Opinion: Untenable Student Life Emails

In a great number of ways, our community is in flux. New administrators are joining, old ones are leaving, students who have not spent time on campus are coming together; I’m certainly excited to be seeing people I haven’t seen in years together again. This commotion is going to cause some friction, but outside of that regular degree of friction is any kind of acceptance for sexual assault or violence. As a community, we stand against those who seek to abuse others, above all else this is a community built on what Kathy Oleson, Dean of the Faculty, calls the productive struggle. The Honor Principle is a vital part of this struggle. Without an Honor Principle, we’re no different from the colleges that many administrators are leaving behind to work at Reed. We are a community where students are involved in the expulsion process, where isolating a student from campus is not something within the sole purview of even the Vice-President for Student Life (VPSL). As a community we’ve agreed that protest is not only not dishonorable, but is oftentimes the most honorable thing to do. I recall the faculty meeting where the discussion about detaching a violation of the Dissent Policy from the Honor Principle was being had. Many, many faculty members in attendance didn’t just want to tolerate student protest, they wanted to encourage it. We’ve gone so far as to entrench this belief into policy by amending the Dissent Policy as students, staff, and faculty. You wouldn’t know any of these things after reading Dr. McConnell-Black’s October 5 email to the Reed Student Body.

I’m used to an era of student life that cares about the quality of that life. This community supports survivors, and if you don’t, you don’t belong in it.

I’ve been reading sort of unhinged emails from VPs for Student Life before that was the title, but they used to be calling us together. I’m used to an era of student life that cares about the quality of that life. This community supports survivors, and if you don’t, you don’t belong in it. If, to you, supporting survivors is bullying them into a deeply antagonistic process, or courting them to be sued for libel then I’d suggest you get on the phone with your mother. Since the Devos-led Department of Education changes to the Title IX process have taken effect, the nature of the entire process is as antagonistic and confrontational as Dr. McConnell-Black’s email. The decision to move forward with any kind of allegation is one that takes months, years even, not weeks. Inventing a timescale you expect someone else to follow is expected for classwork, rude for someone doing you a favor, and raises to the level of misconduct when you’re a vice president of anything and talking about someone’s response time to managing their trauma. To call a lack of official allegations, especially with this new level of campus awareness, an absence of evidence is not just dishonest, it stands quintessentially against my understanding of the Honor Principle. The process of a Judicial Board (J-Board) case plants a seed of doubt inside your own mind that rips its way out over the course of an entire semester. I believe there’s no statute of limitations for a J-Board case, and I didn’t think it was allowed to intimidate a witness.

Marginalization generally prevents people from bringing forward bias incident reports; many students aren’t even familiar with the process. Many students of color have accepted that being yourself and being here means enduring harm at the hands of this institution, and being a Black student often puts you at the bottom of that larger barrel. Dr. McConnell-Black shoulders the burdens of someone “whose identity is layered and multifaceted,” and then uses that as a twisted excuse to punch down. The benefits of a diverse student body aren’t that there are never conflicts, the benefits are that when conflicts arise we are more able to handle them with holistic compassion that is entirely absent from Dr. McConnell-Black’s email.

Anyone who’s joined Reed in this more recent glut of hirings during the pandemic has some conception of the Honor Principle; that conception is wrong, partially because the point of the Honor Principle is that we are all always failing to actualize it. It’s a communitywide conversation that we don’t have to agree on. Even this fails to do the completeness—or incompleteness—of the Honor Principle justice. Someone whose only appeal to the Honor Principle is to harangue people out of attempting to keep themselves safe is shameful. I think Dr. McConnell-Black has managed to effectively advance the conversation on campus around consent by efficiently demonstrating the insidiousness of rape culture.

There is a line in this nine paragraph slog of an email that says something about students “taking matters into our own hands.” We are a community founded and maintained by community governance. There is no taking matters of student conduct into student hands, that is where it already rests. From J-Board to Honor Council to Restorative Justice Coalition students are still the ones who field the vast majority of student conduct claims. If student conduct were in the sole hands of the institution it is clear that no justice would be delivered, and perpetrators of harm are as protected as their parents are willing to sue.

We are a community founded and maintained by community governance. There is no taking matters of student conduct into student hands, that is where it already rests.

For my money, the VP for Student Life isn’t really the one protecting student interests. If he could, Dr. McConnell-Black would seemingly oust members of the community who dissent strongly, and that’s certainly not in our interest. President Audrey Bilger is the only person who can unilaterally make decisions about a student’s enrollment or status on campus, but her stepping in for something at this level would be highly unusual. The VPSL’s job is to sometimes be the bad guy in service of supporting the staff who support students directly. I would really encourage anyone who’s gotten this far, and who is outside of student life, to ask the employees how they’re doing. Ask students who actually supports them. This isn’t some unknowable quantity, it’s just something you actually have to work hard to find out. We are a small enough campus that finding the student Dr. McConnell-Black is claiming to support is a matter of sending an email. Asking those students how supported they feel is effectively two emails away. 

The community as Dr. McConnell-Black envisions it in his October 5 email isn’t simply unsafe or dishonorable, it’s unsustainable. Alumni donations run this place in a very material way, and Reed’s alumni typically don’t start donating until later in life. This nebulous gossiping subtweet style of response to grievous allegations of harm scares off not just current students who might have donated, but current donors. No one, especially not a Reedie, wants to give their money to build whatever sick social media monitoring panopticon that Dr. McConnell-Black has envisioned publicly. 

Everyone who has spoken at a convocation talks about the heart of this place: how students coming in have heart, how the students welcoming them here do, how faculty and staff do. This heart isn’t just a metaphorical value, it is actually entrenched in our community constitution. If you bother to read it, you’d see that. Freedom in the form of trust and mutual freedom are exactly what is injured in this one-man mission to discredit people who are harmlessly posting on social media. A personal social post only raises to the level of community injury if your view of harm is so warped as to consider calls for accountability as injurious as the conduct that necessitates them. Students commonly refer to “The Administration.” This ill is not theirs. It rests on the shoulders of the only person who signed the email: Dr. Karnell McConnell-Black. 

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1 year ago

thanks Pax for this thorough and appropriately scathing opinion. that email was an insult to the community and to survivors everywhere.

1 year ago

Thank you thank you thank you

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