Can State Universities Define Community Standards? Questions about Oklahoma

OklahomaAs most everyone knows, last weekend a video showed up in which members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon from the University of Oklahoma recited a racist pledge. With apparent pride, they argued that no black man would ever be a member of SAE. The University responded quickly. By Monday, the SAE chapter had been disbanded. On Tuesday, OU president David Boren expelled two members who were deemed to be instigators.

There were two quick and expected responses. First, there was general outrage at the video (albeit with some arguing “boys will be boys”). Second, there was a flurry of concerned comments about Freedom of Speech. If, they argued, we violated first amendment protections for harmful speech, which speech is the next to be limited? Speech restrictions are characterized as being some kind of liberal political correctness excess. It would lead, the critics argue, to enforced uniformity of thought reflecting the liberal bias of higher education.

I wound up thinking about the U of O case from the vantage point of a career in Christian residential liberal arts colleges. Each of the five schools I served has a defined set of lifestyle expectations. These include both positive elements of being a community member including treatment of others and encouragement to attend chapel (or face fines), and proscribed behaviors (premarital sex, alcohol and drug use, pornography, etc). These lifestyle expectations are seen as expressions of common identity. Students pledge to abide by the statements upon admission and they are binding throughout the students’ years at school. Violation of the expectations is met with sanctions of various levels, ranging from fines or counseling to expulsion.

The contrast between the state school and the Christian College was also on my mind because it’s the example I Durkheim DOLuse in one of my Emile Durkheim lectures in sociological theory class. In his doctoral dissertation, Durkheim reflected on the changing forms of social organization (which he called social solidarity). In short, it’s the glue that binds a group together. In Mechanical Solidarity, based on a principle of sameness, the group’s identity is protected by maintaining tight control on who’s in and who’s out. Violation of norms threatens the group and the violator must be removed. This, I argued, is represented by the Christian college’s focus on community standards.

Durkheim argued that increasing diversity in the society (which follows from growth) eventually yields a different form of social solidarity, Organic Solidarity. In this more modern form, the central feature is Interdependence. It is precisely because we aren’t all doing the same things that requires us to rely on others. The Division of Labor is not just an effective strategy for modern society — it’s what binds us together. Rather than focusing the Repressive Law that removes an offender, it is focused on Restitutive Law. The sanction is attached to improper behavior but the violator is not removed because of the norms of interdependence. In my class illustration, I argue that this is why the University of Michigan has very different standards of lifestyle expectations (regardless of the legal drinking age in Michigan).

When President Boren expelled the two students, he was attempting to say “being a Sooner means something and if you engage in these behaviors, you can’t be a Sooner”. This week I found the U of O “Student Rights and Responsibilities Code“. In the section on student responsibilities, it claims, “Enrollment in the University creates special obligations beyond those attendant upon membership in general society.” The first prohibition is against “Abusive Conduct”. Like most student handbook statements it is overly general with too many clauses and qualifiers. Still, it doesn’t take much reading in to place the SAE bus riders squarely in violation of the statement. Another problem with student handbooks is that both proscriptions and sanctions are itemized but not well connected to one another.

I’ve been haunted all week by my classroom example about Organic Solidarity. Is it possible for a diverse and pluralistic institution to set value statements around which its students, faculty, and staff are expected to operate? Or is it that we’ve so adopted the view of autonomous individualism arising from interdependence that nobody has the ability to dictate appropriate behavior? Is there any set of behaviors, attitudes, or positions that one could espouse that puts you outside the margins of acceptability?

In societies or organizations based on mechanical solidarity, we seem to be able to set agreed upon standards. At least standards that people tolerate within the period of their group membership.

But the absence of moral agreement seems to be a serious issue in twenty-first century America. For every attempt to call out racist comments and actions in Ferguson, MO, someone wants to know why we’re ignoring other infractions elsewhere. What about offensive comments made by those on the left?

I don’t have answers to these questions at this point. I’m just convinced that pluralism requires us to rethink our shared social space. We cannot operate in mechanical solidarity and hope to continually police our borders (which doesn’t work in any context). But we also cannot simply elevate every individual expression to equal footing by some vague appeal to personal expression.

Durkheim is right about the Division of Labor. The glue of modern society is interdependence. This is why continuing racial cleavage is problematic. It’s why residential, educational, and social segregation is so dangerous to human flourishing. We can’t escape those with whom we are interconnected. Somehow, we need to negotiate some agreed-upon norms that allow us to make that interdependence work.

I think that’s what President Boren was attempting. It’s possible that someone will eventually sue the University of Oklahoma and potentially win given the nature of first amendment jurisprudence. But Boren was trying to do something important and I want to celebrate the attempt even if it should wind up to be short-lived.

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