Vacarr: The Occupy movement is right

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Barbara Vacarr, the president of Goddard College with campuses in Plainfield, Vt. and Port Townsend, Wash.

“Students should not only be trained to live in a democracy when they grow up; they should have the chance to live in one today.”
— Alfie Kohn, writer and education activist

UC Davis, UC Berkeley and Penn State.

At two of these institutions, they called the police when they shouldn’t have. At another, they failed to call the police when they should have.

There is much we must learn from these events.

Almost 50 years ago students at UC Berkeley played a major role in the Free Speech Movement of that era. Today in 2011, the campus stands as an example of oppression as student protesters were beaten with truncheons. At UC Davis, unthinking police pepper sprayed students who assembled themselves in a prone position.

If this continues, we are in grave danger.

When educational leaders and administrators are more concerned with public appearance and endowments than they are with students taking action in teachable moments about democracy, we are all in trouble.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters are exercising their rights and they are right to do so. That is a fact too often lost in the political and media frenzy over demands and tactics. The issues they raise – student debt, the rising cost of higher education, inequality, concentration of wealth, adysfunctional government – are the issues that we as leaders must confront in the university.

Instead, we are calling the police.

College presidents must hold sacred issues of freedom of expression and safety to ensure that students think critically about the core of higher education—morality, democracy and civic responsibility.

The university is the place where discourse and ideas must flow freely and without repercussion. We have somehow lost sight of that.

I urge university presidents to remember who we are and who we serve. We serve students. Our job is to foster environments that develop human beings so that they can go out and change the world. I urge my fellow presidents to stop calling the police.

Instead, we should be working with the protesters, integrating these issues into our curricula, holding forums, creating learning opportunities around these issues. This is teaching in action. Surely if Penn State can offer a class on Joe Paterno and the media, the rest of us can find ways to attack these thorny issues, take them head on without creating needless confrontations where tragic mistakes are made.

Every time the police attack these protesters, it is acollective failure on the part of people who know better. There are countless examples of professional police officers, with proper training and leadership, working with protesters to ensure the safety of all involved. It is the job of people in authority to enable the discussion of these issues, indeed, to promote protest rather than stifle it.

Democracy and protest are messy and inconvenient. The parks will be messy, people will be inconvenienced. That is the essence of protest, from Dr. King’s Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Wall Street protests.

We are at a fork in the road here. And college presidents can lead the way in embracing the importance of democratic protest as a time honored tradition that helps us make a better country.

Stop calling the police!

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