By: Dr. Thomas Wolber
Ohio Wesleyan University is justifiably proud of “the quality and accessibility of its faculty” (“Catalog” Introduction). Yet at the Nov. 16 faculty meeting, half a dozen duly elected members of the Wesleyan Council on Student Affairs and bona fide reporters from the student newspaper, The Transcript, were denied access to the deliberations of the faculty, which included several topics of direct relevance to students.
Why was this unprecedented step taken? The conflict seems to have been triggered by Transcript stories appearing in the local newspaper, the Delaware Gazette. This has been happening for a while now and is rooted in a mutually beneficial arrangement between the two papers.
Transcript reporters see a wider distribution of their articles whereas Gazette readers receive information about OWU from student insiders. However, the arrangement meant that the monthly faculty meetings had become a public media venue, which was not to the liking of some faculty members. Concerns over journalistic standards and misrepresentations were voiced and privacy issues were raised. Primarily, however, it seems that many faculty members were worried that the presence of the press may lead to a situation where free and open discussion about contentious and sensitive issues might be stifled.
And this is, in my mind, the crux of the matter. We live in uncertain times. Many colleges and universities in Ohio and elsewhere, both public and private, are experiencing tremendous difficulties.
Institutions have been shuttered or merged, departments and programs eliminated, and faculty positions frozen or cut. This is an era of retrenchment, austerity, and exigency, and there is widespread fear and anxiety about what the future will hold. Across the nation, the faculty’s social status and standard of living are eroding; their very survival is at stake. The status quo is no more, and there are worried conversations about what the new norm might be. What was radical and unthinkable only a few years ago, is now being openly discussed. Maybe the unnerved faculty, especially from more vulnerable disciplines and departments, are instinctively sensing that control is slipping through their fingers and that ugly battles and wars might be ahead of them.
Change is never easy, especially if you are not the one driving it. We know from history and politics what effects the experience of displacement, disempowerment, and dispossession can have. It can lead to heated arguments, imprudent statements, disregard for established norms and values, and raw hostility. In their bewilderment, people start looking for scapegoats for either they do not understand the real reasons for what is happening, or if they do they feel helpless against the inexorable forces of destiny.
I, for one, view the exclusion of WCSA and The Transcript from the last faculty meeting as just one such event. Neither the students nor the press are not the faculty’s adversary; they are their natural allies and partners. It would be a strategic error to alienate them. The current fissure between the faculty and the students is an unfortunate distraction and a false dichotomy. In addition, the measure has done considerable harm to the faculty’s and the institution’s reputation and may negatively impact student recruitment and donor giving in the future. Therefore, the faculty’s student exclusion act of 2015 must be rescinded. Elected WCSA students should be readmitted immediately. Then reasonable students, faculty, and administrators should sit together, start a constructive dialog, and negotiate a balanced accord that ensures The Transcript access to faculty meetings on the one hand while protecting and preserving legitimate faculty interests on the other. Perhaps the student newspaper is willing to voluntarily suspend the arrangement with the Delaware Gazette for faculty meetings only while leaving it intact in other areas? In any case, for people of good will there is always plenty of common ground to be found.
Soapbox articles are unique platforms in which any member of the OWU community can “get up on their soapbox” and discuss any issue in 400 to 1000 words. Soapbox articles can be submitted on owutranscript.com using the Submit Your Story link on the upper left.
Dr. Thomas Wolber is an associate professor of German at Ohio Wesleyan. He teaches all levels of German language, literature and civilization. In addition to those subjects, he specializes in comparative literature and environmental studies.