Rhodes' sock-monkey-lynching came on the heels of several reported incidents of sexual assault on campus. I don't know how many incidents or the details of those reports, but it was enough to motivate students and sympathetic faculty to organize a forum last week to discuss the growing and pervasive problem of sexual violence on Rhodes' campus, which I came to know about through multiple Facebook postings. For the record, the problem of increasing and increasingly-unaddressed sexual violence is not a "new" problem at Rhodes College. Around this time last year, statistics showed that Rhodes had one of the highest numbers of reported on-campus rapes in the state of Tennessee. Those statistics only count "reported" cases.
Also this week, as if the above weren't enough, chalk-scrawlings appeared on Rhodes' campus sidewalks that read "TRUMP 2016 BUILD A WALL." Let me be the first to say that no one ought object to students' free and public expression of support for the political candidate of their choice, especially in a Presidential election year, and especially in a Presidential election year in which the real ideological differences between candidates is as pronounced as it is in this cycle. However, the "wall" referenced in these sidewalk declarations to "BUILD A WALL"-- like the sock-monkey, like the lynching noose-- is a history/context-specific symbol. It clearly targets a specific, Hispanic/Latin@ population. It clearly echoes the nativist, anti-immigrant discourse to which Donald Trump has recently given, not the first, but only the loudest and most unapologetic voice. We should not make the mistake of reading "BUILD A WALL" and "TRUMP 2016" as identical in content, affect or effect. There is a real, discernable difference between a whistle and a dog-whistle.
For the unfamiliar, Rhodes College is a small, private, very expensive ($55K per year), semi-selective (ranked #97 in private colleges), liberal arts institution here in Memphis. With respect to these recent incidents, it's probably most important to note that, according to the most recent Forbes report, Rhodes' student demographic is 77% white. I couldn't find official statistics to verify this, but anecdotally, I'll just note that I would guess that the Rhodes' faculty/administrative demographic is roughly the same, percentage-wise, predominantly white. The college exists in a "gated community." (There is a literal iron gate surrounding the campus and separating it from its immediate, less-wealthy and less-white, proximate neighborhoods.) Both inside and outside of that gate, you will hear people in Memphis frequently refer to the "Rhodes bubble," an idyllic mini-world that psychologically and existentially insulates those who enjoy its protections from the considerably less-idyllic world outside. Rhodes' campus happens to be located in my neighborhood and [full disclosure] it also is where I held a faculty position in the Philosophy Department for seven years from 2007-14.
Exactly nothing about these recent incidences on Rhodes' campus surprises me. They do not surprise me as a Memphian, they do not surprise me as a residential neighbor of Rhodes' campus, nor do they surprise me as a former and long-time member of the "Rhodes community." I am least of all surprised, however, by the fact that there has been exactly zero coverage of any of these recent incidences in the local news.
That's one seriously impenetrable gate they have over there.
|Signs on Rhodes campus this week|
Here's the important difference: everywhere else in the United States, racist threats and intimidation, sexual assault and rape, anti-immigrant prejudice and hate speech-- even garden-variety offenses like graffiti-- are matters for the police, by which I mean they are incidences that they require "official" redress, either as violations of law or as infractions of unofficially-binding but commonly-held civic relations. On college and university campuses in the United States, however, these offenses (often, crimes) are commonly and customarily relegated to the Office of Student Services, or some Associate Dean, or a Vice-Provost, or a "Diversity Officer" or, in the worst of all possible scenarios, they are given over to the deliberations of some poor, unsuspecting, pitifully under-trained and woefully unqualified Student Board. Everywhere else in the United States, when things like what happened on Rhodes' campus this week occur, formal reports are filed, investigative procedures are initiated by parties-without-interest, findings and judgments are assessed in reference to statute, penalties or exonerations are assigned according to law. On college campuses and universities, however, "town hall" meetings are held, students are provided fora in which they can "express their concerns and frustrations," emails are composed, vetted by University counsel, and then internally circulated, which disavow "any and all activities that violate the fundamental principles articulated in [insert random College/University Mission Statement] and which not represent the values of the [insert random College/University name] community."
Somewhere in the shuffle over the last three decades, as colleges and universities have grown and morphed to more closely resemble corporations, and as corporations have grown and morphed to more closely resemble sovereign individuals, we seem to have lost sight of one, critically important, very basic fact:
Campuses are NOT sovereign nation-states.
Colleges and universities may write their own idiosyncratic, community-specific "law," but that law does not supplant or supervene jus cogens, nor does it supplant or supervene State and federal (Constitutional) Law. Hate-speech is still a crime. Rape is still a crime. We must stop allowing colleges and universities to adjudicate matters of law as they see fit, for the protection and profit of institutions and to the harm of students, who are also-- lest we forget-- citizens.
In almost every case, the administrators who occupy final-authority, decision-making positions in Offices of Student Affairs or Diversity Services or the like on college/university campuses across the nation are not police. They are not attorneys. They are not experts in the law. They are not hired for their skill or training in the adjudication of criminal investigations. More importantly, they are not expected to be so, which is to say they are expected to forward the interests of their employers, even when forwarding the interests of their employers may be at odds not only with their civic responsibilities, but also their moral conscience.
As a former employee of Rhodes College, I have no doubt that many otherwise decent, conscientious, and well-meaning administrators, faculty, and students who are deeply concerned about the events that transpired this past week, are also convinced-- either by choice, habit, or persuasion--that handling those matters "in-house" is the best path forward. They are wrong.
Also wrong, dead wrong, are the many otherwise decent, conscientious, and well-meaning news reporters in Memphis who are neglecting to cover the story of what is happening on Rhodes' campus, who trust that what happens "inside the gates" of that campus surely is only the business of that campus, where it surely is being appropriately addressed.
It's time to burst the "Rhodes bubble." And every other bubble of every other campus in the United States that imagines itself to be above the law.