Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) prides itself on being the leading research university in Northeast Ohio. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that not only would CWRU be housing approximately 1,700 riot police in student dormitories during the Republican National Convention, that not only would those police be permitted to store their weapons in student dormitories, and that not only would widespread student opposition to this decision be placated with two milquetoast Q&A sessions – “opportunities to learn,” President Barbara Snyder called them – but that my colleagues and I, with only one week’s notice, would be expected to cancel a week of summer classes in order to accommodate the quartering of the paramilitary force descending on Cleveland to police the city during the convention.
To be precise, the classes aren’t officially cancelled. A follow up notice from the university explains: “The only change to the existing practice is that these classes do not take place on our campus during those days.” Furthermore, the notice continues, “the educational experience may take place at a different time, place or manner, but the learning will still take place.” This attempt to dodge the accusation I am making—that CWRU is cancelling classes—is perfunctory at best. While my colleagues are brilliant, innovative, and committed teachers, I don’t think anyone who understands the energy and preparation that goes into teaching a college course would realistically imagine that “the learning will still take place” in anything resembling the manner we envisioned when we designed our courses. Can we actually presume that asking faculty to reboot one eighth of their entire class, during week seven of an eight week term and with less than one week of notice, will lead to a positive learning experience for our students? Unlikely. Instead of disputing semantics, I will continue to call this decision what it is: CWRU is effectively cancelling its classes in order to host 1,700 riot police for the RNC. I fail to see the wisdom in rebranding our mistakes in order to imply otherwise.
[blocktext align=”right”]Thank you for your burdensome tuition bill, my students have been told. Now get off our lawn while more important people come to town.[/blocktext]A week of cancelled classes may not sound too bad, but consider that the summer sessions last only eight weeks. President Snyder’s decision thus equates to cancelling two weeks of class during the fall or spring semester. For one class, that’s 10 hours of class meetings out of 80 total hours. These “reduced instructional operations,” to use the Orwellian language being deployed by university officials, place on faculty and students the entire burden of cleaning up the mess the administration has handed them. We are expected to continue our classes in some alternative fashion, redesigning our curriculum to fit an online platform or uprooting our students to meet at a public location far from campus. Meanwhile, students are being urged to “consider staying off campus during the week,” which is tantamount to saying they are foolish if they don’t uproot themselves for a week and accept alternative housing being offered on another side of campus. “I feel like I’m being forced out of the dorm that I paid for,” one student complained. Another student observed: “I’ve been given 24 hours to decide where I am going to live next week. How am I supposed to focus on my classes?”
Admittedly, students aren’t being forced out of their dorms. They have the option to stay. Just like classes aren’t being cancelled. They’re just being completely overhauled and compromised. Not only does uprooting classes and students disrupt next week’s “educational experience;” it also distracts students from their studies this week, and it damages their faith in the university’s educational mission. Thank you for your burdensome tuition bill, my students have been told. Now get off our lawn while more important people come to town.
According to President Snyder and the official news release, the campus closure (“changes to campus operations” they call it) stems from a deep and abiding concern for student safety. In an email sent to the entire CWRU community, Snyder explains: “The deadly shootings last week in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas have dramatically intensified our national conversation involving race, law enforcement and the best paths to justice, fairness and safety for all.” This is a savvy rhetorical move. It establishes Snyder’s ethos as a good liberal, concerned not only with student safety but with the deeper aims of social justice. But while I am loathe to question the President’s motivations, I can certainly attest to the slipperiness of her words. Although the announcement claims to be a last minute decision on behalf of student safety, it distracts from the reason why safety concerns are so dire. The official announcement in The Daily buries its single mention of the 1,700 peace officers (riot police) who will be sleeping in campus dorms, referring nonchalantly to “police officers and other guests” but failing to acknowledge the sheer scale of the group being brought to campus. To put this into perspective, CWRU enrolled a total of 4,996 full time undergraduate students during the 2015-16 academic year. The size of the police force being quartered on campus is larger than one third of the entire undergraduate student body.
