Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Universities occupy a unique and important venue in society. It is at such institutions that young lives begin their transformation to adulthood and accelerate their development as human beings. These are also places where faculties seek to create new knowledge and to dispense knowledge to the young people that come there as students and to others that will apply that knowledge to productive application in the private and public sectors of an economy. There is no “engine” in a society that is more potent in advancing its human potential, and therefore its prosperity, values and ethics. It is in universities that all this is shaped.

Because young individuals arrive at universities at the threshold of adulthood, they are at a nascent stage in the development of their views, ethical standards, knowledge, and values. It is in this setting that they must learn critical and independent thinking. It is in this theater that they learn about civil discourse, fairness, freedom of speech, freedom of descent, respect for others and activism. Thus, it is important that universities provide an environment that nurtures their growth as human beings. While good scholarship in learning content/information is important, the challenge for universities presents a bigger calling than simply preparing students for careers or educating them.

These developmental attributes are not likely to be learned in a classroom. However, the institution’s core values, how it conducts its affairs and the environment that it creates provides an influential framework for this developmental process. Thus it is extremely important that the leadership of universities carefully architect their institutional environment and implement it with the steady hand of conviction.

Throughout history, the young have been inclined toward idealistic activism and the university has been a common setting for the expression of such strongly held views. Suppressing such passions through censorship is not a constructive policy for a free society. Rather, a wise strategy is to view such situations as an opportunity to explore the issues and caste some light on the truth. Often this is a challenging undertaking, since activists have only an advocate agenda and are closed-minded about the search for enlightenment. In real life the extremists are one percent of the equation. While others may have an affinity for the extremist views, they are within the realm of persuasion, whereas it is wasted effort to attempt to influence the extremist coterie.

Debate is a civil process through which all participants develop deeper understanding of issues. Activists need to learn that the “louder they shout” their message, the less effective it is in persuading anyone of their cause. In fact it often has a pejorative effect in promoting an understanding of their agenda. Universities and their leadership have an important role in cultivating the attitudes and civilized behavior of students, as those young people ponder society’s issues. Often concepts and beliefs formed in this early stage of life get traction as young individuals evolve to adulthood.

Certainly there have been times in history where protest movements have gained sufficient force to effect the course of public policy. Such initiatives have not been the sole purview of idealistic youth, but often have had a broader base of individuals sharing a common, contrarian view. This has served a constructive purpose in a modern democracy.

Activism and protests have always been a part of campus life, particularly in California. At the UC Irvine campus there was a recent disruptive protest by a small boisterous group of Muslim students at a speech by the Israeli Ambassador to the US. These students clearly crossed the line of acceptable dissident behavior and invaded the free speech rights of others. This has been a polarizing event in our community. At the extremes, some would have them hanged and others would lionize them. This exemplifies the emotion that surrounds this geopolitical issue. In my view, Chancellor Drake and the university are handling this sensitive matter firmly and appropriately. The students were arrested and the university is proceeding with the due process that is likely to lead to disciplinary action.

UC Irvine is not alone in recent student misconduct experiences. At UC San Diego a group of fraternity students staged a “Compton Cookout” where they dressed as African-Americans and ate watermelon. A KKK-style noose was hung in the student library. Following this incident the UC San Diego Chancellor handled the matter poorly. While there were many protests on campuses regarding the tuition increase, at UC Berkeley, student protests got out of hand resulting in some significant property damage on the campus.

I find it strangely ironic to see student protests over the rise of tuition at the University of California to the $10,000 level, but no protests at comparable private institutions where tuition is in the $35-45,000 range. There is no mention by protestors or the media about the fact that 1/3rd of the increase is being channeled back into need-based scholarships. Also, there is no mention of the fact that students in families with annual incomes of up to $75,000 pay no tuition at all at any UC campus. This is one of the greatest bargains on the planet, particularly considering the fact that the academic standing of the UC System is very high. Several campuses rank in the top one percent of all colleges & universities in America.

While a few express dissatisfaction, the demand for education at UC campuses is strong. Applications were up substantially this year in spite of the tuition increase. When the nation’s 3,000 universities are ranked by the volume of applicants, five of the ten most applied to universities happen to be UC campuses. Californians are fortunate indeed to have an institution of higher learning of this caliber.

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