Lewis & Clark Chooses PR Over Dialogue: Guest Opinion

May 2, 2014

By Caleb Diehl at The Oregonian

Before Willamette Week and The Oregonian reported that a national free speech organization had reproached Lewis & Clark College for doling out severe punishments to two students who made racially insensitive comments, I broke the story. Since publication in the college’s student newspaper, I’ve been pressured to comment on an off-the-record conversation, received terse emails and been screamed at on a Saturday night. I’ll take all of that, because it’s important to show that the college has a problem with owning up for its mistakes. It’s clear that Lewis & Clark must focus less on keeping up its image and more on satisfying its students.

Oregonian columnist Steve Duin wrote on April 28 that it’s become impossible for Lewis & Clark to have “a simple, heartfelt conversation or two,” about its problems. That resistance to dialogue has a history.

Last December, hundreds of students in the Walk the Talk movement marched to the Frank Manor House, home of the president’s office, to protest racist hate speech. The president gave a rousing address. Deans of everything under the sun gave speeches. Students read a list of demands. They asked for more authors of color in the freshman core curriculum, a director of inclusion and multicultural engagement and accurate representation of Lewis & Clark’s diversity in marketing materials.

Lewis & Clark has swept them under the rug. I’ve heard from several administrators that they don’t know how to satisfy Walk the Talk. The curriculum committee has decided to make no changes to the core curriculum. At a forum to discuss the movement’s progress, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Tuajuanda Jordan cut off a student when he tried to criticize administrative policy, shaking her finger at him.

Deans and the president carved out a chunk of time to be with students on that day, a move that the demonstrators sincerely appreciated. They’ve met with Walk the Talk’s committees since then, particularly on a new approach to marketing. Still, since that day, administrators have buried the issues.

Over the summer, the college plans to restructure various offices, as it does every year. We have the energy, time and resources to make changes, but administrators choose to spend on programs that are not priorities for current students.

So I wasn’t surprised when no one in public affairs and communications would comment to me on the record about the letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. When controversial issues arise, the college avoids all mention of them. Instead of identifying where we went wrong and publicly offering a plan for change, we clam up.

Whether this is the trend in PR in higher education or a unique fault of Lewis & Clark, it’s hurting students. This year, students poured hours of work into organizing Walk the Talk’s demonstration and meeting with offices and committees. Now, it looks like they’ve poured those hours down the drain, the gaping hole that takes all of Lewis & Clark’s bad news and turns it into no news at all.

Schools: Lewis & Clark College Cases: Lewis & Clark College: Two Students Guilty of ‘Harassment’ for Racial Jokes at Party