Integrity, Anonymity, Trust
Posted on April 10, 2014
It’s the time of year that we do revisions and additions to our various summer communications, including the letter we send to all new students. Since I’ve been here five years now, you have all gotten one of these, and yes, I actually do sign each of them. Good thing my name is short. As I re-read it for about the twentieth time last week, I was struck by these sentences: “Living and learning together affords an environment in which we can thoughtfully examine complex problems and challenges in partnership. Through a process of dialogue and debate, we refine our ability to live as responsible citizens.”
What made me notice a sentence I have read countless times is my experience this past year as part of this community, and the ways in which we have, and haven’t, engaged in a process of dialogue and debate in a manner that could be described as “thoughtful.” Reading Katie Nisbet’s recent account in The Wire of the events surrounding TWAP brought some of that experience back to me, and I realized that I still have a lot on my mind about that situation and the fallout, especially over social media, that followed. So I thought I’d use this opportunity to share those thoughts.
This d-log is not about TWAP—its purpose or its members. Among their members are committed and caring individuals whom I have appreciated getting to know, even in a limited way, this semester. My concerns are broader than any one group of students. But I will say for the record, as I did for Katie, that I hope the house continues and that I want it to be successful. Those are my wishes for all theme houses, student organizations, teams: that they contribute to our campus in ways that assure their longevity. What I wished Katie had shared (though I respect her prerogative as a reporter and think she does a good job as a writer for The Wire) was the concern I expressed, and continue to express, about the lack of students’ civility in response to real or perceived shortcomings or errors by college staff.
I think that in the follow-up to the events of December, Public Safety was on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, and I’m concerned that some of my own comments in The Wire were presented in that way. I want to be clear that nothing I said to Katie was meant to impugn the reputation of, nor my appreciation for, the work of my colleagues in Public Safety. In condensing an hour-long interview to a few sentences, the Wire article might leave readers with the notion that I don’t appreciate the difficulty of their work, which would be off-base. I believe without reservation that the two most difficult jobs on this campus are those of public safety officer and area coordinator, and am grateful for the high-quality colleagues I have in both roles. Perhaps mistakes were made that night, and on other nights, by various staff because (and this is really important for me to emphasize, hence the italics) we all make mistakes. I make them, my colleagues make them. There is no shame in that. The shame is in not learning and improving. Trust me—a lot of learning came from those events, including plenty by me.
But you know what? Students made mistakes, too. I don’t doubt that most of you know that in many difficult situations in which students interact with PS, with Norton Police, with Res Life, students make errors in judgment. None of us are machines, computing every variable instantaneously and doing the right thing without hesitation. But here’s the difference: When I think a student makes a mistake, I talk with the student face-to-face, and aside from appropriate staff and possibly parents (under specific circumstances), I don’t share my opinion with anyone else. I don’t Tweet it. I don’t post it on Facebook. Neither do my colleagues.
But when you are unhappy with us—justified or not—some of you take to the internet. You post, often anonymously, demeaning and hateful comments that serve no purpose other than to hurt people. Do you think it is a violation of one’s integrity to post something anonymously? Perhaps it’s acceptable if the reason you don’t want your name attached is because you are concerned for your safety. But what if the reason is that you are writing something so heinous, so far from what you want people to think of you? Wheaton is an “honor code” school. You proudly tout that as something you value. If, to use the old adage, “integrity is how you behave when no one is looking,” what is it when you write something and then hide behind a Google doc on Facebook, where no one can see you? Who are you? Are you the pleasant, respectful student I see and say hello to on the Dimple and who contributes to this community through your involvement? Or are you the anonymous poster who rails against the “administration” or ridicules other students? Who are you? Because what I am suggesting is this: you cannot be both and be a person of integrity.
To the many students who don’t engage in anonymous posts, I applaud you. I’d like to suggest you take it one step further and stop giving others the audience they don’t deserve. Your time and energy are better spent in pursuit of efforts to create the “environment in which we can thoughtfully examine problems in partnership.” That’s the environment we deserve to live, learn and work in.
To wrap this up, I’d like to ask that you consider this approach: Assume that those who work for the college are here because you matter to us, and we do our best. When you hear something that troubles you, consider the possibility that you don’t have all the information, or you have inaccurate information, or someone just made a mistake. Not because we’re evil, or stupid, or out to get you, but because we’re human. Imagine how different this campus—the world, really—would be if we led with an optimistic view of one another, and if an issue arose, we addressed it face–to-face, name attached, commitment to Wheaton evident for all to see.
Thanks for reading.