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Portland Tribune: Extreme expression: College life is tense right now, but why?
Author: Shasta Kearns Moore, Portland Tribune
Posted: November 14, 2017

Read the original story in the Portland Tribune.

'They look at us like our point is just to cause chaos,' Reed College sophomore Tiffany Chang says during a weeks-long sit-in. 'That's not the point. That's never the point.'

Alex Boyd is worried she might be expelled. But she's not going to stop protesting.

Boyd, a senior at Reed College, is a leader in Reedies Against Racism, a group that has shut down a Humanities 101 class and has been occupying the college president's office since Oct. 23.

Boyd is not willing to push away her feelings of anger, resentment and fear.

"My feelings are such a big part of it," she says. "This is a product of generational pain. I will not turn away (from my emotions) for anything."

This generation of college students has a lot to say on subjects they care passionately about. But not everyone is happy about how they are saying it.

Institutes of higher education across the country — but particularly in Oregon — are wrestling with a new wave of what some are calling "extreme expression."

Some observers mark the change as starting in 2015; others, with last November's presidential election of Donald Trump; and yet others, with last summer's white supremacist rally at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville.

Whatever the catalyst, many on campus seem to agree: College life is very tense right now.

National news

Protests on Oregon campuses are common and peaceful enough that they rarely garner much media attention.

But recently that has been changing.

University of Oregon President Michael Schill was overrun by Antifa protesters at his Oct. 6 State of the University speech, later publishing an opinion piece in The New York Times decrying their tactics.

Reed College protestors have made national headlines multiple times for their shutdown of a Humanities 101 class — a protest that started more than a year ago against the mandatory class's euro-centric focus. A professor of that class shot back Oct. 27 in her own essay in The Washington Post, that as a gay, mixed-race woman with PTSD, she has felt silenced by their tactics.

Portland State University's Student Union, an activist organization not affiliated with student government, was profiled in The New York Times last summer for wanting to expand and capitalize this year on their success shutting down the former president's convocation speech in 2015.

What's more, Peter Lake, a national expert on campus free speech, says he doesn't see an end soon to this form of extreme expression.

"It's going to get bigger before it gets smaller," Lake says.

Sources of unrest

There are three reasons that seem to float to the top for why political activity on campus has gotten more extreme lately: economics, President Trump, and social media.

"I think it's a lot of things, simultaneously," says Lake, an expert on higher education law and policy at Stetson University in Florida. "Certainly, one of the energies that's underlying this is that the students are realizing intuitively that they have consumer power."

Oregon has significantly reduced public investment in higher education during the past 40 years. According to the American Council on Education, the state has decreased higher education spending 67.3 percent from 1970 to 2011. If continued at that rate, the higher education organization says, the trend line will reach zero by the time babies born today graduate high school.

Lake says that college budgets are so tight these days that if even 10 students decide to go elsewhere, the tuition loss is significant.

"The administrators are very customer-sensitive," Lake says.

Brent Finkbeiner, president of the Associated Students of Portland State University, also thinks that students are feeling more financially empowered.

Finkbeiner says some students do approach administrators like: "I'm paying you. I'm paying 80 percent of this, and you're still not listening to me."

But Finkbeiner adds that other students feel quite desperate from endless tuition hikes and crushing education debt. 

"We come in frustrated. We're already here frustrated. Many of us will leave college with debt that will take so much time to pay off," Finkbeiner says.

Invisible frustrations

Economics has a different role to play in this new wave of rhetoric, too.

The most important color in many social justice issues these days? The color of money.

"What I think we see today is a new face to the same old problems," Finkbeiner says.

In the 1960s and 1970s — another extreme time on college campuses — the racial barriers were visible. Black and brown students weren't physically allowed in certain spaces.

"Today, people are being treated less than human and it's invisible, and people are feeling desperate," Finkbeiner says.

"Exactly," agrees Addison Bates, a Reed student. Despite spending weeks occupying the president's office, Bates currently is not attending classes for financial reasons.

Bates is part of Reedies Against Racism, the group that has been trying to get the college to divest from Wells Fargo, among other goals they feel are necessary to root out institutional racism.

"It's so insidious. We were letting the racism hide (during the Obama years)," Bates says. "And because it's so deep, you have to touch deep places to engage with it."

Trump, social media

Asked when and why campus expression became so extreme, Portland State University Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion Carmen Suarez is certain: "The election last November. Period. Exclamation point."

"What we've seen before and after the election is a real change in rhetoric," Suarez says. "We have an administration that has opened the Pandora's box of hate and bias and evilness against your fellow person."

Suarez says this generation of student activists are more sophisticated — using the internet to do research and organize more effectively.

But Lake has a different theory.

"A lot of students are struggling with intimacy," Lake says. Those raised on social media and other technology, he argues, don't deal well with interpersonal conflict. He also argues that they lack privacy and feel too exposed to the world.

"What (they are) really looking for," he says, "is freedom from speech."

Lake says the new ability of every person with a smartphone to be able to publish text, pictures and videos to the entire world is like handing out plutonium without nuclear weapons training.

"People are going to get hurt," Lake says. "I think if you're going to be handed a cell phone, it's almost cruel not to be given First Amendment training."

Bates and her fellow protesters feel strongly that they should be allowed to express themselves fully; to do otherwise they call "tone policing." Tone policing means criticizing someone who is upset for being upset instead of addressing their concern.

"It seems like no matter what we do, they hate it," says Boyd, a leader in Reedies Against Racism.

"They look at us like our point is just to cause chaos," Reed sophomore Tiffany Chang says. "That's not the point. That's never the point."

Dissent skills

Perhaps if colleges started explicitly teaching how to change policy, students would feel listened to.

"We have long needed to talk about expression and sort of the limits of what the First Amendment protects," says PSU's Dean of Students Michele Toppe, who has been in higher education for 30 years.

Toppe, referring to University of Washington President Anna Mari Cauce's recent essay on the subject, says the purpose of debate and free speech on campus should be to illuminate issues.

"I think what we're seeing now is a lot of heat and not a lot of light," Toppe says.

Portland State University teaches inquiry and critical thinking through its University Studies core curriculum and Toppe says civil disagreement is a lesson woven throughout classes. Instruction on how to change public policy, however, is generally limited to the classes a student chooses to take.

Reed College has a dissent policy that encourages challenges to authority, but it does not have a core course on the subject either.

But Myers, the spokesman, says he feels like the system is working at Reed.

"There was a tremendous amount of change that happened last year," he says. Perhaps the change didn't come fast enough, but, Myers says: "Bureaucracies exist to slow down change ... so that you don't just kind of change willy-nilly."

Lake says universities need to create designated places for free speech. The prolific author and public speaker also says universities should explicitly teach dissent skills.

"I don't know that our business is sustainable unless we start to teach a meta-curriculum about free speech and how to use it," he says.