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A President's Tragic Imperative

 
 

My heart goes out to my friend King Jordan this morning. Front Page Headline in the Washington Post: “Gallaudet Students Arrested” with the subhead “President Ordered Halt to 3-Day Demonstration” Ugh.

The last thing any college president ever wants to do is issue arrest orders for students. Such an agonizing decision usually comes only after exhausting every other possible solution.

Presidents are responsible for the welfare of each and every student as well as for the health of the academic community. In normal times on a college campus, those twin responsibilities work synergistically as students derive considerable individual benefits from a healthy academic environment, which includes tolerating and even inciting a broad range of free expression and lively debate. On rare occasions, however, these responsibilities become antagonistic demands as conflicting points of view freely expressed devolve into debilitating chaos.

The scene at Gallaudet is like an ancient Greek tragedy. Plato warned of the devolution of democracy into anarchy, the ultimate tyranny of the mob. Order can only be restored through forceful action. When protests over the appointment of Dr. Jane Fernandes as the next Gallaudet President reached the point of shutting down the university for three days, President Jordan faced the ultimate tragic imperative: to restore enough order to the academic community at Gallaudet so that classes could resume, he had to order the arrest of individuals including students and faculty who were blockading the entrances to the campus.

Certainly, I don’t know enough about the internal disputes at Gallaudet to have an opinion on those issues. But as a college president myself, I know that the nightmare scenario is chaos on campus, leading to the need to take adversarial action against students. All of us who choose to work in academe do so because, in that quiet place in our souls that motivates us to keep going each day, we cherish our students and the life of the mind we share with them. Disruptions that shatter the essential orderliness of the intellectual life of the campus cause harm to the college’s sense of mission that can take years to repair. A president’s stewardship of the university’s most precious asset, its intellectual integrity, is put to its harshest test when the free expression of some impairs the ability of others to learn.

King Jordan and I have shared much in the 17+ years we’ve both been presidents of neighboring institutions that have in common a primary mission to serve students with particular characteristics — deaf students at Gallaudet, women at Trinity. We know that universities with special missions are frequently misunderstood or even marginalized in a world that sees big state university campuses as normative. We have to be passionate, sometimes even extreme, in our advocacy for our mission and our students. The world has learned a lot this week about the necessary passion that sustains the great work of Gallaudet. That passion has flared beyond control this week, and the very person responsible to keep that flame alive for two decades now must tamp down the fire. How painful! I pray that President Jordan and the Gallaudet community will find their way back to the peaceful and productive expressions of passionate education for the deaf that have been their world-renowned characteristics.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu