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nassau-hall

Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian


Recently, in the wake of three institutional embarrassments, the campus community has been unusually and excitingly responsive. Attempts to cover up and minimize scandals have blown up, from the non-randomness of room draw, the structural inequality in the form of introducing the criminal history checkbox on the graduate school application, to the ineffectiveness of the Title IX office. Activists have held their ground in calling for the reform of a dysfunctional Title IX system. Unfortunately, the administration has been utterly condescending to some of its most courageous community members. 

Most recently, Vice President W. Rochelle Calhoun remarked snidely that the administration was doing activists “the honor of taking them and their demands seriously.”

In other words, activists should be grateful for whatever scraps they can obtain, and the institution should receive credit for its open-mindedness, once compromises have been fought for tooth and nail. According to this logic, maybe laborers should be grateful for the weekend, though they had to fight relentlessly for it. Similarly, I suppose women in the early 20th century should have expressed more gratitude for the serious consideration of their demands to be extended the right to vote. 

In an academic setting where words are all the rage, Calhoun would be well-advised to choose hers with greater care, lest the word “honor” lose what meaning it had prior to this administrative mangling. Calhoun’s statement implies that the default position of the University would have been to ignore and ride out the pressure of its students, many of whom deal with the myriad abuses that the University fails to curb. Furthermore, her words demonstrate that the administration only choses to listen because of magnitude of pressure the protests brought to bear.

The first of these conclusions forces us to contend with the fact that the institution has expressed virtual indifference to the well-being of its student body, which is self-evidently grotesque.  From the second conclusion, we realize that to the extent that students should be grateful, they should be so to themselves. They are responsible for producing whatever good comes of this confrontation.

It is not my purpose here to litigate the particular demands of the Title IX protests, which have been only recently, albeit impressively, hammered out. Rather, I am concerned, first and foremost, with preserving the dignity of those who have chosen to protest out of necessity, as a form of self-defense and solidarity. The reaction that greeted their efforts has been inexcusable and offensive, and reveals the priorities of the institution. There is more care put towards maintaining a selective aesthetic purity than towards the safety and comfort of those who study and work here.

It should be said that the disrespect and rigidity of the University administration is common practice. For further description, one might consider the penalties faced by earlier Title IX protesters. An anonymous student was fined and received four years of probation and 50 hours of community service for graffiti including Title IX critiques on campus. The administration’s vindictive and punitive approach is reminiscent of an era preceding ours.

Readers of my column will recall my long-standing opposition to hasty public judgement and the unthinking condemnation of the crowd. I was against the stigmatization of those who failed to support the Democrats in the midterms, the self-destructive focus on identity at the expense of otherwise relatable argumentative content, and the dismissal of people based on the intellectual sandbox in which we choose to immerse ourselves.

But in this instance, shame is more than justified; it is a public need, and utterly consistent with the values that this university claims to espouse — namely, those of inclusion and diversity. This time, the crowd is on the receiving end of the very dismissal I’ve accused it of imposing.

If Calhoun’s detestable statement represented an isolated incident, then an apology might constitute a viable response, since her behavior is completely inappropriate to dealing with survivors and their allies. But the problem goes deeper than that; it seems that this administration is committed to the hamstringing of progressive movements on campus.

So long as the fundamental governance structure of the University is not on the table, immediately continued pressure is the second-best remedy. When the crowd outside of Nassau Hall became aware of Calhoun’s dismissive statement, they became justifiably outraged. Her off-handed gestures of contempt were met with dedication to proceeding against the suffocating effects of administrative rebuke. 

Students, so far, have been regarded and treated as the adversary; now, we are finally responding in kind. May there not be, as Michaela Daniel ’21 says, “one more moment of peace” until these grievances are meaningfully redressed in a manner that treats students as the centrality of campus life, and expands justice outward from our university, constituting the “service of humanity.”

Braden Flax is a sophomore from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at bflax@princeton.edu.

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