Vandalism and civil discourse at GVSU

By Joe Hogan | 1/26/14 8:13pm

Last week, rumors spread quickly throughout GVSU about instances of vandalism on campus. Apparently, at least twice during the week, someone defaced a plaque in the entrance of the new library that “recognizes the many generous philanthropists whose support has made possible the Mary Idema Pew Library.” On the plaque, someone crossed out “philanthropist” and wrote: “Money shouldn’t dictate learning” and “Donate for good! Not for recognition!”

This particular form of protest constitutes one of the many ways members of the GV community have reacted to the recent controversy over free speech that began in the pages of the Lanthorn and spread to the Associated Press and FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. What sparked the debate was the response of a few administrators to an editorial in the Lanthorn that criticized some aspects of the university’s fundraising and development policies. Most notable was the fact that certain administrators questioned the staff of the Lanthorn’s right to merit scholarships based solely on their opinion of “naming opportunities” for donors on campus.

Now, there are a variety of ways students, professors, and administrators have responded to the defacement of the plaque; most are entirely fair. Some students (with whom I agree) are frustrated that the vandalism inappropriately questions the intentions of donors, not the administration. This tactic wrongly implies that all donors should be held suspect for their donations (a view never once put forth by either side of the original debate); not only that, it also distracts from the real issue: mainly, that a few administrators flippantly threatened the scholarships of students whose views simply contradicted their own. Likewise, a popular argument among students is that vandalism of any sort undermines the pride that all students ought to take in the appearance and integrity of their campus. These students rightly feel a sense of ownership over their campus, and so find embarrassing and disheartening even vandalism that engages a very meaningful public issue.

Such objections are fair enough. Still, one must ask why anyone would think it right to deface, vandalize, or otherwise alter the appearance of any plaque on GV’s campus; though indeed objectionable, their perspective certainly bears consideration.

For one, the vandalism indirectly calls attention to the fact that there really are no permanent places on which students can etch in stone views that are contrary to those of the administration. That is to say, students with heterodox opinions cannot contribute to their university’s campus in a lasting way. Instead, such students enjoy access only to the few so-called “free speech zones” on campus, like the transitional link, for the temporary expression of their views. What is more, these students are constantly beleaguered by what, in their minds, likely amounts to the unfettered expression of capitalist ideology: the plaques and name-covered walls that, by virtue of their prominence on campus, suggest we ought to memorialize gifts of money over gifts of time and talent. Why, these students must wonder, don’t we more often etch in stone the names of educators at Grand Valley?

Elements of this argument are correct. Still, the vandalism is very frustrating in a way that I don’t think anyone has yet examined.

One of the most important problems with the recent case of vandalism is that the protestors used a form of expression that not only righty frustrates their peers, but also eschews the historically more effective medium for public debate, discourse, and reform: print. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Emile Zola’s “J’accuse”—both were printed in popular periodicals. In each case, those we have come to consider champions of social justice and reform used a means of expression that was open, dignified, and profoundly transformative in culture. King and Zola, obviously just two examples of a concept that is well established, capitalized on a medium that allowed for their views to be quoted, reprinted, and disseminated over time and space. They, ultimately, exercised a kind of speech that lasts.

Such is the form of expression that the majority of debate on campus should take. It is heartening to see that, in response to a call for open discussion in the Lanthorn, both students and faculty have engaged in a dialogue that, for the four years that I have been here, is unsurpassed in importance and implication at GVSU. I hope that all students, faculty, and administrators continue this discussion and use it to further safeguard free speech at our university.

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