This is how the Administration of the University of Minnesota operates.
At the University of Minnesota, we recently witnessed University leaders uniting expediency and power when the Board of Regents (BOR) rolled out its proposal for changes to the Student Code of Conduct. The language the BOR planned to add was written in a way that if a student connected to a group, for instance, were to be charged for violating the BOR Student Code of Conduct, the group as a whole would be subjected to sanctions. The Board was scheduled to take the vote on February 9, 2018—without input via faculty governance nor from students or others in the University community. The changes would have been to the severe detriment of students who practice the principle of collective dissent in the service of democratic change.
As the date of the BOR vote approached, some members of the University community became aware of the proposed change and raised an alarm. Then, at the 11th hour, the BOR halted the vote. Even so, a group of concerned students and faculty appeared at the Regents meeting to oppose the change. Whereas most of the BOR left the room, we expressed to President Eric Kaler and BOR Chair David McMillan our deep concerns, both about the proposed changes and also about the failure to engage the community in considering a change that would have such a broad and profound impact.
How did this all happen?
Since June 2017, the BOR, working with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and Office of the General Counsel, has been deliberating on important changes to the Regents policy on sexual harassment, sexual assaults, stalking, and relationship violence. Then, this past semester, at the Regents meeting on October 13, 2017, the proposed changes to the Student Conduct Code were tacked on to the Title IX-related policy-making process.
What came out of this maneuver?
The Office of the General Counsel drafted the legal language that would, if approved, criminalize the voices of students engaged in struggles for more egalitarian, just, humane, and democratic community within the University of Minnesota and, worse, actually mete out collective punishment to equity- and social justice-seeking groups on campus. Chuck Turchick, a student at the University of Minnesota, tracked this process. Carefully reviewing the BOR meeting videos on YouTube, he wrote in the comment section of the Minnesota Daily:
“The history of this added, possibly dangerous language is interesting. Its original purpose was to make the Student Conduct Code consistent with the new policy on Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault, Stalking, and Relationship Violence (SHSASRV). The U’s Office of General Counsel submitted language to the Board of Regents that included ‘knew or reasonably should have known.’ Then it thought better of it, and during Deputy General Counsel Brian Slovut’s presentation to the Board in October, he deleted that language. The Board asked for more revisions, without recommending any specific language, and when Mr. Slovut returned to the Board at its next meeting, the language had been re-inserted.
Little or no explanation was provided as to why this language was originally proposed, then taken out, and then put back in. That all needs explaining. What was going on in other than the BOR’s open sessions that required this two- or three-step dance? Moreover, should language revisions in the Student Conduct Code that were designed to make it consistent with the new SHSASRV policy be applicable to campus demonstrations as well? Might different language be necessary for different purposes?”
At the December 2017 BOR meeting, Deputy General Counsel Brian Slovut was on the docket to present the details of changes to the Student Code of Conduct. At this meeting, Slovut reported: “the President’s Office and General Counsel’s Office… have consulted with all of the campuses… with the people who work with student groups… with respect to student discipline.” He further noted that these parties involved reviewed the language together and concluded that the new language “would be good change to the Conduct Code.” At the end of his presentation, Slovut offered the timetable, reminding the Board to review these changes and prepare to take the vote at the Board of Regents meeting on February 9, 2018.
To our dismay, all of this went through the pipeline without going through relevant committees of faculty governance and the Minnesota Student Association. Opposition came from multiple places, both internally and externally, including this coverage in Insider Higher Ed. The word got out that the BOR might actually take the vote without adequate consultation. Uncertainty abounded until the very day of the February BOR meeting.
A group of faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students, some 20 to 25 of us, therefore, decided to take direct action. On February 9, we entered the heavily guarded meeting room in the McNamara Alumni Center, amid University of Minnesota police officers taking pictures of us. We went into that room to demand from the officials a clear-cut explanation: how it all went down in the way it did.
The University of Minnesota is hardly a neutral ground. Nor are people at the top innocent doers. They are political actors with access to the lion’s share of power, resources, and privileges. And they pledge allegiance to the institution that has become anything but the one that fights to alleviate inequalities, hierarchies, and precarity to restore the public good. Such is the bitter truth. We certainly felt it when we crossed over into that enclosure. Those inhabiting that room in McNamara — University leaders and the police — were not of the community. They really do not represent the people of the University of Minnesota.
Expediency in politics, exercised at the highest level of power, is dangerous. Institutional leaders go on perpetuating their own sense of reality that is wholly disconnected from community. One has to wonder, for instance, which groups, or for that matter, the so-called community, the Office of the General Counsel consulted when drafting the changes to the Student Code of Conduct.
When we occupied the BOR meeting room, Mr. McMillan, more than once, said to us, “There is no hidden agenda.” In essence, that was the explanation that we got. The fact that these leaders cannot adequately explain what happened is a cause of concern. But the most troubling part is their evasion of responsibility. They absolve themselves from all of this dangerous authoritarian tendency. We did not go there to protest because we believe in some conspiracy theory about how power works (why the use of the phrase “hidden agenda” in response to our action demanding the Truth?). We went because we know how expediency in elite politics can chain democracy.
In the aftermath of our action, President Kaler and Professor Joe Konstan, the chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee, issued a directive to reset the whole process by way of constituting the “Ad-Hoc Committee on Revisions to the Student Code of Conduct.” The language of evasion persists again, characterizing what happened as a case of “misunderstanding.” The memo opens with the following passage:
“Earlier this year, members of the Board of Regents expressed interest in changing the student conduct code to more clearly limit cases where student groups could be held accountable for conduct code violations by their members. From the beginning, the intention and interpretation of the desired changes have been misunderstood. That, coupled with the lack of a full consultative process, resulted in significant opposition to the changes. We, therefore, are asking that this process start anew.”
When we confronted BOR Chair McMillan and President Kaler on the day of our protest, one of the faculty members said pointedly, the Board would have probably voted if it were not for collective pushback from the actually existing community. We as faculty have to keep our eyes wide open to the operations of power at the highest level of leadership. In politically challenging and difficult times like these, the self-activity of politically progressive people, acting independently of representative bodies, might well be the best strategy to remove the roof from the echo chamber called the central administration and BOR so that voices of the people—students, faculty, and staff—can enter this house. This is a good time to start learning how to reason otherwise and rework the University from way below.