Hampton’s at It Again

January 10, 2006

Sunday’s Hampton Roads Daily Press features a letter from Bennie G. McMorris, the vice president of student affairs at Hampton University. Back in November, FIRE intervened when Hampton prosecuted students who dared to stand in Hampton’s student center at lunch time and hand out flyers about progressive social issues while talking to interested students. The flyer distributors were charged with (1) engaging in “actions to cajole or proselytize students,” (2) violating the Policy on Student Demonstrations, and (3) violating the Policy on the Distribution of Unauthorized Materials. The students were found guilty of these violations, but, after vast public outcry, were sentenced only to 20 hours of community service each.

McMorris’ opinion piece explains a lot about the administration’s mentality at Hampton. He says:

Hampton University’s practices, policies and philosophies do in no shape or fashion either interfere with or deny freedom of speech or the right to assemble. Every organization has policies and procedures in place to protect order. In fact, upon my visit to meet with members of the Daily Press staff…I found it amazing that as I was escorted to the meeting room, I saw no personalized writings or renditions on your walls. Is it possible that even the Daily Press has a policy that relates to the placing of information on its walls?

Now share with me the things that Hampton University practices to ensure the orderly business of higher education and those practices, policies, and philosophies that ensure the orderly business of publishing a newspaper that are different. It is my opinion that all organizations have operational practices, policies and philosophies.

The answer to McMorris’ question is that a university campus is simply not a giant office, and university students are not employees. A university’s mission is to educate students, encourage free inquiry, and promote open dialogue, and as such, the university holds a unique place in American society. Many administrators would welcome the broadening of their powers to those of corporate bosses, who can hire and fire at will, dictate how employees spend their time, and demand that all action contribute to the company’s mission. This is not the proper attitude for liberal institutions of higher learning, and it is exactly the mentality that FIRE opposes.

My main question is what does McMorris, along with all the other college administrators who make students’ rights secondary to Student Handbook policies, have to fear? Is chaos really the result when students are allowed to hand out flyers to other students? Would loosening a policy that prohibits students from putting posters on bulletin boards really subvert order?

McMorris is correct that strict adherence to rules makes things run more smoothly. The most stringent of policies ensures “orderly operations,” in McMorris’ words, and may even make the trains run on time. But that’s just not the best model for universities to follow.

Schools:  Hampton University