waiting for god( kn)o(ws wha)t

The suspense. It’s killing me.

Drip Drip Drip Drop

Here we are, over 3 1/2 weeks since those fateful CMatMC events, and we still await word for the specific plan the college has for cleaning up this mess. Which is not to say nothing’s happened. MC is abuzz in efforts to “effectively deal with” this crisis. In recent weeks, our fair campus has played host to a never-ending cavalcade of efforts to stitch our community (back?) together: we’ve called meetings over meanings, opened a floodgate of debates, and heard an earful of tearful bromides.

But the most important question still remains. But what will be done to/with/for the protestors? (prepositions used in descending likelihood of applicability, sadly) What will become of them? As the students escape campus to enjoy (I hope!) their spring break, this lack of clarity at least makes one thing clear: the college’s response is hopelessly broken — at best amateurish, and at worst, needlessly cruel.

Many of us expected concrete answers by now. We speculated that these decisions would be the emerge out of the meeting of the college Board of Overseers that took place last weekend. (It was this assumption that drove the mad dash to get an essay published last week that made a strong case in defense of the students and recommending against any punishment. We succeeded in getting something published, and we even succeeded in ensuring it was read and discussed in the meetings (huzzah!), but to what effect? We can’t know until decisions become public.) Those meetings have now come and gone, and with students now off for a week of spring break, the by the time we hear anything official over a month will have transpired since the protests. I realize this is being treated as a complicated case, and it is unwise to act too rashly, but even so this is taking far, far too long. This length carries with it significant negative consequences for the students, and even the college.

Investi-Gate

Of course, we must await the outcome of the ongoing investigations, of which there are 2: one by the college, the other by the police. It is unclear what the division of labor is with these investigations — I would assume the college is handling what happened inside the lecture hall, while the police is on the job for the events that took place later that evening. But in practice it’s certainly much blurrier than this simple division. For one, the college’s narrative of the protests has frequently lumped everything into one grand protest, rather than treating these as separate, albeit possibly related, events. Second, I know that the expanse of these investigations is rather sweeping. Yours truly has been contacted by the police to come in for an interview, even though I had nothing to do with planning the protests, I was not inside the auditorium with the protests took place, and I was on the bus home long before the post-talk events. It really must be a thorough investigation if they are pulling in random non-participants just to get the fullest accounting possible.

Of course, I am not the only one being swept up in the investigatory net. I’ve heard reports of many students being brought in for questioning, not all of whom were also uninvolved in the protests. I will give you one guess as to what these students have in common. It’s really quite surprising how much effort is being put in to identifying who participated in the protests. If only there were video of the event, or maybe some pictures of protesters plastered all over national media outlets. Without that, I guess the best we can do is to round up any potential troublemakers and get them to spill the beans.

Just to be clear, I don’t know the full details of any of these investigations. Moreover, like all campus and police investigations, I am sure they are being handled fairly and professionally. But even if we believe that, this is dragging on too long. We have a very specific calendar at college and a really short semester. We have to work within those constraints (for better or worse, but this is a lesson that every student has to learn: at some point, you just have to turn the paper in), because they define the rhythm of life here.

While we await the outcomes of these investigations, it appears the administration is asking students to turn themselves in if they participated in the protests. This could certainly shave some time off this interminable investigating, but to what end? That’s the mystery. With no knowledge of what awaits them on the other side, or how turning themselves in rather than being brought in in some other fashion (Hauled out of their dorm rooms in the middle of the night? Probably not, but the point is that at some level, everyone will be “turning themselves in”) will effect their looming punishment, students are wisely playing wait and see. Plus, they will fare better if they remain in solidarity with each other, and resist the college’s efforts to split them.

