A Student's View

I was curious about you after I read the article in today's [3/2/05] Student Life about your efforts to change the University's media policy, so I visited your department-hosted website. I was amazed to find such well-reasoned, in-depth analyses of the pervasive problems with this university and academia in general - I know of few other professors who dare to offer this kind of sociological analysis of the culture here at Wash. U. In your articles "Don't Become A Scientist," "Diversity Is The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel," and "What's New At Washington University," you explain some of the things that have most frustrated me since I decided to attend this school.

From what you say, it seems like the administration is setting the tone for much of what occurs daily on campus - and the things you point out are definitely consistent with what I myself have observed. We have this chancellor who doesn't appear to hold a single strong or potentially offensive opinion, who remembers the names of financial backers but not students he's met a half-dozen times (unlike his predecessors, who mingled freely with the student body and who were well-liked). Then we have a glut of administrators whose main duty is to "handle" students and faculty in order to keep them in line within the University's corporate structure, which is mainly concerned with cutting corners and maintaining the appearance of political correctness, so as to move up in the all-important rankings. Part of the administration, in turn, selects a student body that looks good on paper - especially in terms of "diversity" and supposed devotion to social causes - but which in reality consists of a multitude of shallow, close-minded, intellectually prudish students who shy away from doing or saying anything that might jeopardize their futures in academia or professional fields.

I was surprised to learn that there is in fact this "media policy" that keeps professors from speaking their minds and limits contact with outsiders like members of the press. You're right - so many things the administration does make it seem like the University is trying to hide something huge - or perhaps just to hide anything that smacks of genuine human interaction. For my part, I've had a couple run-ins with the Judicial Administrator, Tamara King, because of my willingness to inform people outside of the Wash. U. community about what it's really like to be here.

I keep a personal weblog, you see, where I document interesting things I see happening around campus, in the news, and in my daily life. On one occasion I pointed out that a Jewish girl with whom I have a passing acquaintance only seems to have Jewish friends, as evidenced by those students in attendance at a loud and obnoxious birthday party held for her in Center Court. The tone of my post was less than positive, but it had nothing to do with the fact that she and her friends are Jewish - it had to do with the fact that her loud party ruined my dinner. In another post, I mentioned that a girl who lived next door to me on my freshman floor experienced a kidney failure from doing "birthday shots" and taking pain medication in the same night - and then when she came back to school, she loudly noted that she couldn't drink for a few weeks, but that when she could, it would be "like a party." Well, those two girls turned out to be friends, and when one of them discovered my blog last year, they decided that it would be fun to get me in trouble by filing dual complaints to the JA on the same day, citing (1) anti-Semitism and (2) a breach of medical confidentiality. (I know that they did this for fun because they posted AOL Instant Messenger away messages boasting of their accomplishment and talking about their plans to get drunk in celebration.)

The girls must have understood that the JA is generally charged with maintaining a politically correct status quo on campus, because the JA definitely did lambaste me for my "inappropriate" remarks, maintaining that despite the fact that I'm not the second girl's doctor, and despite the fact that this girl proudly and publicly announced her intentions to "get back in the saddle," so to speak, after an alcohol-induced kidney failure, I wasn't allowed to mention her foolishness to outsiders, as in her view, "what happens on the freshman floor stays on the freshman floor." And in the JA's view, simply making an observation about the cultural composition of a group constitutes "harrassment" and "anti-Semitism," despite the fact that I'm half Jewish myself. I mentioned the girls' away messages, noting that as far as I could tell, their complaints were part of a concerted effort to get me in trouble for what were in fact minor offenses, if offenses at all. Ms. King dismissed that notion immediately. I still get angry thinking about it to this day - because of the way the system works here, I'm not allowed free speech, even when I'm speaking about what I've seen with my own eyes. I couldn't very well contest the JA's censure, though, because I didn't want to risk further sanctions - as it was, she lambasted me for about half an hour and then closed the file on those complaints.

Then in an unrelated instance last summer, I noticed that the University was throwing away a multitude of furniture, including decent-quality mattresses and high-quality couches and chairs from Ursa's. (I know the mattresses were good quality because they were identical to the one I was sleeping on at the time, and in fact I may have slept on one of the mattresses they threw away in a previous semester.) I subscribe to a popular email list-serv here in St. Louis called Freecycle-StL, which allows people to post notices about items they're giving away for free and, to a lesser extent, post wanted ads for items they'd like to receive for free. I noticed that someone on the north side of campus had already posted about a glut of perfectly fine desks and chairs that the University was throwing out, so I went ahead and mentioned the items available on the south side of campus. A while later I checked the list again and found that the JA had apparently been lurking on the list, as she sent an email to the list (CCed to me) censuring me for mentioning the furniture available on campus and noting that anyone coming to campus to claim those items would be considered trespassing, adding, "The student does not understand the situation."

It appears that she sent nothing to the student from the north side of campus, however, which made me question her commitment to "protecting" the campus. Was she protecting the campus from trespassers, or was she trying to protect the University from "trouble-makers" like me? Further, I understand that there are liability issues with people coming on campus to pick up discarded items - but in this case, I think the administration definitely made its values clear: they're more concerned with potential liability than with social justice and environmental issues. I feel like in each of these three instances, the question becomes, "What does the University have to hide?" The administration seems to be much less focused on fostering genuine excellence, a la institutions like MIT, Harvard, or Princeton, than it is on censuring anyone who points out the real social, academic, and environmental issues on campus.

But...this has been a long email on my part to point out some instances where my experience jibes with your reckoning of things. I'd like to see Wash. U. develop a more open atmosphere, but I don't have much confidence that things will improve significantly by the time I graduate. Perhaps your resolution, if passed, will help a bit - but I think, as you've noted, real change needs to occur in our hiring and admissions criteria before any significant change will occur on campus. The University needs to quit acting like so much like a giant corporation and start acting more like an academic institution.

Thanks for writing those essays - they definitely left me feeling glad that there's someone in the Wash. U. community who understands the problems with this campus.