies is what we should all find - silly.

And professors are just as vindictive as your description of administrators, your forthcoming denial aside. This is particularly the case is the professor happens to be tenured.

OOR said...

Well, I'm glad that you agree that UM is guilty of censorship....that's a step in the right direction. Professors CAN be vindictive, but that has no bearing on this argument, since they were not the ones in the position of power in this particular situation.
I do not believe free speech to be idealistic..especially in this case.....but if your statement is indeed true, then I guess Shalala's entire graduation speech is silly...due to her request for students to follow their convictions. Could you please address that question?

Anonymous said...

I didn't hear Shalala's graduation speech and would then have only your word to go on in addressing it. If I had been there I wouldn't have been listening anyway. Graduation speeches are for the most part a waste of air.

Free speech may not in and of itself be idealistic, but certainly your outlook falls within that characterization.

And no one said anything about censorship. That was your choice of words. That's about as credible a characterization as the effort to equate the battle for card check with the struggle for civil rights.

You use censorship because its a very powerful buzzword. That's like saying the city's requirement of a permit for the hunger-strike tent city was akin to censorship if you hadn't obtained one. Why not make the moral argument that the city has no right to require that because its an expression of your freedom of speech and expression to set up a tent and hunger-strike wherever you want.

Likewise its just as ridiculous for you to suggest that occupying the admissions office so as to disrupt operations of the university is perfectly acceptable because those who participated believed what they were doing was right.

Maybe I should get together several people and stage a protest in the middle of your class to the point where you can't do your job. Let's pick some issue that your really against and protest the fact that you're against it.

Would you accept my assertion that its a matter of my free speech rights?

OOR said...

Please enlighten me....what "operations" were being disrupted? Was anyone being physically prevented from, let's say, doing their filing, or or holding a meeting? Please list for me the classes that had to be cancelled due to these protests. I invite you to name one person that wasn't able to do their job dirctly because of the protests.
Censorship is censorship. Picking and choosing what information you want to reach the public simply because you have the financial means to do so not only lacks integrity, but is an embarassment for an institution that is supposed to be a forum for the FREE exchange of ideas. If opinions can't be expressed on a college campus, then we are even worse off than I thought...

giovanna said...

the anonymous student makes a good point. civil disobedience is inherently and intentionally disruptive. i'm sure there's a lot written on it, especially on what constitutes genuine civil disobedience and what is simple cussedness. should picketline post on it? would this be of interest to anyone?

Anonymous said...

what "operations" were being disrupted? Was anyone being physically prevented from, let's say, doing their filing, or holding a meeting?

Are you kidding me? You're really going to sit there at your computer and write what implies that you think those protests were not disruptive?

Do you really believe that the presence of those students in the admissions office or repeatedly trying to enter the lobby presented no disruptions?

Or am I to believe that the presence of chanting protestors inside and out, the media, and police is the kind of work environment in which we can all carry on normally?

Office work cannot proceed normally under such conditions any more than the tours can be conducted or would the participants wish to involve themselves, during such an event.

Its one thing for you to say that to have staged these protests and to have moved in to "occupy" the admissions office was perfectly acceptable conduct given ones action of conscience, its another for you to claim those same actions were not disruptive.

Those actions were taken precisely because they were disruptive. To make the point sought and to present an attractive story for the media which quite willingly obliged.

Picking and choosing what information you want to reach the public simply because you have the financial means to do so not only lacks integrity, but is an embarassment for an institution that is supposed to be a forum for the FREE exchange of ideas. If opinions can't be expressed on a college campus, then we are even worse off than I thought

Oh now that's rich.

As I said "Free" is not that which has no cost. You may say whatever you want but then comes the time when you have to be responsible for what you say. This is a often a very fine line.

What is also a very fine line is the right to express your beliefs in contrast with the rights of others. You can sit on the grass and have your class, but you can't hold your class in front of the door so I can't transit that door. You can stand outside the memorial building classrooms and scream at the top of your lungs about whatever injustice you wish, but the university would be no less in the wrong for having you escorted off campus for disrupting classes.

You apparently think that whatever you feel is the expression you want to make cannot be hampered or prevented or responded to in any way by any measure of sanction. You would of course be mistaken.

Believe what you like, semantics aside - the facts of the matter are these:

The protests were conducted so as to force the university (and everyone else) to pay attention to the card check/NLRB dispute;

The protests were conducted in the manner in which they were conducted so as to generate media attention;

In participating and directing such actions, JCD, Alysa Cundari, and the other students involved violated a number of university regulations which they clearly were aware of and determined that the cost was sufficient to the cause;

The university is holding them responsible;

The debate we're having here is whether or not the university has cause to do so. You believe it does not. I disagree.

And there we are. The rest of this discussion is immaterial.

OOR said...

And after all of that, guess what...people that had no health insurance now have it, people that didn't have a living wage are now much closer to one, and people that could be replaced on a whim can no longer be victimized....sorry for the inconvenience....

T said...

Dear Ishmael,

In your summary, you state that "[t]he university is holding [the student activists] responsible" and that "[t]he debate we're having here is whether or not the university has cause to do so. You believe it does not. I disagree. And there we are. The rest of this discussion is immaterial."

Saying it doesn't make it so. You say that the university is holding these students responsible. Are you aware of specific charges that have been made? I haven't yet.

And to the more *material* question: have you taken the time to examine the Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook? If you do so, you will see that students can be charged in a minor category (with various disciplinary actions that can be taken) vs. in a major one.

I think that a number of us are watching to see whether the university opts for the one vs. the other.

OOR said...

Well, since it seems you have your heart set on punishment for these "criminals," what then would you deem appropriate punishment for improving the lives of the impoverished, if, as stated by t, they are indeed made aware of the charges against them....What, praytell, do you think the University is waiting for?