To make matters even more troubling, President Snyder’s email apologizes for “a lack of communication” even as it exaggerates the amount of communication her administration provided. “While we spoke widely about the decision” to bring these officers to campus, she notes, including “spring meetings at each School, at Faculty Senate…we did not communicate directly with students.” Fair enough. But when I spoke with a colleague who sat on the Faculty Senate last year, this colleague informed me—after reviewing every agenda and all of the meeting minutes from last year’s Faculty Senate assemblies—that there is no record of the subject ever coming up. I will leave it to the reader to wonder what it means when President Snyder claims that the faculty were fully informed, a claim that is demonstrably untrue, even as she apologizes for poor communication. Shared governance, I fear, is passé when the university can capitalize on a political convention by executive decree.
To be clear, I do not mean to imply that the university stands to profit off this arrangement. The financial details are shrouded in mystery, and what little information I could find suggests that the university donated the housing when the city came calling. I’ve also heard that the city intends to reimburse the university for costs it will incur this week, but that the odds of turning a profit are very slim. This is nothing more than rumor, however, and I only include it to clarify that I am not accusing the CWRU administration of any financial malfeasance. I am only accusing them of their decision to press “pause” on all of our core values.
[blocktext align=”left”]What does it symbolize when a university library closes while security forces store firearms and pepper spray in dorms, weapons that will likely be used against next week’s demonstrators—some of whom, I fear, might be my students?[/blocktext]I could complain, on behalf of my students, that this surprise closure is costing each of them $345 in wasted tuition money, per class. Instead, I want to use this occasion to ask a more basic question. What are universities for? What is a university expected to contribute to the city and the region to which it belongs? What example should a university set for the world outside its walls? What is a university’s obligation to teaching and to research, to the cultivation of critical inquiry and to the perpetuation of knowledge, wherever such knowledge may lead? Moreover, what are we teaching our students when we displace them from their dorms? When we claim to fear for their safety even though we ourselves have created the conditions causing us to fear for their safety? What does it symbolize when a university library closes while security forces store firearms and pepper spray in dorms, weapons that will likely be used against next week’s demonstrators—some of whom, I fear, might be my students?
Consider President Snyder’s excuse for why we are opening our doors and our dorms to 1,700 riot police. “Case Western Reserve—along with other area colleges and universities—agreed to house the officers at the city’s request. We are a part of this community, and felt a civic obligation to respond when asked.” Apparently “civic obligation” means catering to the interests of the powerful at the expense of the exploited. It means disrupting the education of bright, energetic young minds in order to offer our supply of housing to help meet the city’s demand for a convenient base of operations. A business might behave this way, but a university?
If my students learn nothing else from this failure of university leadership, I hope it will be this: that they will understand how their education exceeds the artificial boundaries of brick and mortar buildings, of tuition payments, of majors, minors, and gen ed requirements, and of their own abstracted desire to capitalize on their investment in the form of a lucrative career. I hope that they will see that Case Western Reserve University, international research powerhouse and nexus of global capitalism that it may be, remains part of the city of Cleveland and the surrounding region. To use President Snyder’s words, I hope that they will rediscover what it means to be “part of this community.” Most of all, I hope that the example of CWRU’s failure will offer my students as much of an education as the one I’m trying to give them in the classroom we’ve been barred from using.
Case Western Reserve University, which “improves and enriches people’s lives through research…and education,” will be ground zero for the storm troopers you will watch on national news next week. When the university realized that this might not be the wisest thing for an institution of higher learning to do, they opted for the solution I’m sure any of us would choose. They decided to take a break, for one week only, from being an institution of higher learning. If this disturbs you, you should write to President Barbara Snyder and Provost Bud Baeslack with the following question: “What is a university for?”
Unless you’re a student, of course. You aren’t supposed to be here.
The contributor, who wishes to remain anonymous, teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.