Plan B, Contingent C

Noteworthy in all of this is how much thought and planning the college put into every aspect of their response to the protests when it came to ensuring that CM could still talk, and yet they have been caught without any clear plan on how to respond to the students now that the protests have happened. With such a fairly developed game plan for how to respond to the protest itself — whisking CM to a private space so that he could still transmit his wisdom through the interwebs — they surely knew a protest was coming. And yet, when those protests actually came, they act as if they were caught completely unawares. They have fallen silent and retreated, supposedly to determine the next steps. They were able to come up with their plan to letCM talk in only a few days. Why can’t they be similarly speedy in determining their response to the students?

It’s complicated. Of course. But what complicates it? First, there is the confrontation that happened after the event. Yes, that is indeed a sticky wicket, but one would believe that this is the part being handled by the police, so the college does not need to focus on that. Moreover, since there is no evidence connecting the planning and participating in the protests inside with the events outside later that evening, one would think they could be easily separated when discussing consequences.

Secondly, and probably most confounding, is that the college is caught between punishing the actual violations of the student handbook that could legitimately be attributed to the students and the calls for blood driven by public outcry over the event, stoked by rather incendiary media coverage. This is always a risk with student protests (and I speak from experience, as I may have the rather dubious (or impressive!) claim to have had the highest number of advisees sanctioned for campus protest in recent years), because they damage something that the college values even more than “free speech”: its reputation. This is not only highly prized, but also completely unpredictable in its effects.

Even if the college had plans for how to deal with or otherwise respond to the protesters preceding the event, those plans have likely been scuttled or rethought in response to public (i.e., donor) outrage. While this does have a certain mercenary logic to it, it is nevertheless at odds with a broader notion of fairness. Why should the punishment fit the cries and not the crime? That is, the students can not be in held accountable for, e.g., the risible responses of NYT op-ed writer Frank Bruni or CM’s old friend Andrew Sullivan. Their violation was not the coverage, and that should not be taken into account. The college would have been far better off dealing with this immediately, and in response to the actual actions of the students rather than let others outside the college take ahold of the narrative and then demand the college response based on the version of events they were telling. But throughout, the college has allowed the narrative of events to be written by others. If they can’t control the narrative, then maybe they can compensate by wresting some control back from the students.

Wait, Wait, Don’t Punish Me

And so we wait. The longer this goes on, the more pressure is on the college to get it right. But it’s too late to get it right, so let’s at least hope they don’t keep getting it so wrong. But as we wait for the perfect solution, students are left in limbo — they are being asked to continue their lives as normal students, but to do so with the knowledge that something is hanging over their head. But what? Suspension? A letter in their permanent file? A stern talking to? What? To not treat this drawn-out waiting period as a form of punishment is cruel. I am on record as being against any punishment for the student protestors (and because I am an equal-opportunity anti-punishment advocate, I am also against punishing the students who invited CM to campus and the department that co-sponsored his visit. I’m feeling magnanimous today, but I can’t promise I won’t change my mind.), but if there is punishment, they should at least get credit for time served waiting for the authorities to figure out what they are doing.

And, since this is really about the college’s outcome and not the students, i would like to point out that drawing this out is not doing MC any favors either. Be prepared for another new cycle when the verdicts finally come down. This puts added pressure on them to get it right. We can only hope that they choose to do right by the students this time.

Let’s conclude a peek into those pesky MC students Vladimir and Estragon discussing their Spring Break plans:

ESTRAGON: Where shall we go?

VLADIMIR: Not far.

ESTRAGON: Oh yes, let’s go far away from here.

VLADIMIR: We can’t.

ESTRAGON: Why not?

VLADIMIR: We have to come back tomorrow.

ESTRAGON: What for?

VLADIMIR: To wait for Godot.

ESTRAGON: Ah! (Silence.) He didn’t come?

VLADIMIR: No.

ESTRAGON: And now it’s too late.

VLADIMIR: Yes, now it’s night.

ESTRAGON: And if we dropped him? (Pause.) If we dropped him?

VLADIMIR: He’d punish us.

Happy Spring Break, MC!

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