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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  • Milan Moravec

    Like Coaches, University of California campus Chancellors Who Do Not Measure Up Must Go. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau’s campus police use brutal baton jabs on students protesting increases in tuition. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) is in dereliction of his duties.

    UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau’s campus police report to the chancellor and the campus police take direction from the chancellor. University of California (UC) campus chancellors vet their campus police protocols. Birgeneau allowed pepper spray and use of batons to be included in his campus police protocols.

    Birgeneau needs to quit or be fired for permitting the brutal outrages on students protesting tuition increases.

    Opinions? Email the UC Board of Regents [email protected]

  • walter carpenter

    I was around during the time of the Vietnam protests. The campuses help to lead them and the authorities responded in pretty much the same way. The occupiers have brought out into the open the issues that they have used against us for so long and they are scared of us. There will be more pepper spray in the future.

  • Speech that is amplified by big money is extremely well protected; speech that is amplified by actual human participation is to be physically assaulted by heavily armed military style police.

    That’s yesterday’s norm that needs to become today’s history.

    Yet where are Leahy, Sanders, Welch, Shumlin and others in all this? Oh … that’s right … be vewweey quite … we’ewe hunting wabbits or whatevah.

  • Ann Raynolds

    A manifesto for University and College Presidents, chancellors and Boards of Trustees! I applaud President Vacarr,am proud to hold a Masters defree from Goddard and welcome her voice in affairs of our state and nation. And I defend out congressional delegation — WE elected them and THEY are doing a great job for us in my opinion. Right now the struggle is to get fuel oil back fo rour fellow citizens who are already having a tough winter after Irene.

  • Don’t Cry, Occupy!

  • Thank you, President Vacarr, for sharing the courageous stand of those who “occupy” . As usual, Goddard will be a leader. Thank you!

  • Alexandra Thaye

    Thanks so much to Goddard President Barbara Vacar for this op-ed piece. As someone who came of age in the 60s, it’s been painful to watch the assault of non-violently protesting students at colleges and universities across the US.

    Vacar’s reminder that democracy and protest are messy and people will be inconvenienced as they were during civil rights demonstrations across the south, brings clarity to the need to tolerate and embrace the natural outcome of citizens exercising their 1st amendment rights.

    One hopes that Vacar’s call to fellow college & university presidents to exercise leadership in embracing the importance of democratic protest as a time honored tradition will result in a change in climate at institutions of higher learning across this land.

    On a personal note, President Vacar’s leadership adds to my appreciation of the opportunity to serve as a programmer on WGDR-WGDH, community radio from Goddard College.