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COLUMN: Violent acts do not justify violent words

(10/01/96 9:00am)

Will Harris says fear is no excuse for less-than-civil discourse about safety at the University. When last Wednesday's tense University Council meeting ended, I mentioned to one administrator that, after giving seminars on democratic theory and authoritarianism in the Serb Republic and the Croat section of Bosnia-Herzegovina in July, I had worried about whether moderating Council for another year might not seem awfully tame. At least that worry had been resolved. Any thoughtful democratic theory requires that those who have power be accountable for its use, subjected to questioning and expected to provide explanation. The deeply civil criticism which Council member Gil Beverly offered regarding my conduct of the meeting was entirely consistent with this principle. To the extent that I disagreed with him, I explained my different understanding of the character of Council as a deliberative representative body and not an open public hearing, immediately after he spoke. This exchange, however, occurred after I had bent the rules of Council -- as I have similarly done for years in times of high community tension -- to extend the discussion relating to campus safety issues so that it comprised at least 60 minutes of the two-hour meeting, where only five minutes had been allocated on the agenda. When I began restructuring the time, I said that any Council members who had concerns about the way I was doing it should make their views known. As a longstanding principle of constitutionalism, operating outside the rules, even for good purposes, requires special accountability. As those who have observed me conducting Council meetings in the past will have noticed, I make a particular effort to make sure that people who exercise power at all levels in the University are subject to questioning. Sometimes I even try to refocus participants' questions, with their concurrence, to make them hit home more precisely. Or I check back to see if they want to follow up a question when they've gotten a fuzzy response. I'm not sure that the recipients of this strategy always appreciate this, but none has ever complained. Most know that effective leadership thrives when it rises to the occasion to justify itself reasonably. At the same time, what I have assiduously tried to exclude (and will continue to discourage) are harangues aimed at bashing University leaders -- like the DP's editorials of last Thursday ("Shaken to the core") and Friday ("The right response") -- and elaborate, sometimes self-serving speeches that can be presented in less dynamically interactive forums. For this reason, when I extended participation in the Council meeting to non-members at the end of the two safety discussions, I insisted that they frame their remarks in the form of questions directed to those they wanted an accounting from. The headline on last Thursday's Council story, "Despite student requests, UC does not focus on safety; Council discusses FinMIS, restructuring, academics" was false in each of its three parts. Non-member student observers at the meeting did not request to present remarks, as they usually do in a quick arrangement with me just before the meeting. The Council meeting did, in fact, focus predominantly on safety, and for at least half of its duration, with every principal actor responsible for safety available and responding to questions. Council did not spend the "majority of the meeting discussing other issues." Some listed in the story were not discussed at all. In addition, "students" did not have problems addressing Council, as the story insists. Most of the questions and comments for the entire meeting were posed by student members of Council. And Jon Brightbill, a non-member, was allowed to direct questions to Public Safety Managing Director Tom Seamon on two separate occasions, along with other student non-members. These errors of fact do not touch the question of the framing of the story. Because the meeting was conducted as a critical inquiry into safety policies and not an angry confrontation among partisans, your reporter seems to have had to turn the story into a confrontation about the meeting instead of an inquiry into policies discussed there. The DP needs to extend its criteria for what constitutes news. Comes now the editorial on Friday, "The right response." The phrase "nothing but jeers" is aimed at me for "wondering snidely" about the idea for a University police officer on every off-campus block. I am sorry, but as journalists, the DP does not get to put thoughts into the heads of your characters and then hold them in contempt for your imaginings. My only remark about the proposal was "Do you want an essay on that?" because it was uncertain where one would even begin to address it. Is a security state compatible with a university community? What happens when a more heavily staffed police force -- bound by oath to the U.S. Constitution and its equal protection clause -- starts arresting not just "outsiders" but large numbers of students for their violations of law, as happened in the spring, the last time I stretched Council rules to make sure students got the chance to challenge administration policy? Or what are the implications when a private police force not subject to democratic political authority uses coercion beyond campus boundaries against the citizens of West Philadelphia? The DP's editorials should jeer less and think more. Nothing gives the paper the right to suspend reason, as the main campus forum for public discourse about the nature of this community. As the DP works its way onto the Internet, I really hope it will reverse the evolution of its editorial page into a flame sheet. The plaintive incantation, "We're scared," will not serve as a justification for turning fellow citizens of the community into publicly contemptible enemies in order to focus on readily available objects for students' insecurity. Just this sort of transformation lies at the base of this uncivil city and the person-hating violence it generates. And this slogan has worked enough harm by ostensibly decent people in the broader world that the paper's editors would be well advised to keep their rational judgment intact, even in the presence of fear.