November 21, 2006

U of C admin should be ashamed

Why does the University administration deal with personal conflicts through rigid bureaucracy and political correctness that divide the student body when a little common sense and initiative may be all that’s needed?

What needed mediation last Thursday was a conflict between College Council representatives Kyle Lee and Ryan Kaminski. Lee wanted the Council to sponsor a blood drive. He had been injured in an accident when a bus crushed the car he was driving in high school, and he credits the three units of blood he got from the local blood bank for preventing any lasting injury.

Kaminski decided not to participate in the Blood Drive because the American Red Cross doesn’t allow anyone who has had homosexual sex since 1977 to give blood. Kaminski told the Council that he found this discriminatory. Lee, concerned that this objection might jeopardize the blood drive, became upset, and wrote an e-mail to Kaminski that was the center of a heated Council meeting in the basement of Stuart Hall last Thursday.

The e-mail Lee sent didn’t seem overtly homophobic to me. (E-mail your student representative if you want to read the whole thing and decide for yourself.) But Kaminski was offended, and moved to kick Lee off the Council. At a meeting last Thursday, they convened to discuss the dispute. Kaminski went first and said he felt threatened by the e-mail. He was heartfelt and looked as though he was about to cry. It was clear the issue had seriously upset him. Lee stood up and apologized in front of the crowd of about 25 students. He said he simply wanted the blood drive to succeed, and had written an apology to Kaminski, which was passed out to everyone there, along with the offending e-mail.

Then came the discussion. It featured the sort of overheated, politicized rhetoric that routinely follows personal conflicts on campus when they are allowed to mushroom out of control. Grant Gordon of the student AIDS campaign said that he would feel uncomfortable meeting with the College Council if Lee remained. Daniel Shannon, President of Queers and Associates said that “a vote against impeachment is a vote for silencing the queer community.” Sarah Cohen, who held a proxy vote at the meeting, called his actions “extremely discriminatory.” I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Lee looked like he had been run over by another bus.

The vote came in typical U of C style—without decisiveness. With 10 votes needed to impeach, the final tally was eight for, six against, and one, Council member Nick Rodman, abstaining. Rodman said that he was worried that people would pass judgment on his vote and he “feared harassment from both sides.” The Council, he said, ought to “get this over and do our job.” On his way out, a dejected Kaminski said that the College Council had “codified and protected homophobia.” Visibly distraught by the whole affair, he held back tears as he said that he was thinking about dropping out of the Council, but hadn’t made up his mind.

Where were you, Vice President for Student Life Bill Michel, Assistant Director of Student Development Régine Desruisseaux, and other college “administrators”, when you were needed to step in and stop this completely unnecessary humiliation from occurring?

As fourth-year representative Phil Caruso put it at the meeting, “I’m just disappointed that as a council, we haven’t been able to more effectively come together and work towards a more positive outcome, where there can be some sort of mediation.” Caruso is right: There was no evidence of any real effort at mediation to resolve this conflict. But then again, that seems to be a pattern. It’s one thing when an obvious, premeditated act of hate or discrimination occurs. But when regrettable misunderstandings occur between students, followed quickly by appropriate apologies, it is a capitulation of university responsibility for well paid administrators to let them become fodder for a student-government bureaucracy that is poorly equipped to deal with them.

Attention Bill Michel: You ought to be ashamed of the way you and your staff handled this whole situation. Instead of dealing with this in a bureaucratic fashion by following some guidelines written in a book, you could have mediated this on a human level. Watching Régine Desruisseaux focus on her e-mail while this emotional meeting was unfolding was an apt symbol of the administration’s apparent disinterest in the damage they’re doing. If the two of you had showed a little compassion and energy early on, instead of letting the handbook rule, the ugly sight of all that posturing, finger-pointing, and criticism last Thursday might never have happened. If you had dealt with this issue on a human level, instead of taking the easy way out, then we could all move along, and this wouldn’t have become for public consumption.

Perhaps the administration feels it’s helping students learn important lessons about dealing with issues in the real world. Wrong. The lesson here is, if something offends you, don’t measure the magnitude of the offense or bother to see if you can work it out amicably with the offender before you rush off to court and sue for damages. Thanks, U of C geniuses, for nothing.